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In episode 7 of “The Story of Film,” which surveys European filmmakers of the late fifties and early sixties who embraced the innovations and opportunities created by the French New Wave, Mark Cousins (lilting voice, prone to categorizing) speaks of how one of the central themes of these movies was, which do you trust more, the spirit or the senses? He speaks of how some directors, like Bergman and Tarkovsky, focused in their work on the search for salvation, and on the emptiness that results when it’s not found. He contrasts this with Robert Bresson, who in the last shot of “Pickpocket” has his protagonist’s spiritual longing resolve into a greater appreciation of the physical world–in this instance, a woman’s face and touch.

It made me think of this song by the great Al Green, which because this is rock ‘n’ roll (or really rock ‘n’ roll’s Dad, R+B) attempts to blow away the dichotomy and have it both ways, all at once. In the song, Al is informing a woman, Belle, of the primal place of the spiritual in his life: “The Lord and I have been friends for a mighty long time.” You wonder at the motivation for this little talk: has the woman complained about Al’s religious devotion? Or is she so alluring, her ways such a temptation to straying, that Al simply needs to go on the record as much for his sake as hers?

In either case, Al isn’t saying this pull of a higher power is reason for he and Belle have to stop seeing each other. To the contrary, he says, “The best thing we could do is have Him around.” “It’s you that I want, but it’s Him that I need,” Al sings, but not in a way that sounds conflicted–he’s perfectly at peace with this, and wants Belle to be as well. Their love can encompass the spirit and the senses. God is my “pride and joy,” Al says, “my bright morning star”–but then he rushes to reassure Belle, “I know you’re all these things” as well.

Is “loving you” really a way to get to Heaven, as Al asserts on another song? Is the physical world just a metaphor there to remind us of God’s grace, or is it God’s grace itself, and should it be enjoyed–celebrated–as such? And when does this celebration become less a way to honor whatever higher power you choose to believe in and more a way to indulge yourself?

Fine questions, that Al really doesn’t address. I’m troubled Belle doesn’t appear by name through the rest of the album. Is this another example of the genre I spoke about last week with the Smith Westerns, the “take-it-or-leave-it-oh-you’re-already-gone” song? Did all Al’s God talk get too tedious? If Belle did stick around, she must feel pretty neglected. Or perhaps Al only had to slip into that magnificent falsetto of his to make up for any amount of neglect. It’d work for me.

Al_Green_1977_The_Belle_Album

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