"The Unenthusiastic Critic" is a special series in which my highly reluctant girlfriend joins me to watch classic movies that she has somehow managed to avoid seeing. For a fuller explanation of this particular form of relationship suicide, read the introduction to the series here.
Note: The conversation around this film took some unfortunate turns, and, as such, this article should probably not be read by children, prudes, nuns, musical theater aficionados, fans of Julie Andrews, fans of Christopher Plummer, people who like The Sound of Music, people who were in The Sound of Music—or, really, anyone else on the planet.
Film: The Sound of Music (1965), directed by Robert Wise, written by Ernest Lehman. Based on the stage musical written by Howard Lindsey and Russell Crouse, with music and lyrics by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.
Why I Chose It: Broadway musicals are a peculiar kind of entertainment, and demand a willing suspension of disbelief that few other art forms require. Movies, for example, ask us to accept a lot on faith: that there are ghosts and vampires and zombies; that people have super powers, travel through time, or journey to other planets; that characters could possibly survive multiple gunshot wounds, fall in love with dis-likable people, or take Keanu Reeves seriously. Yet even audience members who are capable of buying into such preposterous premises as those may have trouble accepting a world where characters spontaneously burst into song and dance around to invisible orchestras.
Me? I grew up on Broadway musicals. My mother missed her calling on the Broadway stage, but she always filled our house with show tunes. She played the original cast albums of Camelot, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, Fiddler on the Roof, and others so often that I still remember not only the music but also the individual scratches on certain records. As a result, I probably have as thorough a grounding in musical theater as any other heterosexual man in America, and so never had any trouble with the narrative conceit. (In fact, I was probably disappointed when I got out into the world and discovered that people didn't normally express their strongest feelings and fondest desires by belting out a number.)
My girlfriend, however, is one of those other people. She's neither anti-romance nor particularly cynical, but she does have trouble with earnestness, and she finds the whole notion of people serenading one another not just schmaltzy and unrealistic but downright creepy. If I wanted to make her extremely uncomfortable, the most effective thing I could do would be to get up close to her, look her in the eyes, and start singing to her with total sincerity. (In fact, I'm pretty sure I'd get kneed in the balls well before I ever reached the chorus.)
So, naturally, I thought we should do a musical or two for this blog. The Sound of Music isn't a particular favorite of mine—I'm really more of a Lerner and Loewe guy—but I like it well enough, and it is probably the most ubiquitous and universally loved film version of a Broadway musical. I mean, who hasn't seen The Sound of Music?
What My Girlfriend Knew About It Going In: As usual, before we begin, I quiz N. on what knowledge of the film she has picked up through simple cultural osmosis:
Me: So what do you know about The Sound of Music?
She: I know there are Nazis. Is she escaping the Nazis? Is she Jewish? I think she's escaping the Nazis, and ends up living with some Hitler youth.
She: And I know there's a lonely goat-herd.
Me: So it's a Nazi musical. With goats.
She: Yes. And in the end, the Nazis fall in love with Julie Andrews, and learn to love the Jews.
She: So that's the plot: Julie Andrews teaches the Nazis to love the Jews, through music. And goats.
Me: You know, I don't even think we need to watch it now. You have such a firm grasp on the story, we might as well just skip this one.
How It Went: Much, much worse than I'd expected.
The film opens with one of the most unforgettable shots in movie history, as the camera sweeps over the breathtaking peaks of the Austrian alps, and zooms in to find Maria (Julie Andrews) twirling around and singing her little heart out on a windswept hillside. "Oh, God," N. says. "We start with songs? We don't work our way up to that?"
Right away, it's clear we're in trouble, and that the music is going to be an issue. After Maria's ode to nature fails to overcome N. with happiness—"I was happy there wasn't another verse"—we go into the titles and the overture, and then to some nuns discussing what to do about their flighty novitiate. ("In case the habits and crucifixes didn't clue you in," I point out, "they're not Jews.")
The nuns have a bit of an argument, and then—unable to resolve the issue any other way—burst into song to speculate aloud, "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?"
