by Bruno Alves
Every Christmas Eve, my family gathers at my aunt’s house. As is customary in Portugal, we eat bacalhau, or codfish, and wait for the clock to strike midnight so we can open our presents and go home to finally get some sleep. After keeping such late hours, our Christmas Day lunch—which features borrego, or lamb—doesn’t start before three o’clock in the afternoon. By then, each and every year without exception, there is at least one channel on Portuguese TV that’s airingThe Sound of Music, and so, each and every year without exception, we sit at my aunt’s table devouring lamb to watch it.
And yet I always forget that the film opens with shots of the Austrian Alps, before the camera descends upon a twirling-in-the-grass-as-if-she-were-starring-in-a-Terrence-Malick-movie Julie Andrews. We’re informed—through song and choreographed dance, of course—that she, Maria, nun-in-training, is a problem: “unpredictable as weather,” and “flighty as a feather.” Her Reverend Mother believes that what innocent Maria needs is to be tempted by the ways of the secular world, so she sends her to the service of the Von Trapp family, a Captain and his seven motherless children (motherless not by some miracle of Immaculate Conception but rather by the tragedy of Mrs. Von Trapp’s untimely demise.)
Soon, Maria is falling in love with this man who leaves his children running all over the countryside to go spend time in Vienna bedding the millionaire-by-widowhood, Baroness Schraeder. Still, one hour and twenty minutes into the film, he’s singing “Edelweiss” and clearly reciprocating Maria’s love, which everyone seems oblivious to except for the Baroness, who cunningly embarrasses Maria into fleeing back to the Abbey. At this point, the “Intermission” title card appears on the screen and the TV channel broadcasting the film goes into a commercial break.
By then, my family has sung along to several numbers. We normally begin with “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” my father and I murdering the melody, stopping only to cast aspersions on Rolfe’s subtextual sexual inclinations (suspiciously away from Liesl, the attractive Von Trapp daughter). Then, as thunder roars through the Von Trapp residence, scaring the children into Maria’s bedroom, my two cousins join me to sing with Maria as she instructs her wards to clear their minds of all that’s worrisome in the world by remembering their “Favorite Things.”
And, every year, without exception, my mother is consumed by the urge to accompany Andrews as she sings “Do-Re-Mi.” The problem is that, contrary to the song’s message, my mother doesn’t actually know the notes to sing. It is not an indictment of my writing abilities that I find myself unable to describe how awful her voice sounds; rather, it’s a testament to the fact that my mother’s singing is beyond the human race’s capacity to contemplate.
It’s Christmas. No one should have to suffer through that.
There’s an old Pearl Jam song called "Let Me Sleep (It’s Christmas Time)". “When I was kid,” the chorus goes, “how magic it seemed, oh let me sleep, it’s Christmas time.” What had seemed “magic” to Eddie Vedder’s childhood self had, by his early adult years, become something so alien, something so long lost, that all he now wants for Christmas is to stay asleep. And, as much as I enjoy being with my family on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, these are sentiments I, too, now sadly feel every year.
Everyone, I would guess, goes through this: Christmas nowadays is essentially a festivity for kids and, when we grow up, most of us lose at least some of the sense of its specialness. If we do manage to recover any of our childlike wonder, it’s mostly through watching the children in our families demonstrate it anew, discovering the traditions we love. We become spectators of Christmas joy, not true participants. We grow up, and what was once “the most wonderful time of the year” becomes, if we’re lucky, another relatively pleasant family event, or, if our worst fears come true, an occasion in which we’re constantly reminded by the culture around us of how happy we should be, but aren’t.
In one of his Letters from America, Alistair Cooke tells a story about his four-year-old grandson Adam, and how, by Christmas morning 1976, he was already out with the skis he had received the year before, prompting Cooke to observe how “extraordinary” Adam’s childhood was, how “all the life Adam knows” was one of being out “at 4”, skiing in Vermont. But then Cooke adds a bit of melancholy.
“One day,” Cooke writes, “he will grow up and, I’m afraid, taste of the forbidden fruit. One day, he will read the New York Times. And Adam will be out of the Garden of Eden, out of Vermont, for ever.”
When I was a kid, I spent all of Christmas Eve watching the clock. I couldn’t wait until it was midnight so that I could open my gifts and, since I was the youngest child, my whole family was almost as eager to see my reaction as I was to tear up the wrapping paper that stood between me and my new toys. On the 25th, even though I’d gone to bed very late the night before, I woke up early just so I could get my hands on those presents and eat the cookies my grandmother gave me every year.
