Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Sound of Music (1965)

The Sound of Music (1965)
Directed by: Robert Wise
Written by: Ernest Lehman (screenplay), Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II (lyrics), Howard Lindsay & Russel Crouse (stage show libretto)
Starring: Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, Charmian Carr, Richard Haydn, Eleanor Parker, Peggy Wood
(175 minutes, Color)

Wind.  Fog.  The camera glides across a misty sky.  As the mountains slide past our eyes, we see more and more of the Austrian landscape.  Snow-capped peaks.  Gentle rolling hills.  A majestic castle fortified by a smooth, glassy lake.  A flurry of woodwinds.  The subtle, breezy flute blends with the chirps of birds.  The chords start to build off of one another gently.  The melody starts to mount with brass.  A woman spins on the top of a hill, the grass around her blowing.  We get closer to her as she twirls.  As the melody hits the crest of its build, she opens her mouth to sing.

So goes the opening scene of The Sound of Music, and in describing it, I set up a little test.  Did you hear the music as I described it?  I cut off when Julie opens her mouth, but in your head, did you hear her sing about the hills and how alive they are?  This movie is one of the most well-known films ever made.  It is beloved by millions, and dismissed by others who just don't get it.  For some reason they resent it for its happiness and optimism.  The truth is this: The Sound of Music is nothing short of a breath of fresh air in the movies.  Its spirit is an indomitable one, made no less so by its buoyancy and cheer.  It's a deeper movie than you remember, and though its message is one of hope, there are many somber things at work here, underneath the action. 

The movie means the world to me, and I'll briefly explain why.  I saw it for the first time when I was five or six, and I was dragged into it.  Up until that point in my life, movies had been nothing but pleasant, G-rated excursions.  I never took them seriously, though I remember enjoying the thrill and exhilaration when a main character would overcome a perilous danger.  My parents brought The Sound of Music to me and told my brothers and I that we were going to watch it as a family.  All I knew was that it took up two VHS tapes, and because of that, had to be a dreadfully boring movie.  After all, why did a movie need three hours to tell a story when a streamlined Disney picture could do it in 80 mintues?  There must be a lot of dead space.

I started the movie restlessly, but was placated by the scene described above.  I remember marveling at the castle that apparently floated in the lake (I later found it to be Anif Palace at the southern edge of Salzburg).  And when Julie Andrews started singing, I bought it immediately.  Something I always hear people complain about in musicals is their reluctance to accept the fact that characters would sing dialogue instead of just speaking it.  The Sound of Music begins its musicality with a running start.  With all the emotion and awe built up in the audience by the preceding establishing shots, how else could Maria, Andrews' character, express what we all are feeling?  From the beginning, The Sound of Music links two of the world's purest beauties: nature and song, and melds them together into a three-hour love letter to the audience.  My parents had to drag me into this movie, but after the first five minutes, a team of horses couldn't drag me away.

This was where I first realized the true power of film as an art form.  I couldn't describe how it made me feel and certainly couldn't articulate why it made me feel that way, but I knew I was watching something life-changing.  My family watched the movie over a weekend: Act 1 on Saturday and Act 2 on Sunday.  I was up bright and early on Sunday morning to finish what I was convinced was the greatest movie I had, or ever would, see.  I've seen it in its entirety seven or eight times since then, and every time I watch it, I'm instantly transported back to the emotions I felt almost thirteen years ago.  Last night was the first time I watched it on Blu-Ray, and I tell you what: I've rarely had a more eye-opening cinematic experience.

Why is any of that important?  What makes it anything more than the nostalgic rantings of a sentimental geek?  Here's what: any movie that can inspire is important.  And any movie that can contain this level of seamless beauty is one to take note of.  The union of sight and sound in this movie appeals to audiences on a deep, instinctual level.  The movie was filmed on location in Salzburg, Austria, and that creative decision provides the film with the authenticity that was and is indispensible to its success.  Most every scene can be paused and observed simply to enjoy the view. 

The unique thing about this movie, and what sets it apart from lesser musicals, is the camera's willingness to pull and back and look at the whole action.  Watch this and then compare it to the likes of Mamma Mia or Moulin Rouge!  The directors of those films could take a cue from Robert Wise, and his predecessor William Wyler, who was the one who made the initial decision to shoot on location.  The camera's eye in The Sound of Music lingers.  It appreciates what it's seeing, as opposed to frantically trying to squeeze every ounce of manic action out of a scene.  Not only does this make for a more pleasant experience watching the movie, but it allows the audience to discover things on repeated viewing that they never found before.  This movie, with its technical mastery and gorgeous sights, establishes itself as a full-blooded film.  The stage show it was based upon is almost entirely negated by the film.  After all, who can imagine Maria spinning to the titular song on a small stage in front of a painted backdrop?  It just doesn't feel real to those who've seen the film.