She: Why can't we just talk? Why can't we just have a conversation?
Me: You have seen musicals before, right? You're familiar with the concept?
She: I'm just saying, it's one thing to talk shit about someone behind their back, but to talk shit about them in song is a special kind of fucked up.
Me: Well, if you have to talk behind someone's back, isn't it nicer if you set it to music?
She: No! Because then you have to go to the trouble to rhyme and shit. That's not cool. It seems way worse to harmonize over how shitty you think someone is.
Me: Actually, that's a fair point. You'd probably end up saying all kinds of things you didn't even mean, just to fit the rhyme scheme.
The Reverend Mother (Peggy Wood) meets with Maria, who explains that she "just couldn't help herself." The sky was so blue, you see, and the grass was so green, that Maria was drawn uncontrollably into the hills. "Sounds like L.S.D," my girlfriend says, beginning to formulate her working theory for the entire movie: "Julie Andrews is trippin' balls."
To be fair, it's not an unreasonable assumption: there's a fine line between "upbeat" and "over-medicated," and Andrews frequently crosses it, especially during these early scenes. The Reverend Mother sends her to be a nanny for the Von Trapp family, and on the way Maria tries to pick up her (already soaring) spirits by singing a little self-help song to herself:
I have confidence in sunshine!
I have confidence in rain!
I have confidence that spring will come again!
Besides which, you see,
I have confidence in me!
"She looks like a psycho," N. observes, and the truth is that, if I saw Julie Andrews skipping down the street towards me singing about her confidence, I'd give her a wide berth and—just to be safe—grab a nearby rock for protection. (I have confidence in rocks.) But I feel obligated to speak up for a more innocent viewpoint:
Me: She's plucky. She's upbeat. She's adorable.
She: She's on drugs.
Me: She's Mary Poppins!
She: I liked her in Mary Poppins. Mary Poppins had dignity. This chick is flailing all around the street. Seriously, I think she's on dope.
Me: Actually, I shouldn't tell you this, but I've seen interviews with Julie Andrews where she said she often was drunk during the filming of this movie.
She: You'd have to be. I mean, look at that outfit. I know she's a nun, but God don't like ugly.
Christopher Plummer will save it, I think, because Christopher Plummer's Captain Von Trapp saves it for me: for the first half of the movie, at least, he provides an acerbic counter-balance to Maria's imperturbable perkiness.
The two meet after Maria lets herself into the closed off ballroom of Castle Von Trapp, and he catches her doing a little fantasy dance with herself. ("Drugs," N. says.) He's hostile, he's imperious, he's snotty about her clothes: you would think he would be everything N. is looking for—but she's not impressed. "Is he a Nazi?" she asks. "I told you there were Nazis."
Partially because I know what's coming later, let me speak up here for Plummer. It's well known that Christopher Plummer hated this movie, hated acting in this movie, and—for the time they were filming it, at least—kind of hated Julie Andrews (though they're apparently close friends now). For years he referred to the film as The Sound of Mucous, and he allegedly likened working with Andrews to "being hit over the head with a Valentines Day card, every day." But for me, Plummer is excellent here: he may be channeling his honest disgust into the role, but there's also an undercurrent of attraction and amusement that shines through his scowling.
The Von Trapp children—or, as N. calls them, "the Hitler Youth"—spend a lot of time on screen, but only on this viewing do I notice that we never really learn anything about any of them, except for Liesl (Charmain Carr), the oldest. ("She's kind of hot," I say, and N. asks me "Which one?", which I find vaguely insulting and accusatory.) Basically, the little ones are cute, and the middle ones are interchangeable non-entities. The only kids that stand out for me at all are Brigitta (Angela Cartwright), because she went on to star in Lost in Space, and Friedrich (Nicholas Hammond), because he is far and away the most annoying. (Seriously, this kid was the worst actor in the world, and went on to star in the deservedly short-lived Amazing Spider-Man T.V. show in the '70s.)
