Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: "The Sound of Music" (1965)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

For the first edition of this year's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" - now in its sixth year! - The Film Experience's Nathaniel R has selected a film that needs no introduction: The Sound of Music, director Robert Wise's Oscar-winning 1965 musical and beloved hit. The film is now celebrating its 50th anniversary, and for many of us it has been a staple of our childhoods and our lives, a film so perfectly calibrated for enjoyment that you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn't like it. Just look at how steeped into our culture the film is: this year's Oscars featured Lady Gaga performing a medley/tribute to the film, "Do-Re-Mi" is used to teach kids music lessons, and "My Favorite Things" has somehow become part of the Christmas canon. It's re-run throughout the holiday season, including sing-a-long versions, and NBC gave us a new live version for us to hate-watch last year. Community theaters and high schools put together productions, and many of us know all the songs (and possibly all the lines) by heart.

As a result of all of this familiarity, it's easy to take the film's accomplishments for granted. For example, this film came very early in Julie Andrews' film career: she had just won acclaim for her title role in Mary Poppins, a role she famously accepted after be passed over for My Fair Lady in favor of Audrey Hepburn (amusingly, Hepburn's singing double, Marni Nixon, makes an appearance in The Sound of Music as a nun). About a month after The Sound of Music debuted in March 1965, she would win the Best Actress Oscar for Mary Poppins, and with the twin successes of those films (plus an illustrious theatre background), her film career took off. She proved herself to be a quadruple threat, capable of singing and dancing, teary-eyed dramatics and sharp-tongued wit. All of these things are embodied in her performance as Maria, the flibbertigibbet/will-o'-the-wisp/clown governess of the Von Trapps. If Mary Poppins introduced her formidable talent, then Maria proved she was capable of even more: here, she's given more room to breathe life into the character, whether it's singing care-free amongst the Alps...

...earning the consternation of her fellow nuns at the abbey...

...or celebrating the confidence she has in her self...

her charm commands the screen so thoroughly that it's no wonder Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) falls in love with her. We already have before she ever leaves her convent.

But a lot has already been said about Andrews' performance, and more is likely to be said by the other participants in this series. So instead of talking about Andrews' performance, or Plummer's work, or the terrific songs by Rogers & Hammerstein, or just how much I really love this movie, I want to talk about director Robert Wise's and cinematographer Ted D. McCord's framing.

More after the jump.

When we're studying film analysis, one of the things we're taught to look for is how an image is presented. There are thousands of ways to stage a scene, so it's important to consider why the filmmaker chose these particular images to tell their story. Every image conveys important information, especially the implied dynamics that make up the film's subtext. Of course, this is something that we often do without even realizing it; it's something that we explicitly do in "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," obviously. But a better understanding of how to read the film makes for a more engaging viewing experience.

Take, for example, the following scene, where Maria first meets Captain Von Trapp. It's a scene that, for the most part, isn't among the film's most memorable. But Wise conveys a lot of crucial information about both Maria and Von Trapp just in how they're framed by the camera. In many films, a scene like this would position the figure of authority - Captain Von Trapp, in this case - higher in the frame, making them seem taller or larger than their subordinate - in this case, Maria. Framing the scene as such illustrates the power dynamic between the two characters, informing the audience that they are not equals (or not yet, as the case may be) and that one character clearly has the upper hand.

But that's not the case in this scene. Notice the position of Maria and Captain Von Trapp in the following frames from their first encounter:

Both are centered in the frame, with their eyes at roughly the same level. An easy way to better examine this is to divide the frame into quadrants. In a recent video posted to his "Every Frame a Painting" YouTube channel, Tony Zhou explains the "quadrant system" as a way of examining the way a film can tell multiple stories within a single image. Here, I'm going to use it to demonstrate the positions of the characters within the frame. Here's what those same previous frames look like when divided into quadrants:

Both Maria and Captain Von Trapp are placed in the center of the frame, the central y-axis dividing each of their faces almost perfectly in half. You'll notice that they're eyes are also roughly in the same part of the frame. Even though Maria is still timid in his presence, Wise has equated the two characters as equals, giving Maria just as much command of the relationship as Captain Von Trapp. As the scene carries on, Maria becomes more confident, challenging Captain Von Trapp's rules about letting the children play and being called by whistle.

"Fraulein, where you this much trouble at the Abbey?"

"Oh, much more, sir."

Even when they're framed together, they're still positioned in equal relation to one another. Look at the elegant simplicity of the shot below:

*Best Shot*

Captain Von Trapp and Maria are squaring off, standing on opposite ends of the frame. Yet they are still occupying relative parts of the frame, as the quadrants show:

They're still roughly eye-level with each other, the staging of Maria slightly deeper in the frame minimizing some of the height difference. But Maria and Von Trapp are still evenly matched, Maria holding her own against the powerful captain. It's a clever way to introduce her to him, as Wise is essentially conveying two important details for the story: Maria will not be treated like an underling, and Von Trapp is enchanted by this woman who will stand up to him and challenge him. He may sound annoyed, but Plummer's performance belies his curious infatuation.

And it's a balance of power that continues throughout the film, as when Maria challenges Von Trapp about getting to really know his children:

And when they're finally united, their love for each other put out in the open:

As a kid, I (obviously) never noticed this equality of their relationship, but then again, I wasn't so much interested in that aspect anyway. But now, revisiting this wonderful, glorious film, I was impressed by this added layer to the romance. That's why The Sound of Music has endured all these years: every time you watch it, it reveals something new about itself.



this is wonderful and a nice reminder given that there's that awful " and you belong to him" line in that one song ;) but yes. they are equals. it's such a fasccinating relationship and it's funny that you barely notice when you're a kid.

Kaitlin Pendley said...

Excellent discussion of framework and how the two characters framed separately finally become one! :)

Shane Slater said...

Great writeup, bud. I love the dynamic of this relationship.