The Hills Are Alive

How do you solve a problem like landscape aesthetics?

Sound of Music
Julie Andrews as Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music (20th Century Fox, 1965).

My grandmother’s highest compliment for a natural landscape was to say that it was “pretty as a picture.” Even as a kid I remember thinking that this aesthetic was somehow upside-down, that the beauty of art should be judged according to the inimitable standard of natural beauty rather than the other way around. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, well-heeled European travelers toured the countryside looking for views that would be as pretty as a picture — or, to be more precise, as pretty as a painting. And because they had a certain kind of painting in mind as embodying their standard of natural beauty, these early ecotourists often carried with them a small, convex, tinted mirror known as a “Claude glass,” after the 17th-century landscape painter Claude Lorrain. When a picturesque landscape was encountered — say, the snow-capped Alps — the tourists would turn their backs to the mountains and whip out their Claude glass, holding it up to frame the mountains, which were not only reflected but also color-shifted to a tonal range that made them appear more painterly. And voila! The rugged Alps become not only pretty as a picture, but become a picture, as the pleased ecotourists admired not the mountains but rather the image they had created. But must we turn our backs on the land to see it as aesthetically pleasing? Why do we so often love our representations of the world more dearly than we love the world itself?

You might say that the Claude glass of the 19th century was photography, and that the 20th-century Claude glass was film. These technologies have profoundly conditioned our landscape aesthetics; they have, in effect, allowed us to frame the world. Certainly cinema’s stylized, controlled and color-corrected representations of nature have thoroughly mediated our relationship to the physical world, not only shaping our environmental aesthetics but also implying that a representation of nature may be an improvement upon nature itself. Film has the power to show us landscape in remarkably dramatic fashion; but to see the land in film we must first turn our back on the land itself. To climb up into the bright mountains of the screen, we must first descend into the dark cave of the theater.

From an early age I’ve held the unwavering conviction that musicals — especially movie musicals — constitute the most intolerable and misguided aesthetic form in the checkered history of human civilization. Besides being uniformly hokey and boring, musicals are also cloying and saccharine. I make it a policy never to trust a person who would spontaneously break into song, 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). Clearly the world would be a better place if this upswelling, confessional, tuneful emoting could be soundly squelched.

Singing sheep in the Stubai Alps, Austria. [Photo by Fozzman]

If I sound testy, I have good reason. As the father of two young daughters, I have in the past several years been subjected to musicals too numerous and nauseating to be enumerated. The most frequently repeated of these abominations is the much-beloved The Sound of Music, whose perennial popularity confirms every curmudgeonly thing I’ve ever said or written about my fellow human beings. Indeed, the National Association of Misanthropes might consider screening this “timeless classic” at its annual convention, if only to reassure members that they really are on the right track. But despite my personal aversion, The Sound of Music, released in 1965, not only bailed out a sinking 20th Century Fox but, adjusted for inflation, has gone on to make over a billion dollars. That’s “billion” with a “B,” as in “Blockbuster,” or “Banal” or “Bullshit.”

So beloved is this appalling movie — which, by the way, won five academy awards and was nominated for five more — that the first-ever reunion of its nine principal actors was staged as part of the final season of Oprah. The film was actually ranked #55 on the American Film Institute’s centennial list of “100 Years … 100 Movies,” where it was judged superior to genuine timeless classics including The Third Man and Vertigo, Stagecoach and The Searchers, The Gold Rush, City Lights and Modern Times. Among the few to tell the truth about The Sound of Music was the film critic Pauline Kael, who called it “the sugar-coated lie that people seem to want to eat.” “We have been turned into emotional and aesthetic imbeciles,” wrote Kael, “when we hear ourselves humming [this film’s] sickly, goody-goody songs.” In a simultaneous blow to free speech and good taste, Kael was fired from McCall’s Magazine for the heresy of this astute opinion.

I’ve meditated at length about this awful film for a reason. It isn’t simply the uncalled-for singing, which is endemic to the form, or the appalling sentimentality of the characters, which is predictable, or even that we’re 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’ll recall, he is. No, the problem runs deeper, and it is this: The Sound of Music is an expression of my own values. How so? First, there is an emphasis upon the centrality, resilience and importance of family, a principle I hold dear. Then there is, in the romance plot, an assertion of the power of love to break down interpersonal barriers, including those related to class. This too I believe. And the good guys in this movie regard the Nazis as bad guys, which I have no difficulty going along with.

