Saturday, July 10, 2004

The Power and the Glory: Gentle Giant and The Godfather

Gentle Giant is indeed an acquired taste; The Godfather is one of those few films about which there's little question as to its importance.  Though "The Power and the Glory" is the title of a Gentle Giant album, it seems fitting for Coppola's film as well.
I sort of discovered Gentle Giant just before they disbanded after their 1980 album Civilian.  I say "sort of" because I know I had heard some of their songs on Austin's old free-format station when I was in my teens, and for some reason I got it in my head that they had sought, via their name, to create confusion with Genesis.  Both were, back then, artsy, but in very different ways.  Then, in college, a girlfriend of mine once quoted some lyrics from what I learned later was Civilian's "Inside Out"--I learned this only when I bought the album after she and I had broken up.  But somewhere in the midst of all that, I bought the live album, Playing the Fool.  Why you need to know all this, I'm not sure, except to indicate to you that I wouldn't describe myself as being exactly obsessive about this group.  But a couple of days ago, I found myself thinking again about Gentle Giant's music, and so I got out Playing the Fool and played some of it today.
Gentle Giant is prog-rock, with influences ranging from medieval music to jazz to avant-garde to straight-ahead rock.  They are less symphonic in conception than Yes and Genesis; less lyrically obscure than Yes; their ornateness comes from the syncopated interplay of the musicians.  And what musicians: the five members play over 30 instruments between them.  They took enormous musical risks, especially live.  I knew I still liked them, but this time around I more fully grasped just how good, how tight they were as a band.  The drummer on this album, John Weathers, seems to be the key to holding all this together: the other players (Derek Shulman, vocals and various wind instruments; Ray Shulman, bass, violin, acoustic guitar, recorder; Kerry Minnear, keyboards, cello, vibes, recorder; and Gary Green, guitars and recorders) go their wildly syncopated and harmonic ways, but Weathers keeps a rock-steady beat all the while, making this music incredibly propulsive.  This sure ain't pop--you can't dance to it, and its complexity makes it hard to hum along with--but its tightness (listening to it is something like looking at a Celtic knot) moves one intellectually to about the same extent that well-crafted pop moves the soul or the crotch.
On to The Godfather now:  Back in grad school, a friend had told me how beautiful the climactic scene of Michael Corleone's son's baptism is; she had tried to describe the cuts between it and the various killings.  She had not done it justice, but it would be difficult to do so.  It is a different, more graphic  version of the film's opening scene, the wedding day of Vito's daughter interspersed with Vito's conducting business.  The later scene, though, is not simply more graphic: it packs an enormous symbolic wallop as well.  Michael, by this point, has moved from that opening scene, when he tells Kay that he isn't involved in his father's business, to this explosion of violence going on as his son is being baptized: HE too is being baptized, anointed as the new Godfather, embracing the necessary evils that acompany that role even as he says he renounces evil when the priest asks him.  "Nothing personal; it's just business," he could be saying in retrospect to God's representative--or as easily to Kay when he lies to her about his hand in his brother-in-law's murder.  What's amazing about this film is that it immerses us in this alien world, allowing us to see its metaphysics, yet still allows us the distance necessary to see it for what it is.  In that regard, it differs from Apocalypse Now, which is at its heart an allegory, less about Vietnam than Conrad's theme in Heart of Darkness about the thin veneer of "civilization" glossing over our savage essence.  The Godfather presents us with a parallel universe whose inhabitants behave savagely but who aren't savages.
I realize this will be familiar territory to those of you who know this film, but the above is my way of saying "Wow."

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