"We are such stuff as dreams are made on." Shakespeare, The Tempest

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Sound of Music: Marital Roles and Inner Transformations

Fifty years after the film’s initial release in 1965, viewers of The Sound of Music could measure the imprint of the women’s movement of the 1970s by how very different—antiquated actually—the film is in terms of marital roles. Whether Liesl in the first half of the film or Maria in the second, their acceptance of the dominance of husbands over wives stood out like a blade of grass needing to be cut in 2015 for all but a minority of viewers. Yet the internal changes that Maria and the Captain have the courage to undergo resonate in any age, being so much a part of human nature, as distinct from sociological artifacts.

Through roughly the first half of the film, Maria is an individualist bristling first against the conventionality of the convent and then the Captain’s authoritarianism. She refuses, for example, to come to his whistle on principle. In fact, the rebel asks him what signal she could whistle to call him. Meanwhile, Liesl, the captain’s oldest at 16 going on 17, sings of wanting to be needing “someone older and wiser telling [her] what to do.” She will depend on Rolf, she adds. “I’ll take care of you,” he sings in return. In 1965, this exchange would not have sounded odd in the least to most American and European audiences—yet how odd to the ears listening fifty years later. That a cultural understanding can seem like common sense in one era and yet so contrived just fifty years later ought to convince us that what we take for granted as given may be anything but.

Even within the film’s story, Maria changes remarkably from rebel to passive wife. She leaves all decisions to the Captain, including whether and when they would leave Austria. She even refuses Max Detweiler’s request that she try to move the Captain off his opposition to his children singing in public. “I can’t ask the Captain to be less than he is,” she tells Max. The internal shift is remarkable. Like that of the Captain, it happens in an instant.

When the Captain professes his love for Maria, she quickly realizes in song that in her miserable childhood, “I must have done something right.” That added self-confidence may enable her to stop fighting her negative self-image that took form in her miserable childhood. How do you solve a problem like Maria? She does, by feeling worthy of being loved. She does not have enough self-confidence to feel this herself, in spite of her singing, “I have confidence in confidence itself” on her way initially to the family’s formidable mansion. Someone must love her as she is, when her self-confidence is insufficient to kick off her negative self-image and the related rebelliousness. She gets the needed boost when the Captain tells her that he has loved her since her first day with the family—when she sat on the pinecone at dinner. In fact, the inner transformation is instantaneous. From then on, she is radically different—fully in line with the era’s values and customs and not at all independent.

Similarly, when the Captain first hears his children singing, his harsh, formal demeanor melts away instantly and he is a changed person too. He has forgotten what music was like in his house before his wife died—and it is the sound of music that instantly melts away his mourning. Only once he has undergone that inner change can he feel the love he has for Maria, which in turn triggers her realization that she had not been such a bad kid after all. In achieving an inner freedom from her self-hatred, which was fueling her rebelliousness, she willingly subjects herself to her husband’s will and command. Having dropped his command at home, he in turn leads the Von Trapp family out of love rather than from autocratic rule.

During the filming, Christopher Plummer, who played the Captain, said the story is too saccharine; he even referred to the movie’s title derisively as the sound of mucous. On the one hand, that the film is a musical means it is not cinema verité; no one should expect a musical to mirror real-life because people don’t pause several times a day to sing a song. On the other hand, Plummer had a point in that the inner transformations of both his character and Maria occur instantly and without any effort. Besides being utterly unrealistic, glossing over the process of the change compromises the character-development aspect of the film. In other words, the two main characters are rendered too plastic, and thus not readily believable.[1]

Viewing the film in 2015 rather than 1965, the film would doubtless feel even more unrealistic, given the antiquated stances of Rolf and Liesl on marital roles and Maria’s wholesale deference to the Captain as his wife. Standing between these characters and the viewer in 2015 is the women’s movement that transformed the role of women in society as well as in marriages seemingly overnight in the 1970s. Of course, this transition was hardly instantaneous, and neither was it without struggle on the individual, interpersonal, and societal levels. Interestingly, the sense of fakeness in the antiquated views and conduct would only compound the apprehension of fakeness in the inner transformations of the Captain and Maria. One day, the film may even be viewed as a fairy-tale—as a piece of art rather than a film based on a true story. 

Nevertheless, internal change freeing a person from grief or a negative self-image is of timeless value because such change is a feature of human nature itself, and therefore the story is apt to be engaging in any era. Hence the film can be said to have a timeless aura befitting such a classic of cinema.

[1] By means of comparison, Pray for Bobby (2009), a film about a gay teenager in an evangelical Christian family, highlights the mother’s arduous inner-struggle as she questions and then changes her religious view on homosexuality. Her entire demeanor changes in the process. The change is hardly instantaneous, unlike those of the Captain and Maria in The Sound of Music