But what is the core value at the heart of the film? It is the protagonist’s deep love of nature. You’ll perhaps remember that at the beginning the Julie Andrews character, Maria, is an irresponsible and negligent nun in training who fails miserably at her religious duties. And why? Because she is so busy spinning around flowery mountaintops in implausibly orgasmic nature reveries. Here we recognize the oldest of the tricks in the book written by Wordsworth and Coleridge, Beethoven and Schubert, Bierstadt and Cole, Emerson and Thoreau: indulge orthodox rejoicing and piety, but while your parents aren’t looking swap out the divinity of God for the divinity of nature. Maria isn’t a bad nun so much as she is a good Transcendentalist. She believes in grace, and in the divine, but for her the locus of divinity is the Alps rather than the abbey. So moved is she by nature that, well, damn it, she just has to “climb every mountain.” And she’s none too quiet about it.

Why, then, if this film reflects so many of my own values, do I find it intolerable? You know that feeling you get when you discover that the biggest idiot at the party is a huge fan of your favorite baseball team, or an ardent admirer of your favorite band or movie — when the purity of your ineffable love for something is sullied because it must be shared with an obnoxious knothead? The Sound of Music is so incredibly trite that I can’t help but resent its superficial dramatization of my own beliefs — particularly my core faith in the spiritual value of nature. Is this how I appear to others, like a gushy, self-indulgent, dirt-worshipping tree-hugger who twirls around in fields bursting into earth-loving song?

The Sound of Music

Recently, inspired by their immoderate affection for Maria, my daughters Hannah Virginia, age eight, and Caroline Emerson, age four, propose that we should climb our local hill and reenact the opening scene of The Sound of Music. 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 daughters is the constant opportunity to operate outside my comfort zone. What choice do I have, especially after my wife, Eryn, with a wry smile, tells the girls how certain she is that Dad would love to be a part of this project? “Daddy even teaches film at the university,” she says enthusiastically. “I’m sure he can help you understand why this movie is so great!” This is my punishment for having married someone with a sense of humor, which now seems less charming than it did during our courtship. “OK,” I finally assent, “but if I help you reenact the ‘Hills are Alive’ scene, then I get to choose another scene from the movie that someday y’all will help me reenact.” When the girls promptly agree, I reveal my choice: the scene in which Dad, the grumpy Captain Von Trapp, imposes martial discipline upon his children, controlling their every 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 in order to observe every excruciating nuance of the “Hills are Alive” scene, I’m reminded that the movie begins with a montage of lovely establishing shots of the snowy Alps and verdant Salzkammergut foothills — helicopter shots that are plenty respectable for Sixties cinema. 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. This is the kind of cinematic scene that, rescreened a few times, could make spies talk. In fact I find it difficult not to fantasize about some way — any way — to make Julie stop. I imagine that the studio helicopter is actually a helicopter gunship, its sweeping descent toward warbling Maria accompanied by the satisfying rat-a-tat-tat of machine-gun strafing — or perhaps that she might be skewered by the chopper skid, a chirruping Maria-kabob rising joyfully into the clouds. Maria’s song, “The Hills are Alive,” turns out to be a kind of environmentalist anthem, replete with images of hills, birds, lakes, trees, breezes, brooks and stones. The degree to which Oscar Hammerstein’s gift as a lyricist has been exaggerated is made especially clear by the line in which 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 would just shut her Von Trapp. But there it is again: my personal belief in the divinity of nature, being expressed in the most syrupy and clichéd manner possible. And, of course, my daughters absolutely love it.

Great Basin foothills, Nevada. [Photo by the author]

The girls and I make our plans for the 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 “Moonrise,” a nearby hill that we’ve so named because it’s an especially fine spot from which to watch the rising moon on summer nights. These Great Basin foothills in northern Nevada could not be more different from the lush hills of the film’s Austrian Alps. Here we push through high desert scrub including thorny desert peach and scratchy bitterbrush, an unbroken carpet of big sage and rabbit brush rolling out before us to the distant horizon. It is a brown and desiccated landscape in which we must guard against sunstroke, dehydration and Great Basin rattlesnakes, which are common on the rocky slopes of Moonrise. Here are no babbling brooks to meditate beside, 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 into the hot blast of the Washoe zephyr. This is not the land of the Claude glass but rather the land of the emergency signal mirror — not a place for twirling, but rather for hunkering down to survive.

