It’s that time again: that marvelous, wonderful time of year when Nathaniel R, guiding light of the Film Experience, invites all the internet to play along with Hit Me with Your Best Shot. The rules are simple: he picks a movie, you pick a single shot you want to talk about, and the result is a cavalcade of different opinions about an individual and we all learn many things. Seriously, even if you don’t have a blog or tumblr or anything, it’s worth starting one just to play along here. It is the most fun thing I do with this website of mine.
Anyway, season six kicks off with The Sound of Music, a monster behemoth of box office dominance that has only been matched a scant handful of times in the history of cinema, celebrating its 50th anniversary this week. I reviewed it not so very long ago – just two days shy of seven months ago, and my word, but that Hollywood Century thing made 2014 feel like a weird blur to me, now that I’m reflecting on it. But the point is, my thoughts on it are fresh enough that the second Nathaniel announced the title, I had a pretty clear sense of where I wanted to go with it.
It’s easy to ding the film for its unrestrained sweetness and sentimentality, but there’s a bit more nuance to it than that. This is easily the most sinewy and challenging and successful adaptation of a Rodgers & Hammerstein show to film, fixing narrative holes all over and generally stressing the grave historical context for its story more than the stage version ever did. Even though The Sound of Music has historical illiteracy built into its skeleton to a degree where no fully historical version could ever truly exist.
My point being: no matter how treacly and upbeat and Favorite Thingsy the movie gets, it still ends up reverting to the mean of Nazism. And that’s what always seemed to salvage it from its alleged syrupy tackiness, to me: it presents little lessons of being able to find some way to keep going on in the face of nothing all that bad (thunderstorms), and then in the face of things that are actually, yes, kind of rough (dad is a joyless martinet), all as a way of getting to the big test case: is it possible to remain positive about life and humans staring right in the face of the most effectively anti-human organisation in the 20th Century, if not the entirety of Western history? The Sound of Music, perhaps too innocently, perhaps too easily, believes that it is.
And that’s how we get to my shot.
Captain Georg von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) has just performed the Austrian patriotic anthem “Edelweiss” (that is to say, the film has previously established it as a patriotic anthem; it is, of course, a fully American invention), an act that we understand to be politically dangerous but not quite illegal yet; the Anschluß isn’t quite done yet. But von Trapp has still gone out in the face of a whole mess of Nazis and Nazi-sympathising Austrians, and said, “fuck your toxic beliefs” in song. He does this in the bright glare of a solitary spotlight, surrounded by black, and as he’s done, his beatific wife Maria (Julie Andrews), and his seven children come out to join him for the applause. And then we get this wide shot, of the Family von Trapp, banded together, encased in a tiny bubble of light surrounded by all that darkness, all those people who can’t be distinguished, friend from foe, patriot from collaborator.
There are not all that many places where director Robert Wise (who did not care for his material in making this film) was able to sneak in a subdued grace note amidst all the ebullience and opulence and surface charm, but he damn sure did it here. Throughout, the film proudly declares itself to be a tribute to family banding together in love, but it doesn’t always quite have a sense of what the stakes of banding together might entail; in this one shot, chilly and lonely but also visually anchored by stability and familial warmth, it absolutely nails it. I do not dispute that The Sound of Music is sentimental; images like this one are how it justifies that sentiment.