Liesl has the hots for Rolphe, a telegram delivery boy and budding brownshirt. Their big love scene takes place during a surreptitious meeting in a gazebo, as Rolphe shares his worldly wisdom in "Sixteen Going on Seventeen."
You need someone older and wiser
Telling you what to do.
I am seventeen going on eighteen
I'll take care of you.
She: He's a tool.
She: A tool for Hitler.
Me: You don't know that yet.
She: And hella condescending. Why would she want to date this douche?
Me: Does it look like she has the opportunity to meet a lot of guys? She has to wait for a telegram as it is.
She: Be gay before you date this asshole.
Actually, Rolphe is in over his head: Liesl is completely in charge of this scene, totally wrapping Aryan Boy around her little finger. In fact, for a supposedly innocent 16-year old—Carr was actually 22—she has a surprising and slightly troubling sexual confidence. She throws herself at him while pretending to play a kittenish, submissive role:
Totally unprepared am I
To face a world of men.
Timid and shy and scared am I
Of things beyond my ken.
I need someone older and wiser
Telling me what to do…
"She's problematic," N. says, suggesting—not for the last time—an undercurrent of sexual perversity that most people don't pick up on in The Sound of Music.
And so it goes, as Maria bonds cheerily with the children and brings music back to the Von Trapp family. I have to admit, even I find the musical numbers with the children extremely painful, particularly when they're all wearing their clothes made out of curtains. In fact, as we're watching this movie (and N. is scowling and rolling her eyes), I finally figure out why I don't like Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Not long ago a friend of mine mentioned that, while he always believed he hated gin, he had recently discovered that what he hated was tonic. Similarly, I realize watching The Sound of Music that I like Rodgers: the one I hate is Hammerstein. Seriously, Richard Rodgers' music is wonderful: John Coltrane did incredible things with "My Favorite Things," for example, and even here it's a delightfully snappy piece of music. This is true of many of Rodger's songs, but Hammerstein's lyrics are often just this side of vomitous, with incredibly labored rhymes and alliteration. Cream-colored ponies and crisp apple streudel/doorbells and sleighbells and schnitzel with noodles—seriously?
And don't even get me started on "I Have Confidence" (All I trust I lead my heart to: what does that even mean?) or "So Long, Farewell" (Adieu, adieu, to yieu and yieu and yieu). In pursuing this theory, I was pleased to find that even Hammerstein's protegé, Stephen Sondheim, agreed with me on occasion. (The title song, for example, includes the phrase like a lark that is learning to pray. "How can you tell a lark that is just learning to pray from one who's actually praying?" Sondheim asked. "Wait a minute — a lark praying? What are we talking about?")
But I digress, mostly so you don't notice that I'm using a couple of photographs to skip over a sizable chunk of this incredibly long movie.
Plummer returns from an extended booty call with husband-hunting Baroness Schräder (Eleanor Parker) to find his children wearing curtains and climbing trees, and he and Andrews have their best scene of the movie. Really, it's the only scene in the movie where Maria stands up to the Captain as an equal. (Such an equal, actually, that he accidentally calls her "Captain.") She tells him he's a shitty father; he throws her out of the house.
But then the children start singing, and Plummer reacts like he's the Grinch hearing the Whos down in Whoville on Christmas morning.
"Really?" N. asks. "That's it? His whole outlook has changed? Oh, I heard my kids singing one pretty crappy song, and suddenly it's all better." It is, I must admit, a fairly remarkable transformation. Remember, he hasn't been here for "Do Re Mi" and all the tree climbing and adorableness, so basically it's within a matter of moments the Captain goes from angry, whistle-blowing tyrant to weepy, guitar-strumming softie. N. isn't buying it, but she's feeling happy, because she recognizes that the father's redemption has brought us to a satisfying Hollywood conclusion:
She: End of the movie!
Me: You wish. This isn't even the end of Act One.
She: Son of a bitch! How much is left?
Me: Ummm…I'm going to go with, "considerable."
She: You know, I have to say, I don't get the adoration for this movie. I'm not feeling the love. My hills aren't alive.
Me: They look pretty alive to me.