The western American writer Wallace Stegner once wisely observed that we need to “get over the color green.” “You have to quit associating beauty with gardens and lawns,” he admonished. Stegner realized that our fantasy landscape remains closer to that of The Sound of Music than to the geophysical realities of the arid West, and that this aesthetic preference has environmental consequences that are all too real. Until we get over the color green, we’ll remain doomed to view the West through a Claude glass of our own imaginative construction. We’ll continue to see the world indirectly, artificially framed, color-shifted to conform to an environmental aesthetic that is disconnected from the visceral reality of this amazing place. Here in the western Great Basin, green is the color of the lawns that don’t belong and the money that buys the vanishing water that keeps them that way. The high desert is not the green world of the Austrian Alps, but neither was it meant to be. This is our home landscape, and to us it is far more beautiful than the Alps could ever be.

Moonrise, Great Basin foothills, Nevada. [Photo by the author]

On the way up Moonrise, I ask little Caroline what her favorite part of The Sound of Music is. Without hesitating she replies, “I like the part with those bad guys, Daddy. What are they called again?” “Nazis,” Hannah replies. I cringe. This is the same kid who, during our earlier reenactment of scenes from The Wizard of Oz, insisted upon playing the role of the malevolent flying monkeys, even in scenes where they had no credible reason for appearing. Hoping to shift the conversation, I ask Hannah what her favorite part is. “I like Liesl the best, especially the part where she’s singing in the rain.” I wince again. The scene Hannah has in mind depicts the courting of Liesl, the eldest Von Trapp daughter, by a messenger named Rolfe — a scene in which Liesl croons the insipid teen anthem “Sixteen Going on Seventeen.” This awful ditty includes the lines: I need someone older and wiser / Telling me what to do / You are seventeen going on eighteen / I’ll depend on you. As the father of daughters, this is not the sort of thing I want to hear. I note that this anti-feminist narrative isn’t much of an improvement over Hannah’s favorite kid flick, The Little Mermaid, in which a mermaid girl — basically an aquatic Liesl — disobeys her father, leaves home, and relinquishes her own voice to be with a guy just because he’s human. At this rate, I worry to myself, my kid is headed for an appearance on Oprah. “Hannah, do me a favor,” I implore. “When you’re sixteen going on seventeen, remember that I am the one who is older and wiser. Not some boy, me! And remember that charming Rolfe ends up joining the Nazis.” “Right,” interjects little Caroline, “I like those guys!”

At last we reach the summit of Moonrise, 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. The scat of pronghorn and coyote are nearby, and the faint tracks of black-tailed jackrabbits, and some orange lichen that has eked out a living in a fissure in the rock. Once rested, we choose the site for our reenactment, and I clamber up into the rocks to approximate the film’s memorable, high-angle opening shot. The girls are down below, practicing their lyrics and poised to pirouette. They 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. The sere, brown land is treeless and flowerless. In the viewfinder of my camera I frame the little stars of my own life story, spinning in their mountaintop reverie. They are laughing, and dancing, and singing, right here, in this place, 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 I feel a sudden rush of genuine sentiment. My little girls are dancing in their home hills, and the hills are alive.

Editors' Note

“The Hills Are Alive” is a significantly expanded version of an essay that appeared on Rants from the Hill, Michael Branch’s blog at High Country News.

Michael P. Branch, “The Hills Are Alive,” Places Journal, January 2012. Accessed 03 Oct 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • 01.04.2012 at 12:23

    This is so unbelievably true and frustrating. I may not have daughters but I cringed at the same times you did Michael. Having recently seen Wicked, I felt so thankful for pretty lights and pretty voices to distract me from the absurdity that is inherent in musicals and the ideas they present. However, I must say that the Sound of Music drives me much more insane.

  • 01.05.2012 at 13:25

    Isn't the author's opinion on the musical form beside the point? I should think the average reader of Places would be more interested to hear the logic behind his professed love of the Nevada landscape. The more pressing issue - the one that goes unaddressed here - is why, almost two centuries after the Transcendentalists, we should continue to deify the wilderness ideal.

  • 01.11.2012 at 12:55

    Love this essay. I am more and more aware of how the movies have helped define my landscape-sense. Would love to see a shot of the girls up there doing their thing!

    We continue to deify the wilderness ideal because we are animals,
    part of 'wilderness'. The apparent contradiction is internalized, and it results in a sort of subconscious self-loathing that makes us long for what we see as non-human.

  • 01.29.2014 at 10:15

    Witty and lovable essay.