music friday: janet jackson, "miss you much"
what i watched last week

the sound of music (robert wise, 1965)

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 Smile.” 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.)

Comments

Steve

Okay, for your Julie Andrews antidote: The Americanization of Emily. As Mr. Hunsecker says, it's a cookie full of arsenic. And she's great.

Cynthia

I have this recollection that once upon a time Christopher Plummer renamed the movie "The Sound of Mucus". It might have just been my dad, but there you go.

Steven Rubio

To the best of my knowledge, that was indeed one of Plummer's names for the movie. Steve, I saw Americanization of Emily many years ago, close to when it came out. I remember liking it, but haven't seen it since. Onto the request list it goes.

Tomas

The debate here is really a big one in art, isn't it? Something about the artistic value of melodrama, or maybe the theater of the "common man" or "everyman." I think if we're honest and self critical, these debates can make us aware of our own biases, but at the end of the day I can see how two people might still differ.

Calling "The Sound if Music" "basic" and "primitive" says a lot about Kael's biases. I'm a bit more inclined to respect stuff like that. I think there can even be some greatness in how stuff like that comes together. And anyway, moving the masses is nothing to sneeze at. If it were really that easy movies like this would be a far more common. But like I said, I can understand the other side too.

Steven Rubio

Kael tended to toss around adjectives to make her points, even if she used them differently at other times to make different points :-). The crucial thing in this case, and it's something I share with her, is her very consistent rejection of emotional manipulation when the manipulation is its own excuse. She was inconsistent in general, but not about this. She hated when she cried over something that was obvious in its attempt to make us cry. She often responded emotionally to movies, and included her emotional responses in her writing ... one of her most famous and oft-quoted reviews is of Shoeshine, which began with a paragraph about how she'd broken up with a lover just before seeing it, and how the movie and her personal situation blended. But she would say Shoeshine gets our emotional response in an "honest" way, by which I'd say she means "artistic", compared to The Sound of Music, which gets our emotional responses by pulling levers.

Her take on basic and primitive was complicated. She seemed to think the greatest art was of necessity complex, but she also was an advocate for vigorous simplicity. She called the latter "trash", and she didn't mean it in a bad way. Even then, though, she drew a line between great trash and great art.

I'm guessing, of course, but I'd say she probably thinks (or thought in 1965) that there were in fact far more movies like this, that cheap appeals to emotion were indeed easy and common.

Tomás

I hear you, I think. This is what I was trying to say with the whole two people can still differ. Inherently this falls on one's interpretation. I mean, ALL movie are trying to be manipulative. But what are the circumstance when one feel that manipulation versus others? I think you're making a point above this--namely, emotional manipulation for its own sake--but when do we feel this to be the case as opposed to others? I don't want to defend this movie, but what one person can see as emotional manipulation another can see as high skill. Like one of your favorites, Mi Familia, it's manipulative with the best of 'em. One person can see it as such as easily as another might connect with it, as you do. I like how you explore why you connect with that film whenever you write about it. The ultimate opinion we have is less interesting that the why we might have it. Kael seems a little closed off to that realm of it, at least for me on this film.

And I'd agree that there were and are a lot of movies that are cheap appeals to emotion. My point is that 99% of them are not as successful and enduring as Sound of Music. I think this should at least give us pause to think about what made this one so. I mean, it's not only one of the most successful movies of its decade, not only a film that won the Oscar (which is never saying much, but it does talk about its cross appeal to audience and critic), but this movie is on the yearly cycle of holiday films for longer than I have bee alive. I mean, most Americans would rank it in the top 20 (if not higher) of most beloved films of all time. When you are consistently in the league with Munchkins, Capra, Spielberg, and Lucas, that's saying something, no?

Posts like this one I wish you were a radio show I could call into :-)

Steven Rubio

I hear ya ... radio would be good. This post, and a similar conversation on Facebook, has gotten more feedback than anything I've written in a long time.

Mi Familia is a great example. I'm not one for the idea of guilty pleasures, but if I believed in them, Mi Familia would qualify: a movie I love that has no qualms about pulling the emotional strings of the audience.

The Sound of Music is beloved. If I didn't know that last week, I certainly know it now. There's been a touch of "hate the movie, hate me" involved, but for the most part, people are just explaining their opinions. The funny thing is, I'd be willing to bet my thoughts of The Sound of Music will inspire more people to watch it again than my thoughts on The Golden Coach will convince someone to watch that one for the first time.

Tomás

Very true! And just so you know, I'm not a huge admirer of the film. Don't hate it, but don't especially love it. Kind of like apple pie. I did, however, grow up in a house and wider world with a lot of lovers of it. Maybe it's the Catholic nun thing. In any case, I think that whole context goes a long way to my view of the film.

Steven Rubio

It's funny ... well, I've said this before, when you watch an old movie that you've never seen, you think you're catching up but in part you're just finding out if your friends were telling you the truth. For instance, I expected a movie about the Nazi oppression of the Von Trapps, not a standard movie with Nazis lurking in the background until they were needed for an exciting conclusion.

