In what has officially become a family tradition — official according to the girls, and only until they grow out of hanging with their parents — New Year’s Eve is a 12 hour marathon of eating and video watching. In seeking out a theme for this year’s movies we went with a split decision and did two science fiction and two musicals. We started goofy with The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, sobered up with The Day the Earth Stood Still, took a small break before hanging out with Newsies and capped the evening with a film the girls needed to see because all their friends had and they were tired of not being able to talk about it, Hairspray.
Coming of age during John Waters’ prime underground days it felt a little weird to be watching a musical of one of his films with my girls. Granted, it was a movie of a musical of a movie that wasn’t originally a musical but still had lots of music in it, but it was still that odd John Waters sensibility; a story of the at white girl whose love of music and dancing let her see beyond the color barriers of segregated Baltimore in the early 1960’s. Decidedly un-PC at the height of the Reagan era, Waters film poked and prodded at all fronts of conservative thinking in what was his first real “commercial” film.
But the musical is a different animal, a high-voltagae jolt nonstop musical fun that only casually points out, at the end of another conservative president’s eight-year run, how little things really have changed since 1988 or even since 1962. The music may not be as segregated as it once was, but the audiences and attitudes still are and as fun at the musical may be, it’s still somewhat sad that it comes about at a time when TV features reality weight-loss shows for “losers” and other shows for America’s Top Emaciated Poor Role Models.
Last night Suze went out to a birthday celebration for a co-worker and I stayed home with the girls. I had (and still do have) a lot of reading and writing to clear before the week is out so the night consisted of the girls watching a movie on their own while I read in another room. Their love of musicals hasn’t waned (as I suspect it will one day down the road, though I could be wrong) and they were ecstatic to be able to watch The Sound of Music again.
That’s a good three hours I get to myself with that one.
Even in another room with the door partially closed it’s difficult to ignore a musical you know like the back of your hand. In junior high we played a suite of songs from the musical that was performed one holiday season, and in high school I attended a movie marathon of Oscar winners at a local film festival (Filmex *sigh*) where The Sound of Music was the early morning tonic to the 3 AM viewing of Patton. When your senses have been bombarded by World war II you begin to understand the post-war popularity of the works of Rogers and Hammerstein. They don’t play so much like nostalgia as they do a requiem, and occasionally as a threnody, to the first half of the 20th century.
As a movie and as a musical The Sound of Music is part of that era where the long-form entertainment reached a certain apex. Epic movies about non-epic stories included everything from Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Day to Blake Edward’s The Great Race to the absurdity of the most drawn out chase movie in history It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. It was as if, after the Cold War fatigue had set in people were looking to lose themselves in longer entertainment for distraction. The world was opening up, foreign travel was no longer exotic or relegated to the rich, and in those formative Boomer years The Greatest Generation settled in to enjoy the fruits of their labors.
But as I’m catching bits and pieces of dialog and song from another room I’m thinking about how enraptured my girls are with this very long film. True, we have been feeding them a steady dose of movies from all eras, building their cultural literacy in film and music as schools do with literature, and while I am pleased they appreciate and enjoy silent movies as well as contemporary adventure films I can’t help but think about the distinct differences in structure. Yes, the structuralist inside my head is pulling threads from all directions and weaving a new scarf of understanding from them, their pattern emerging only in the haziest of outlines.
Very quickly my brain is looking at Hairspray and The Sound of Music and asking: what does the pace of these two narratives say about the audience, about the state of the musical, about the pacing of stories? Hairspray’s non-stop song-and-dance fest takes on the air of record party where the marty dies if the music stops. In fact, the parts of Hairspray that felt draggy were those that were strictly dialog. In a pop musical we don’t (or haven’t at least) come to expect a lot of rich character development or subtlety when it comes to exposition, everything driven toward getting to the next number or allowing for a plausible costume change.
The Sound of Music, on the other hand, seemed perfectly content to spend half its time letting actors act, giving them something more than just an opportunity to perform. There is a sort of breathing room within the narrative a slow simmer that allows for all the flavors of the story to take a bow and co-mingle and fill the air with a richness. It doesn’t feel like a three hour movie, achieving the same effect of getting half way through a book before recognizing what page number you’re on. Carried along by the story, by the characters, by the invisible ease of storytelling it’s easy to forget that someone sat down and wrote it all out.
I feel the need to remember this, that the narrative is not a race to be paced or an outline to be followed, but a journey to be taken at a pace that allows for the scenery to be seen and not passed in a blur. The non-stop has a time and a place but it also has the tendency to lack breadth and scope. And a natural ease, a sturdy gait, another element to remain conscious of throughout the process.