The story, though sensationalized greatly for the movie, is based on fact.  Andrews's character is Maria, a postulant at Nonnberg Abbey in Salzburg (where the real Maria lived).  She's a clumsy but entirely lovable woman who seems to the nuns, for lack of a better term, a square peg in a circular hole.  She simply doesn't fit in the abbey.  She sincerely loves God and wants to live her life in his service, but the Mother Superior (Peggy Wood) believes that Maria's calling lies outside the convent walls.  To convince Maria of this, the Mother Superior arranges for her to be the governess of the widowed Captain von Trapp's seven children.  Captain von Trapp (Christopher Plummer), who romances the gorgeous Baroness Elsa Schraeder (Eleanor Parker), is a strict disciplinarian who isn't close to his children.  Maria uses his month-long vacation to Vienna to revitalize the lives of the gloomy von Trapps, mainly through bringing music and dancing into their lives, as the Anschluss and Nazi Germany loom over Austria.

Ernest Lehman, who adapted the film for the screen, has written some of the best scripts in American film (North by Northwest, Family Plot, The Sweet Smell of Success) and adapted several stage shows into beloved films (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, West Side Story, Hello, Dolly!).  He truly knew better than any other writer how to make an idea on stage blossom into its own unique film vision.  The frequent dialogue in The Sound of Music is as rich and interesting as the music, and reveals subtleties about the characters and their situations, which is an absolute rarity in even the best of musical film, where most dialogue is simply used to bridge song to song.  One of my favorite verbal exchanges in the movie is between Captain von Trapp and the Baroness after von Trapp brings her back from Vienna to his spacious home.  She drones about how she loves the lake and the trees, and he describes how she pulled him into a life of activity after his wife's death.  Their words are intelligent and pleasant to listen to, but what goes unmentioned is the fact that these two people are fundamentally incongruent to each other.  The subtext is that their relationship is based on the fact that they're both using each other.  Of course, they are both caring people and the masquerade is mutually beneficial: she gets a man on her arm and a gentle voice to help her feel needed.  He gets a distraction from his grief.  But as Maria's presence in the von Trapp home becomes greater and she helps melt the Captain's practiced detachment, the Baroness's place becomes threatened.  I honestly find the Baroness to be the most fascinating character in the movie, due to two main factors: the gorgeous lines she's given to say (and more importantly, what she's not given to say) and the beauty with which Eleanor Parker plays her.  Plot-wise, she's the rival to Maria for the Captain's love, but Parker makes her so much more than that.  She's a conflicted woman who is torn, perhaps for the first time in her priveleged life, between self-preservation and self-sacrifice.  Parker is one of the most expressive actresses of her generation, and in her eyes and voice, we find all the yearnings that the Baroness cannot articulate.

Scenes from this movie will reside in your head forever.  The last time I watched it I tried to narrow it down to which scene was the "best."  I couldn't choose, for obvious reasons.  In a movie so steeped in integrity, each scene overflows with creativity and dedication: the rainy dance in the gazebo between the eldest child, Liesl (Charmian Carr) and her delivery boy crush, the inspired goatherd puppet show, the Laendler in which the dancing of Andrews and Plummer reeks of chemistry, and the final, tense escape from the Nazis (that part of the story was almost entirely made-up, but it makes for a hell of a finale).

The Sound of Music was released to moderate expectations, but became such a cultural icon that many of its participants, namely Christopher Plummer, are still trying to escape from its shadow.  He, and most other cast and crew members, thought the movie would be a pleasant family film and a decent financial success.  Instead, it won Best Picture and eclipsed all predictions to become the (then) highest grossing film of all time.  This is a movie that will never disappear from our cultural consciousness.  The Sound of Music is perhaps the only epic family film, and from that fact, has recieved its criticisms of saccharine excess.  It's hard for many nowadays to truly see the movie amidst the chorus of simultaneous adoration and ridicule.  The songs have been played to death in books, TV shows, radio, and other films.  But when you sort through that, you see that The Sound of Music is a smart, good-natured movie that wants to do well by its audience.  The biggest reason for its perseverance is its sincerity, and that's the essential ingredient for any film to transcend its time and become an icon.

The Sound of Music is rated G by the MPAA, and contains no material that would be unsuitable for kids.  The movie might lead to a discussion of Nazism, though, so be prepared for that before showing it to little ones.

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