She: That's mature.
The next scene opens with the puppet show about the lonely goatherd—"I'm going to have fucking nightmares about this," N. says—and then we have a massive ball Captain Von Trapp throws for the Baroness and his Aryan neighbors. (The band, coincidentally, is playing an orchestral version of "My Favorite Things," which leads me to another problem I'd never noticed before: the music in this movie is incredibly repetitive. We hear three different versions of nearly every song.) While the jealous Baroness watches from the wings, Maria and the Captain demonstrate an Austrian folk dance for the children, working themselves up into a lustful frenzy in the process. It's basically the same scene as the "Shall We Dance" number from Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I, except that—as N. points out—"he's no Yul Brynner." (I agree, but, on the other hand, Deborah Kerr is no Julie Andrews, so for me it's kind of a wash.)
Baroness Schräder is no fool: she can see the schnitzel on the wall, and so shames Maria into fleeing the house and getting herself back to the nunnery. ("End of the movie!" I tease my girlfriend, right before the Intermission card appears on the screen.)
She: Seriously, how much longer?
Me: We're about at the halfway point.
She: You're kidding, right?
Me: You're not swept up in the love story? You're not on the edge of your seat to see what's going to happen?
She: Well, I'm sure he's probably going to end up with the nun—who, by the way, has pledged her virginity to the Lord. So that's fucked up.
In Maria's absence, the Captain becomes engaged to Baroness Schräder, and the Von Trapp house takes on the air of a gulag. Fortunately, Maria's absence is short-lived—not much longer than the Intermission—as the Reverend Mother convinces Maria to return and confront her life. She does this, of course, in the form of a song, "Climb Every Mountain."
My girlfriend is nearing her breaking point, and the moment the old nun opens her mouth to sing pushes her closes to the edge.
She: Just once, I wish someone would turn around and walk out as soon as the other person starts singing. "O.K., thanks for the talk, but I really don't need you to reiterate your point in song."
Me: Like in Monty Python. [Met with blank stare.] "Stop that, stop that, you're not doing a song while I'm here."
She: Anyway, what happened to vows of silence? Vows of silence are a great idea.
So Maria returns to Casa Von Trapp, and within an hour the Captain has broken things off with the Baroness and gone to meet Maria in the Gazebo of Love. They confess their love, they kiss, the embrace, and then—inevitably—Maria starts singing in the Captain's face.
She: There goes that erection.
I actually kind of like the song here, "Something Good," but N. is unwilling to surrender for a moment to the conventions of the musical.
N. has a point. If the Baroness hadn't announced her (understandable) intention to ship all the adorable Von Trappings off to boarding school, one could almost feel bad for her. She put in her time, she sat through God only knows how many puppet shows and guitar sing-a-longs, and she's almost certainly been polishing the Captain's whistle for months. She's not even a gold-digger, since she has gold of her own. Yet now she's getting tossed out so the Captain can—cliché of clichés—bang the nanny.
(Note to self: write revisionist, feminist re-imagining of The Sound of Music in which the Baroness is the sympathetic heroine, thwarted by the scheming, money-grubbing younger woman.)
A wedding is, traditionally, a lovely place to end this kind of story, and I feel my girlfriend shifting hopefully in her seat as Maria walks down the aisle. I barely have the heart to break it to her that this isn't the end of the movie either, and I think it's her disappointment and anger that provokes the next conversation:
Me: You know, you accuse me of not being a romantic, but you're the cynical one.
She: I'm not cynical! You can have romance without cheesy songs. And I don't buy it.
Me: You don't buy the love story? You don't even like Christopher Plummer? He's dark and moody; he's just your type.
She: No. There's something creepy about him. He looks like he'd enjoy peeing on you.
Me: … [too flabbergasted to speak]
She: He does, doesn't he? He looks like he's into some weird sexual shit. It's the uniform, and his whole acerbic, dictatorial thing. He looks like he's one of those guys who's so regimented, so into straight lines, that he needs some kind of kinky release.
Me: And from that you get peeing?
