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Maria's not an asset to the abbey
I always forget the new white linen look of the world in the immediate aftermath of heavy snowfall. The East Coast received a solid dumping of snow over the weekend — I dutifully trudged to the supermarket to get some stuff when it was still falling in light flurries, just in case — and then had the satisfaction of watching it start to really come down, and then, of course, the magical full reveal the following morning after a night of undisturbed snowfall.
Saturday morning was bright. So bright that my cheap blackout curtains felt the strain and let the light bleed through. Force of nature shit. The snow cover was complete, and it gave the outside world a brand new face. Beneath the snow, dried dog poop, uneven pavement, discarded disposable masks, dropped solo gloves, litter (only a little: this is historic Bed-Stuy and we keep it tidy). Atop the snow: nothing at all. And the sun bounced off that clean nothing, and the quiet echoed because there were almost no people moving around outside, and even fewer cars. In those circumstances, you find yourself idly wondering about wombs and tombs and catacombs, and the people who take vows of silence and contemplation. Everything feels like a Jamie Woon song. In a good way. In the best way, actually.
When I was a child, weekends that were lost to strong weather conditions were spent reading, or zonked out in front of the only screen we had in the house back then, the TV. I watched a lot of TV as a kid, and thank god I did, because look at me now: an emotionally intelligent adult whose references are all from fictional people. For the snow weekend, I chose to watch, finally, the film adaptation of Into the Woods, and you know, that was largely a mistake. It is aggressively not-good. It feels like a dare. Like someone challenged Hollywood at large to “go ahead, make it the worst you can, I double dog dare ya!” and Hollywood said, “bet!” and here we are. Almost everyone is giving a 37% effort at best; the casting is very wtf, and greatest sin of all, almost all of the performances makes Sondheim’s great wit and endless humanity simply disappear into the ether. It all just poofs! into nothing. All these very good songs, and somehow I found myself drifting. At least Chris Pine looked like he had fun. I’m happy for him for that.
To cleanse my scraped-raw palate, I had to go for a sure-thing reset. And the thing about Disney+ is that it has all your nostalgic faves right there, and I had already woken up to the idea of blooming (my Christmas cactus is flowering again, after a three-year leave of absence. Won’t He do it?!) and blossoms of snow etc, so I reached for the only thing that would soothe me, that felt right for the blanket of precipitation outside, that would smooth out my brain so pleasingly I might never let it wrinkle ever again. The Sound of Music. To correct the butchering of Sondheim, I would go to his mentor, his de facto pater familias, Oscar Hammerstein, and be cleansed by the riches of that movie’s perfect execution.
I don’t have to tell you anything about this 1965 classic — you already know! But perhaps you didn’t know that this movie means a lot to me. Alongside the James Bond movies and select cuts of Marilyn Monroe oeuvre, TSOM is maybe the movie I watched the most as a kid. There was a period of several months where I watched it (in full, at least 90% of the time) every single day. I am not at all exaggerating when I say that Julie Andrews’ voice became more familiar to me than my mother’s during that time. I’m talking full immersion, complete buy-in, total adoration. I was one with The Sound of Music. And it lived within me. Dialogue, songs, the very feeling of it.
It’s easy to see Maria as your avatar, when you’re a powerless kid: largely guileless, beholden to societal rules you did not help craft, denied the chance to run away from your problems, presented with difficult things in a difficult world, and learning in real time how to fix it for yourself and others. The pleasure of the movie as you get older is seeing the shades of grey that exist in everyone. The relationship between Georg, Elsa and Max, for example, was minor to me when I was nine years old. Now, I could spend hours thinking up scenes from their friendships. How did they meet? Did Max and Elsa stay friends after the broken engagement? Did Max become less light (he was always shrewd) as the war went on? What exactly did wealthy, blonde noblewoman Elsa get up to over the course of the next four or five years? ::eyes emoji::
I think so much more deeply about the baroness and her interior life… this super-rich widow who had a great life and wanted just for one thing — a man like Georg — and then had it yanked away from her, and on the eve of war, no less! When I was a kid, I knew to hate her. She was the cold, sharp pebble in our shoe, after all. And I still don’t love her, but my god, do I understand her better. That scene, after Maria returns to the family and she and Georg are on the balcony? Cuts me like a knife now, watching her flit from joke to joke, to delay what she knows is coming. Look, I don’t think she and Cap von T would’ve been terribly happy but they would’ve had an OK life. Right? If it weren’t for that little… singing postulant.
