Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Master of Arts


Film Studies


Paul Coates


This thesis looks to reposition West Side Story (Jerome Robbins/Robert Wise, 1961) as an example of (neo-)modernist art. Placing the film within its context of Hollywood musicals, I see West Side Story as a particularly rich locus in which to study the genre’s modernist impulses. Using the theories of Miriam Hansen’s vernacular modernism and John Orr’s neo-modernism primarily, I examine the film’s formal aspects, especially that of colour. Seeing the cinematic screen as analogous to a painter’s canvas, I draw comparisons with modern art of the period, particularly the Abstract Expressionists of the New York School. The film’s precarious blending of expressionism and realism is an interesting one, and I tease out the ramifications of this binary throughout. Orr describes neo-modernist film as having two structures of feeling --the cool apocalypse and tragicomedy-- and I argue that West Side Story contains elements of both, nearing a vernacular neo-modern sublime in the process.