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Rants from the Hill: The Hills are Alive

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Michael Branch | Jul 18, 2011 05:00 AM

"Rants from the Hill" are Michael Branch's monthly musings on life in the high country of Nevada's western Great Basin desert.

From a very early age I've held the deep and unwavering conviction that musicals--especially movie musicals--represent the most intolerable and misguided aesthetic form in the checkered history of human civilization. In addition to being uniformly hokey and boring, musicals are also cloying and saccharine, which is far more offensive. I make it a policy never to trust a person who would spontaneously break into song for no reason, especially when they're about to begin a knife fight (West Side Story), adopt an orphan as a publicity stunt (Annie), or confess their unwanted pregnancy (Grease). It is not simply that the suspension of disbelief required Sound of Musicin such cases would daunt even Hercules, it is also the obvious inappropriateness of crooning about gang violence, homeless waifs, and bastard children. The world would be a better place if the urge to sing of such things could be soundly repressed--if this upswelling, confessional, tuneful emoting could instead become a stoical moment of shutting the pie hole good and tight.

If I sound testy about this issue of movie musicals, I have good reason. As the father of two young daughters, I have in the past several years been subjected--wholly against my will, I might add--to musicals too numerous and nauseating to be enumerated. The most frequently repeated of these abominations is the much-beloved 1965 "timeless classic," The Sound of Music, whose perennial popularity confirms every curmudgeonly thing I've ever said or written about my fellow human beings.

I've meditated at length on what disturbs me so much about this awful film. It isn't simply the uncalled for singing, which is endemic to the form, or the sentimentality of the characters, which I might have predicted, or that I'm asked to believe that a guy with seven children could be happy instead of insane, even were he not on the run from the Nazis--which, as you may recall, he is. The problem runs much deeper: The Sound of Music is an expression of my own environmental values.

The core belief at the heart of this film finds its expression in the protagonist's deep love of nature. Remember that Julie Andrews' character, Maria (who becomes Mrs. Maria Von Trapp), is from the beginning a negligent nun in training who fails miserably at her religious duties because she is so busy spinning around flowery mountaintops in implausibly orgasmic eco-reveries. Here we recognize the oldest of the tricks in the book written by Wordsworth and Coleridge, Bierstadt and Cole, Emerson and Thoreau: indulge orthodox rejoicing and piety, but while your parents aren't looking exchange the divinity of God for the divinity of nature. Maria isn't a bad nun so much as she is a good Transcendentalist. So moved is she by the holiness of nature that she just has to "climb every mountain." And, as I've mentioned, she's none too quiet about it. Is this how I appear to others, like a self-indulgent, dirt-worshipping, gushy tree hugger who twirls around in fields bursting forth in earth-loving song?

Inspired by their immoderate affection for Maria, my daughters Hannah (age eight) and Caroline (age four) propose that we should climb our local hill and reenact the film's opening scene. As a man who despises musicals and is deeply suspicious of Chautauquans, Civil War reenactors, and department store Santas, all of whom I consider not only fakes but also drunkards, I am a poor choice for this mission. But here's the thing: I'm their Dad. And among the many blessings of being the father of two daughters is the constant opportunity to operate entirely outside my comfort zone. "OK," I finally assent, "but if I help you reenact the ‘Hills are Alive' scene, then I get to choose another scene that someday y'all will help me reenact." When the girls promptly agree, I reveal my choice: the scene in which the Dad, a grumpy sea captain, imposes martial discipline upon his children, controlling their behavior through a series of coded orders tooted out shrilly on a dog whistle. This promises to be a refreshing change from my usual domestic life, in which my agency has been reduced to running the chainsaw and drinking beer.

