Out of Time

After 40 years the corny Sound of Music arouses some blend of camp,
nostalgia and lost innocence.

By Leo Charney
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Nov. 16, 2005

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Germanic tendencies: The hills are alive again.

The Sound of Music: 40th Anniversary Edition
Includes: Two commentary tracks and hours of documentaries and special features.
You'll Like It If You Like: Movie musicals, film history, Julie Andrews.

Some movies, like some people, have all the luck. The Sound of Music has somehow made itself a classic. Forty years later we're still improbably singing along with this corny three-hour musical about Austrians, Nazis and nuns, which makes up chunks of its "true" story and pivots on the heterosexual irresistibility of a nun who looks like a boy.

It's a mystery, this classic-making business, and it's a fire perfectly stoked by DVDs, which are busily preserving movie history before it's too late. Case in point: Among the hours of special features on this 40th anniversary DVD is a chatty and illuminating commentary track with the movie's director Robert Wise, who died just two months ago.

Preserving Wise's memories--and those of aging stars Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer--is valuable enough, and these two DVDs contain a treasure trove of good material, including an hour-long making-of documentary, a group interview with all the grownup kids from the movie, a conversation with Andrews and Plummer, two commentary tracks, a documentary about the von Trapp family, and even Mia Farrow's screen test to play Liesl.

All these extras provide a vivid view of the personalities behind the movie. Plummer is brutally grouchy and candid--most of his memories revolve around being drunk, and we learn he didn't want to do the movie, didn't think much of his part, didn't enjoy working with the kids and didn't like the Austrian weather.

Like a real-life wife, Andrews papers over Plummer's gruffness with her own passive aggression. She makes clear she hated the rain, couldn't sing or even make sense of "I Have Confidence" (the song Rodgers wrote for her after Hammerstein died), and sneered at the schmaltzy Broadway musical that ace Hollywood screenwriter Ernest Lehman overhauled for the movie. But she says it all so sweetly that you barely feel the malice.

From Andrews and Plummer to the catty kids to everyone's stories about the real Maria von Trapp, who hung around telling people what to do--her own son reports that his mom didn't really get the concept of selling the rights to her story--there's a whole drama inside the drama here, which brings the movie vividly alive and makes the special features surprisingly riveting, given they're the mummification of a dinosaur.

What then to make of the film at this late date--and of its anomalous success? "It had everything," explains Plummer, and it's hard to disagree with him. Made in Hollywood's dying twilight, as the big studios were imploding (Wise and Andrews' next picture together, the disastrous three-hour musical biopic Star!, was one of the biggest nails in Hollywood's coffin), it's like an omnibus of genres. Everything is thrown at the screen in a desperate plea to keep your interest, like a lover hanging onto your leg to keep you from walking out the door.

It's a musical, a romance, a biopic, a coming-of-age story, a war picture, an adventure movie and a historical film. It's always had something for almost everyone, but only time has given it something too for hipsters and badattitudinarians, for whom the movie, once the emblem of white-bread mainstream culture, now arouses some blend of camp, nostalgia and lost innocence.

Of course the Sing-A-Long Sound of Music sparked this trend, turning the squarer-than-Squaresville musical into an interactive camp phenomenon almost (but not quite) like Rocky Horror. The DVD dutifully includes a whole feature on the sing-alongs--not even slighting the drag queens--focusing on the now-annual Hollywood Bowl blowout that pulls 18,000 fans, and at which this year's costume contest was won not by Sister Mary Thon or Sister Mary to the Mob or even Sister Mary Poppins (all of whom attended), but by the person dressed as the carburetor that the two nuns remove from the Nazis' car at the end of the movie.

And speaking of the end of the movie ... it turns out the von Trapps didn't really escape from the Nazis over the mountains as they do in the film. They just took a train to Italy. Oh well. Does it matter? Part of what happens to a movie like The Sound of Music after 40 years is that it gets the luxury of becoming its own little universe.

Like Casablanca and Gone With the Wind and other classics-whether-you-like-it-or-not, The Sound of Music has outlasted questions of whether it's "good" or "bad"--it's hard to imagine that Pauline Kael was once fired from mainstream McCall's for calling it "a sugarcoated lie" and "The Sound of Money"--to become about some kind of past: our own pasts, the past of the movies, and how the two weave together.

Maybe the movie's appeal is the Freudian seduction of winning over your gruff, stern dad. Maybe it's about being accepted for who you are--or, like Maria, figuring out who you are--which would explain its enduring appeal to gay and lesbian audiences. Or maybe, like a relative or a roommate, it's just part of our lives now, for better and for worse.

March of the Penguins

A male and female scope each other out in a crowd of other males and females. They hook up once. The female lays an egg. The father protects and nurtures it while the mother wanders off for months at a time. Once the kid's on its feet, the mom and dad never contact each other again, and they go on to hook up with more random partners in the future.

This is the movie embraced by Christian fundamentalists? The one that shows the sacred and enduring value of marriage, family and monogamy? What film did these people see? The one unrolling in their heads?

Okay, March was embraced by Christian activists earlier this year--and became a surprisingly large hit--because they took it as a parable of intelligent design. "The complexity of the penguins' lifestyle testifies to a divine creator," wrote a typical poster on ChristianAnswers.net. "To think that natural selection or even the penguins themselves could come up with the idea to migrate miles and miles multiple times each year ... is a bit insulting to my intellect. How great is our God!"

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