Nowadays, if I’m checking what time it is, it’s only because I’m getting hungry. Eagerly awaiting the opening of gifts would be childish. My grandmother has passed away, and the cookies she used to buy me have suffered a precipitous decline in quality. So by Christmas morning all I want to do is stay asleep for as long as possible, just like Eddie Vedder. Almost everything that used to make Christmas special to me has either disappeared or lost its appeal.
I have read the New York Times. I am out of the Garden of Eden. I am out of my figurative Vermont, forever.
And yet, every year, Portuguese television makes the hills—not the snowy ones where Cooke’s grandson grew up, but the green ones in Austria— come alive and to my rescue, and then, just like Maria, I don’t feel so bad.
Perhaps, like Maria, I had a “wicked childhood,” because in my early years I didn’t like The Sound of Music. It seemed to go on forever, everyone was always singing instead of talking, and its poor excuse for an action sequence fell flat to a boy growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s. But once I, too, reached the age of sixteen going on seventeen, something changed. It wasn’t just my hormones going into a frenzy over Liesl singing, ironically, about how “unprepared” she was “for a world of men” while clearly demonstrating that she’s a bomb of sexual thirst waiting to explode. It was something else.
Movies turn us all into children, or at least the good ones do. They make us think like children, feel like children do. Even when they elicit experiences and feelings only an adult would undergo, they do so by subjecting us to a very childlike process: placing us in an imaginary world. Just as a child pictures himself to be Snow White, Dumbo, or King Arthur, so to does an adult find himself taken over by whatever the screen tries to impress upon him. It might be a very adult thing, sadness over the dissolution of a marriage in Blue Valentine, or the desperation inherent in any one of Clint Eastwood’s moral tragedies, or all the emotional turmoil in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. It might also be an unsophisticated emotion, like the wonder provoked by Kubrick’s 2001, or the thrills and suspense-filled anxiety of a Hitchcock film, or even the hysteria of a Monty Python comedy. Either way, we’re carried by the story through experiences we can only ever live vicariously.
And that’s what The Sound of Music does for me. It strings together the somewhat underwhelming adult Christmas of today with the ghost of all those Christmases past that I recall so fondly. All I have to do to step back into that past and I become a child again, the one who was excited for Christmas and the chance to cycle through its annual rituals: my uncle pretending to be annoyed that we’re watching The Sound of Music yet again, my aunt remarking that the Reverend Mother’s song, “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” should have been removed from the movie, my grandmother professing amazement that I like the film, and my cousins and I singing “So Long, Farewell,” together.
And that’s why, even though the story has arguably two climaxes—the first when Maria comes back from the Abbey and the Captain marries her, the second when the Captain sings “Edelweiss” as a love song for his country at the Salzburg Folk festival—the heart of the movie, to me, lies in a moment that comes long before either one of them.
After the Captain has ordered Maria to pack her things and return to the Abbey, the sound of his children singing fills the mansion. “Who is singing?” he asks. When Maria says that the children are, he walks into the room where they are performing, and instead of telling them to be quiet, he starts singing in their place, indicating that his cold heart has melted and he’s now ready to love again—and not someone like the Baroness (“there will be no Baroness”), but the kind-hearted Maria, who brought the music back into his house.
Every time I watch that scene I well up, and as my cousins and I join the Von Trapp children in harmonizing with the Captain, I feel like a kid again. At that moment, a film about the power of song to bring back happiness ends up becoming an example of cinema’s power to transport us, not only to worlds we never lived in, but also to a past we still hold dear, to transplant us back into childhood, not just by looking in wonder at superheroes, dinosaurs, spaceships or time machines, but also simply by making us sing every year about lonely goatherds, raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens.
One of my cousins has a 6-year-old son. He doesn’t care much about The Sound of Music. To him, Christmas still seems magical, and he never asks people to let him sleep. All he wants is to enjoy his presents. But one day, he’ll grow up. One day, he’ll taste of the forbidden fruit and read the New York Times. And when the day comes that he, like Adam, is out of the Garden of Eden, I hope that, like me, he’ll find comfort in the “songs they have sung for a thousand years,” that he'll “want to sing every song” he hears, and that The Sound of Music will become one of his own favorite things, too.
Bruno Alves lives in Caxias, Portugal, but sometimes wishes he didn’t. He writes about politics, film and TV for the Portuguese website O Insurgente, is an op-ed contributor to the Lisbon daily Diario Economico and a weekly commentator on its cable television show, Assembleia Geral. Bruno welcomes both writing job offers and insults at email@example.com, and you can also find him on Twitter.