I'm glad I watched it. The older I get, the more I find my tendency to dismiss anything I don't already know to be destructive. Like I said on FB, I wanted to know what I was bitching about. This applies to all of those requests I'm still saving up ... I'm watching stuff I'd ignored in the past. It's also one reason I like using A.I. recommendation systems ... they say things like "watch The Golden Coach". In your case, I've revisited some good ones like Jackie Brown and Don't Look Now, and saw some for the first time.

I need to insert this somewhere, so here goes: all that seems to matter to me this morning is that Sleater-Kinney has ended their hiatus. Everything I've written today has come with them playing in the background. At least until I wrote this, they were the hidden inspiration of everything on October 20.

Diana

I know I've chimed in a lot on this on FB but my last comment here on my relationship with SoM is why I watched it in the first place. My parents saw very few English-language movies growing up in Taiwan. When they immigrated to North America, they imprinted on a specific genre of movies: the ones where language was less vital to the understanding of the action and plot. The "classic" musicals made up a large portion of this genre as the story has to stop for song and dance numbers and the music usually indicates how the characters are feeling, even telegraphed what they were planning on doing as well. Melodramas like "Gone With the Wind" also worked for this. My earliest memory of SoM was being told it was a true story. My next memory was learning the Do-Re-Mi song as prep for a Yamaha piano class. SoM in my house was not only easy-to-understand entertainment, it was a history and musical theory lesson. (Although not geography as the path over the Austrian mountains did NOT lead directly to Vermont as five-year-old me was led to believe) I think Dad had a thing for young Julie Andrews as well.

In contrast to SoM, I attended a live performance of a musical called "Darling" this weekend. Based on the story of Peter Pan, it reframes the concept of Never-Never in the pre and post Stock Market Crash world of Boston. The Wendy character (Ursula) runs away from an affluent home and ends up with Peter in the "Where House" a speakeasy for Feather Boys and Stella (the Tinkerbell character) whose son, Nibs, bears a strong resemblance to Peter. Lily runs a burlesque house and the police Captain and his cops run around beating the boys and their johns on the Docks. Peter teaches Ursula to "fly" with the help of "fairy dust" they snort and no one gets a happy ending. I'd argue every aspect of the show from the inception to execution is emotional manipulation with none of the pay-off SoM's syrup provides. Given a choice between misery porn set to music and a guilty nostalgic pleasure, I know which way I'd choose to be manipulated.

Out of curiousity, can I search your reviews for just the musicals you've watched?

Steven Rubio

To get the last part out of the way, no, but I like the idea ... maybe I'll add a new tag, "musical", and add it to the ones I've done. In the meantime, I can check MovieLens, where I store my ratings, to see which ones got the coveted 10/10 (musicals as defined by MovieLens, not by me):

42nd Street, Duck Soup, Top Hat, Swing Time, The Wizard of Oz, Pinocchio, Singin' in the Rain, Gigi, A Hard Day's Night, Cabaret

And the five at the bottom, to which I gave 5/10:

An American in Paris, The Sound of Music, Head, Everybody's Famous! (I don't even remember this one), Shrek 2

MovieLens also tells us that musicals are my 4th-favorite genre, behind film noir, "war", and documentary. (Least favorite: "children".)

Now to the good stuff. Hollywood studios like to make action films because they sell well overseas ... because language isn't very important in those kinds of films. I can see that musicals would work the same way, although you're describing the immigrant experience rather than just overseas markets. I know that in many of my favorite musicals, plot is just an excuse to get to the next song, and while you can learn a lot about the characters in Top Hat through the dialogue, what really exposes character is when Fred and Ginger dance to "Cheek to Cheek".

I'd have to think more closely about the matter of emotional manipulation, particularly as it might manifest itself in something like Darling. It fascinates me how resonant this talk of The Sound of Music is with so many people.

I like the idea that we are all choosing a favored form of manipulation.

Diana

I'm curious to see how you review "Into the Woods" and "The Last Five Years" when they come out this Christmas.

Steven Rubio

I will place those two movies on my Request list, since I probably wouldn't have seen either of them on my own. I should confess that I've never seen The Lion King or Aladdin or Beauty and the Beast, and the only Sondheim movie I ever saw was West Side Story. So I'm a bit behind :-). When I choose a musical to watch, it is often from the 1930s.

Diana

Hope you don't have any preconceptions about Anna Kendrick since she stars in both. :)

I have friends with a deep-rooted dislike of Lion King (although they were amused to learn it was based on Hamlet) because they perceive it as harshly patriarchal and anti-feminist. I have a hard time analyzing Disney movies. I guess I just expect them to enforce the status quo by the pure fact it's Disney. That being said, my favourite Disney musical is a little known, live action called The Happiest Millionaire starring Fred MacMurray, the luminous Greer Garson, and an exquisite Lesley Ann Warren. In the non-musical Disney-verse, my favourite is "Something Wicked This Way Comes" wherein Disney sugar is spun by Ray Bradbury's story into something both weird and wonderful.

Steven Rubio

My favorite Disney musical is probably the original Fantasia. My only preconception about Anna Kendrick is that I like her. And I had a serious crush on Lesley Ann Warren when I was a youngster.

Diana

I got to meet Lesley Ann Warren on the set of Psych's 100th episode (their homage to "Clue") and got up enough nerve to tell her how much I loved her when I was a child and teen. I believe the phrase I used was "the epitome of grace and beauty". So, I guess I had a crush on her too.

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