As we screen the opening sequence of the film in order to observe the scene's every excruciating nuance, I'm reminded that the movie begins with a montage of lovely helicopter shots of the snowy Alps and their verdant foothills. Just as one begins to enjoy these rich images, however, the aerial camera makes the unhappy discovery of Julie Andrews doing those orgasmic hilltop pirouettes, after which she promptly destroys the moment by bursting into song. In fact, I find it difficult not to fantasize about making Julie stop. I imagine that the studio helicopter is in fact a helicopter gunship, its sweeping descent toward warbling Maria accompanied by the satisfying rat-a-tat-tat of machine gun strafing. Maria's song, "The Hills are Alive," turns out to be a kind of environmentalist anthem, which, in the film, is replete with natural images including hills, birds, lakes, trees, breezes, brooks, and stones. In fact, Maria's heart wants to sing "Like a lark / Who is learning to pray." This is a moment so insufferable that we ourselves might pray, along with the hapless lark, that Maria will just shut her Von Trapp. But there it is once again, my personal belief in the divinity of nature, being expressed in the most syrupy and clichéd manner humanly possible. And, of course, my daughters absolutely love it.

The girls and I make plans for our hilltop reenactment, and Eryn costumes them to look suitably Maria-ish. I fill a daypack with snacks, water, and sunscreen, and we begin our afternoon ascent of a nearby hill we call "Moonrise." These Great Basin foothills could not be more different from the film's lush Austrian Alps. Here we push through high desert scrub including thorny desert peach and scratchy bitterbrush, an unbroken carpet of big sage and rabbitbrush rolling out before us to the distant horizon. It is a desiccated and brown landscape in which we must guard against sunstroke, dehydration, and also Great Basin rattlesnakes, which are common on the rocky slopes of Moonrise. Here are no azure lakes into which to dip our oars, no trees to stroll romantically beneath, no emerald grass to loll upon. Nothing here is green, save for the yellowish green of an Ephedra bush here and there. The glare of the high-elevation sun is intense as we push up the dusty slope of Moonrise into the hot blast of the Washoe zephyr. This is not a place for twirling, but rather for hunkering down in order to survive.

At last we reach the summit, where we pause in the shade of a granite outcropping to hydrate and snack. We are above 6,000 feet now, and the cloudless cobalt sky shimmers as it can only here in the high desert. Pronghorn and coyote scat are nearby, and the faint tracks of black-tailed jackrabbits, and some orange lichen that ekes out a living clinging to a fissure in the rock. The girls look adorable in their corny dresses and makeshift aprons. At last I yell "Action," and they begin to twirl like crazy, stumbling a little over the rocks, bumping into each other and also into the sage and rabbitbrush. I catch a word here and there as the hot wind sweeps their song away toward Utah. They are laughing, and dancing, and singing, right here among the rattlers and scorpions. It is, I admit to myself, a strange and wonderful kind of musical. In the glare of the high desert sun and the sweep of the scorching wind, the irony of the reenactment dissipates, and to my surprise I feel a sudden rush of genuine sentiment. My little girls are dancing in their home hills, and the hills are alive.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by the High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Michael P. Branch is Professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he teaches American literature and environmental studies. He has published five books and many articles on environmental literature, and his creative nonfiction has appeared in Utne Reader, Orion, Ecotone, Isotope, Hawk and Handsaw, Whole Terrain, and other magazines. He lives with his wife and two young daughters at 6,000 feet in the western Great Basin desert of Nevada.

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Image courtesy Flickr user Elyce Feliz

Jackie Wheeler
Jackie Wheeler
Jul 20, 2011 01:18 PM
Delightful piece, as usual. As someone who was once forced by a friend to waste a big chunk of change and an entire glorious Salzburg afternoon on a ghastly "Sound of Music Bus Tour" with 75 worshippers of the most avid sort, I share your rejection of popular musicals' perky hyperbole and Disney-fication of human emotions and dilemmas. Conversely, musicals' predecessors, operas, can be much darker and more satisfying to the curmudgeon. Not only is the music better, the viewer often has the wicked satisfaction of seeing the beautiful, misunderstood Soprano come to a bad end via stabbing, drowning, Tuberculosis, or jumping off buildings. In a _Sound of Music_ opera, Maria very well might succumb to weapons-fire. I wouldn't bring the young daughters to that one, though.

Jackie Wheeler
   
Pamela Bond
Pamela Bond Subscriber
Jul 28, 2011 03:20 PM
Excellent blog. What exactly is that feeling you get when you are out in nature? You know the one I am talking about...it makes you feel light and open, maybe makes you want to sing or at least whistle. Definitely the closest thing I will ever have to a religious experience.

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