Thursday, July 02, 2009
The Christening Scene in The Godfather
I've posted before about the use of Bach's organ works -- especially including the great Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor -- in this much-praised and highly effective scene. A recent anonymous commenter on that post has gotten me thinking about it again.
I'll comment in greater depth later, but for now I wanted to point out a couple of things about this scene that may seem minor to others but I find annoying.
First, this way of using Bach's organ music -- to represent the dark, sinister corners, the twisted recesses, the dripping dungeons of the human heart -- has long been a movie cliche. The first time I played one of them on a tape player for my son Nat - I think he was seven or eight at the time - he said "That's Dracula music!" He had already picked up on the cliche.
Admittedly, the organ work that is usually used for this purpose is not the Passacaglia but a related work, the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, which Bach wrote shortly before the C Minor. That's the one that the Herbert Lom plays in his sewer lair in the Hammer Films version of The Phantom of the Opera (1962). (Scroll forward to 3:00 below.)
It's also played by Captain Nemo (James Mason) in Disney's 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea (1954). Here is Nemo, twisted by the loss of his family into a monster with no purpose in life by death and destruction -- perfectly represented by Bach's creepy, sinister music! Right?
Wrong! That's the other annoying thing I wanted to bring up. Bach was about 21 o 22 years old when he wrote these two works and both, to me, are full of the exuberance of youth and love of the magnificent universe God has created. There is nothing sinister or satanic about them. In discussing the C Minor in his magisterial Johan Sebastian Bach: The Culmination of and Era, Karl Geiringer uses words like "dignity," "strength," 'intensity," "power," and "magnificence." He neglects entirely to mention malevolent creepiness.
A far better interpretation of Bach than these other films is embodied in this sequence from Disney's Fantasia. Notice that Satan and his works are far, far away:
I know this might sound like an odd thing to mention as a criticism of The Godfather, rather like criticizing a Bond car chase scene for promoting unsafe driving practices. It seems like an extraneous consideration, somehow. But I think that, if a work of art contains a gross and actually rather stupid misinterpretation of another work of art, it is at least worth mentioning.