She: Well, he doesn't look like he wants to hit you, or tie you up. But I'm betting he's really into micturating.
Me: You are a horrible, horrible person.
She: You see it now, don't you? Now that you see it you can't un-see it.
Me: I can't write this up. I can't risk the possibility that anyone else on the planet will see what you're seeing and have their love for The Sound of Music destroyed forever.
She: You know I'm right. He wants to pee on you, probably while blowing a whistle.
Me: The blog is cancelled.
What is there left to say? Thankfully, we can skip quickly through the last act, which is largely dedicated to the Von Trapp Family's performance at the folk music festival, where they sing the same damn songs we've already heard about four times each. (Seriously, could Rodgers and Hammerstein not have written one new song for the last third of the movie?) The last ten minutes or so are exciting, but they seem like they belong in a different film, as the family hides out in the abbey and is nearly captured by the Nazis. (Robert Wise, who directed this film, also directed West Side Story, and you can really see it in these last few minutes: the scenes in the abbey have the same tension and looming menace as the street scenes in his earlier film.)
Rolphe proves himself a Nazi douchebag, but the family escapes anyway through the intervention of the nuns (who are probably all executed shortly after the movie ends). The family hikes into the hills, to the swelling, incredibly literal strains of "Climb Every Mountain," and the movie finally—after three hours—ends.
You know, I had actually thought there might be a chance N. would enjoy this movie. It was a less geeky choice than most of the others on our list, and is, after all, a nearly universally beloved classic.
I say "nearly universally" with good reason. The great critic Pauline Kael famously panned The Sound of Music for McCall's, and supposedly (though perhaps apocryphally) lost her job for doing so. "Whom could this operetta offend?" she asked. "Only those of us who, despite the fact that we may respond, loathe being manipulated in this way…We may become even more aware of the way in which we have turned into emotional and aesthetic imbeciles when we hear ourselves humming the sickly, goody-goody songs."
Bosley Crowther, writing for the New York Times, said the film was "always in peril of collapsing under its weight of romantic nonsense and sentiment," and judged that the child actors were fine but the adults were "fairly horrendous."
Roger Ebert, supposedly, has never even seen The Sound of Music.
As for my girlfriend, she liked this less than the other movies I've made her watch. "With those I was bored," she said. "With this, I was bored with songs, which just makes me angry."
She: You know those stories about Guantanamo Bay, and how they supposedly play Christina Aguilera to drive the prisoners insane? This is what they would use to break me.
Me: Now that you mention it, didn't they do exactly that in one of the Addams Family movies?
She: Yes! At the summer camp, they lock Wednesday in a cabin and make her watch The Sound of Music until she's "normal." That's me. And like her, it just makes me want to burn the whole fucking camp down.
Me: You know, don't feel like you have to hate every movie we watch, just for the sake of the blog's humor content.
She: No, that's that's not what's happening here. This isn't hate. I'm just questioning.
Me: Questioning what?
She: Why it sucks so bad. Why people like it. It's stilted and earnest and horrible. I mean, I guess if you're really into musicals, I can see it. But to me it felt like a mash-up between Mary Poppins and The Parent Trap. Only with Nazis. And creepy-ass puppets.
Me: So you didn't like anything about it.
She: Her voice is beautiful.
Me: Her voice was beautiful. She had some botched vocal-cord surgery a few years ago, and I don't think she can sing anymore.
She: Oh, that's sad. Now I feel bad. Well then, I loved it. The movie's awesome.
Me: It's way too late for that. You're on record: Maria is on drugs and Captain Von Trapp enjoys piss-play. This is what you got from The Sound of Music. That's your take-away.
She: Don't get mad at me because I clued you in to some important subtext.
Me: You're insane.
She: On your knees, Fraulein! This is what happens when you leave the Lord. Tweeeeeeeeeeeet…
Me: Maybe we shouldn't watch movies anymore.
Up Next for The Unenthusiastic Critic:
My horror-movie hating girlfriend subjects herself to a Halloween movie marathon, beginning with William Friedkin's 1973 classic The Exorcist.