Also more pleasurable in my many years as an adult watcher of TSOM? Being able to name the shimmering, almost touchable thing that exists between Maria and Georg as nothing but good old-fashioned S-E-X-U-A-L C-H-E-M-I-S-T-R-Y. Watching them dance the Ländler is very niche porn to me because Christopher Plummer in motion is basically an enactment of the act of sexual congress. When they execute the hop-step part of the dance? Bitch. And there’s a moment, just before he cuts in on his son Kurt, when Georg does this thing… he secures his gloves more tightly on his fingers… and it just unravels me utterly. He’s smiling, he’s relaxed, you can see his intent all over his face and in the glove gesture, he’s about to dance with the woman who’s been floating at the edges of his brain for weeks or months at this point, he’s about to get down to the important business of clothed seduction, basically… and Maria is oblivious.
Look at this shit.
Some things to note: the look of pleasure on both their faces as they dance. You can see Georg smiling at multiple points during the dance, as he watches her move. When they’re doing the side-to-side movement with palms touching he is beaming at her and when she meets his gaze, he sort of inclines his head as if to say, “of course I’m smiling, look at us!” Once, he lets his gaze rake over Maria as she steps around him and yes, he’s technically keeping time so he can do his part but the look is so low key carnal? And then the little secret grin he smothers as he dances ahead of her and waits for her hand to find his? Adorable and hot. You can see the moment Maria realises that the pleasure she’s feeling has tipped into something more complex and potentially wrong but before then, she’s just a happy dancer. There’s the romance of the strings, the crispness of that white shirt, the height difference… I could watch that scene for three hours and still feel the same frisson of excitement on watch #88 that I did on watch #1.
Plummer and Andrews’ chemistry is all over the picture. The scene where he apologises and asks her to stay? Chemistry. When he sings ‘Edelweiss’ for the first time and sends her a little self-conscious shrug? Chemistry, baby. It’s there from the first moment they meet. Genius screenwriter Ernest Lehman said we were gonna GET that meet-cute! “And why do you stare at me that way?” asks Georg. And Maria grins. “Well, you don’t look at all like a sea captain, sir,” she replies. And for those of us who only knew Captain Birdseye… Accurate, Maria! And then Georg sniffily returns with, “And I’m afraid you don’t look very much like a governess.” Even as a kid you’re thinking, “oh, these two are 100% gonna kiss” Because come on. Why even have lips?
And when they do kiss, in the gazebo — because remember: the Captain is rich — it is hot, but also sweet. There’s a couple of forehead kisses in there that are reflective of the sex-on-screen attitudes of the time, but even they are imbued with such heat that you have no problem understanding that Cap and Maria for sure got it in when the time was right. They are in each other’s space and their ease is apparent; they touch each other as if they’ve been doing it for years; their laughs are full of relief that this thing worked, can you believe it? When he asks, “Is there anyone I should go to to ask permission to marry you?” I think about Tinder and Bumble and just sigh, from my soul. When they get back from their honeymoon and he says to Max, “we came back as fast as we could”, sure, he’s talking about the smell of war that was all over Europe and exemplified by the Nazi flag he just ripped up, but you could also read “we didn’t leave that Parisian hotel room even once” between the lines. If you wanted to.
I’ll close out by saying we don’t talk about Maria’s wedding dress enough. We don’t talk about all her costuming in that movie enough (costume designer Dorothy Jeakins was nominated for an Oscar and lost that year to Doctor Zhivago; she’d won the previous year). Julie Andrews is a stone fox, obviously, and Jeakins knows it: her waist is always outlined, where possible her legs are out, and her sleeves are tight. Maria’s haircut is simple and she wears no jewellery except a cross and so the clothes are the be-all and end-all. The ugly-beautiful tweedy dress “the poor didn’t want” that she first turns up in, the finer hand sewn dresses she makes when she’s getting to know the children and the captain is in Vienna, the blue-green dress with the floaty sleeves, the green midi almost-pencil dress with the Peter Pan collar she wears when she returns to the family, the yellow honeymoon suit, her festival-costume-that-is-actually-travelling-clothes… Each outfit is superior costume design doing the invisible work of telling us how she feels and how we should feel, while also being beautiful. The wedding dress has all these elements — the collar, the crossover cinched bodice, the buttons at the ends of her full-length sleeves, and all down the back, the low heels that have been her trademark all movie, the leaf wreath that secures her veil, the sheer, long veil itself — that make it exceedingly striking, then and now. I love it dearly.
I tend to stop watching after the Nazi runs back through the Felsenreitschule entrance to yell, “they’re gone!” and Max does his satisfied smile. I don’t want to watch the family hide in the abbey, to see the Nazis be rude to those nuns as they ride roughshod into a sacred place. I don’t like to see Georg miscalculate his final line to Rolfe; I don’t want to hear Rolfe blow that whistle. It’s too sad. For all of the new texture the years have given my rewatches, that part never changes.
My snowy Saturday didn’t need that.