The Sound of Music is one of the most popular movies of all time, and I had never seen it. I told my wife beforehand that it was going to be difficult to put my preconceptions to one side, but she said I had to do it. I don’t think she appreciated just how deep-seated my preconceptions were.
It’s a musical, which for some people is already a deal-killer, but that doesn’t describe me. In our long-ago Facebook Fave Fifty, I had four musicals on my list (five if you count “What’s Opera, Doc?”). It’s a 60s musical, and even some of us who like musicals turn away from that particular decade. But that doesn’t really describe me, either. I really like Oliver!, and thought My Fair Lady was better than I expected. Having said that, it is true that two of the musicals on my Faves list were A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Cabaret (1972), two films that in different ways showed possibilities for the musical that stood against The Sound of Music norm. In short, it wasn’t my preconceptions about the genre or the era that held me back.
No, the real barrier to my meeting the movie with a free mind lies in Pauline Kael’s review. I’ve never hidden the influence Kael has on my writing, but it’s not that I’ve memorized every word she ever wrote. The problem is, her review of The Sound of Music was one of the first of her most notorious reviews, and I can’t un-remember it no matter how hard I try. She wrote it for McCall’s, a mainstream woman’s magazine for which she worked for a short while. The legend is that Kael’s review of The Sound of Music got her fired from McCall’s, but that doesn’t appear to be true (although it’s a nice legend). The film had been released before Kael began writing for McCall’s, so she hadn’t had a chance to review it. But, around the time that The Sound of Music was piling up the Oscars, a movie came out called The Singing Nun, and that gave Kael an opening. Her review of The Singing Nun ran eleven paragraphs; large parts of eight of those paragraphs were about The Sound of Music.
I’m going into this in some detail because, as I said, Kael fed the preconceptions that I brought to my own viewing.
It’s hard to know where to start, what to quote. Here’s the second paragraph of her review of The Singing Nun:
The success of a movie like The Sound of Music makes it even more difficult for anyone to try to do anything worth doing, anything relevant to the modern world, anything inventive or expressive. … “The opium of the audience,” Luis Buñuel, the Spanish director, once said, “is conformity.” And nothing is more degrading and ultimately destructive to artists than supplying the narcotic.
Partly, Kael is pissed because the filmmakers do such a great job of squeezing tears from the audience. You could say she was complaining about something that was good, but Kael always despised the cheap sentimentalism that forced an audience into tears. Since I share this predilection, she rings a bell for me in her position on The Sound of Music:
The Sound of Music – a tribute to “freshness” that is so mechanically engineered, so shrewdly calculated that the background music rises, the already soft focus blurs and melts, and, upon the instant, you can hear all those noses blowing in the theatre … Of course, it’s well done for what it is: that is to say, those who made it are experts at manipulating responses. They’re the Pavlovs of movie-making: they turn us into dogs that salivate on signal. … It’s basic, and there are probably few of us who don’t respond. But it is the easiest and perhaps the most primitive kind of emotion that we are made to feel. … This kind of response has as little to do with generosity of feeling as being stirred when you hear a band has to do with patriotism.
I could go on … OK, I will:
Whom could it offend? Only those of us who, despite the fact that we may respond, loathe being manipulated in this way and are aware of how self-indulgent and cheap and ready-made are the responses we are made to feel. … The audience for a movie of this kind becomes the lowest common denominator of feeling: a sponge.
I really must stop. I’ll note that she doesn’t like Julie Andrews, and that she thinks Christopher Plummer is the only good thing in the movie. But I have to quote one last thing, because it comes closest to my own reaction to the actual film before us:
Wasn’t there perhaps one little Von Trapp who didn’t want to sing his head off, or who screamed that he wouldn’t act out little glockenspiel routines for Papa’s party guests, or who got nervous and threw up if he had to get on a stage? No, nothing mars this celebration of togetherness.
I am aware that up to this point, I’ve cheated. I haven’t reviewed the movie, I’ve just posted large chunks of what Kael wrote. But it goes back to the original problem, that it was hard for me to put my preconceptions aside. You could say that all those years of reading and re-reading Kael’s review bullied me into agreeing with her. And that is one reason I finally decided to see the film: it was time I took it in myself. But in the time between when I watched it and when I started writing this, I posted something on two different web sites, and I’m going to plagiarize myself here.
On Facebook, I wrote, “I just watched The Sound of Music for the first time. You know what they say, if you can't say anything nice,”. One person asked, “What on earth possessed you to watch?”, to which I replied, “I was tired of bitching about it when I hadn’t seen it.” Their response was, “I’m not tired of bitching about it and I refuse to watch it .” I added, “Well, at least now I know what I am bitching about.”
The best thing about all of this is that Jeff Pike had written about the movie a little more than a week ago, and this gave me a chance to revisit his thoughts. It’s a fine piece … more important for what I’ve got going here, Jeff likes The Sound of Music, placing it at #2 on his Top 10 of 1965 list. I highly recommend checking his piece out, not just as a useful comparison to what I’ve written, but also because it’s good in any context. I’ll let you discover what Jeff has to say; what inspired me to comment on his blog was his mention of the kids in the movie. That got me going, not in an argument with Jeff, but with a recognition of how I had reacted to the film, keeping in mind what Kael had said about the “little Von Trapps”. I wrote:
It took 39 minutes, give or take, for me to turn against it (I even looked at the clock to see how far along the film was, although I already can't remember what scene was going on). By the hour mark, I looked at my wife (who apparently has seen it many times) and said, "these kids are gonna be all over this movie, aren't they?" (Duh.) At the intermission, I asked if it was possible that when we returned from intermission, the kids had all moved to another country. Finally, the littlest boy did something and I pointed my hand at the screen, making a pretend gun with thumb and pointer finger while making the sound of a gun going off.
I added that my wife was fascinated by how deeply I was feeling all of this … she gets suspicious when I exert a lot of energy on a seemingly harmless point.
But those kids were it for me. They stood in for everything Kael had burned into my brain all those years ago. I hated every single one of them. I hated it when they showed up on the screen, I hated it when they sang, I hated it when they were cute, and I hated them, plain and simple. Because there has never been a family of kids that resembles the one in The Sound of Music. Oh, for just one barfing kid who was tired of singing for Fräulein Maria, or “Mother” as she is known by the end of the movie. I’m pretty sure if I had checked my blood sugar after the movie had ended, I’d have taken myself to the emergency room.
And once I crossed over to the dark side about the kids, the entire movie darkened. I couldn’t appreciate anything because it all reflected those damned kids. Everything that happened seemed too sweet, too perfect, too “mechanically engineered”.
There were a few things where I realized as I watched that I couldn’t blame the movie for my responses. Most notably, this involved the songs. They are so famous that their setup was only too clear, and I found myself rolling my eyes as soon as I knew that here came “Do-Re-Mi” or “My Favorite Things”. This emphasized the engineering, but that’s not the fault of the filmmakers. It might have been different had I seen it in 1965.
It should be clear by now that watching The Sound of Music ended up being an emotional experience for me, one that at times had little to do with what was on the screen. So I want to be kind to the movie. My wife happily sang along as we watched, and Jeff Pike’s writing is with me, as well. People I respect like The Sound of Music, and I respect that. But I can’t go higher than 5/10, and that’s being kind. #384 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time, which makes me wonder why I bother looking at that list. (For what it’s worth, Jeff and I agree on the best film of 1965: Repulsion.)