The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Wednesday, January 15, 2003
WE CANNOT BE GOD BUT CAN ONLY DO OUR BEST

The film Truly, Madly, Deeply is a truly wretched affair. Juliet Stevenson - so remote and sexual in Greenaway's Drowning By Numbers - plays the kind of insufferable, scatterbrained, unpunctual ditherer which no publishing house would have tolerated, even in 1994. Her 'cellist husband Alan Rickman dies but his ghost continues to inhabit their Highgate house (see what I mean already?). Stevenson in this film achieves the remarkable feat of turning into Julie Andrews. It is supposedly as real an examination of unresolved bereavement as has ever been witnessed in cinema. As one who for nigh on 17 months has continued to suffer from unresolved bereavement I say: bullshit. It is significant that the cause of death of Rickman's character is never specified. So there's no record of a life slowly or rapidly ebbing away from the Other; nothing about the humiliation of an enthusiastic gourmet and cook reduced to sipping Complan; nothing about scavenger families waiting to strip your house like benevolent bailiffs; nothing about the emotional and financial wreckage which is a consequence of forced relocation. There are no packets of paracetamol in Juliet Stevenson's bedside cupboard, and she does not have to argue herself out of taking all of him when she wakes up every morning. No, she doesn't have to worry about any of that.

But the significant factor here is Rickman - alone in the film, he is so evidently full of life, so evidently sexy. It is that which Stevenson has lost. Michael Maloney's limp lettuce leaf of a New Man doesn't even begin to replace him, and she knows it. He is so obviously a compromise, so defiantly anti-sexy, that it leads us to a belief that her "life" is in fact over - the best she can look forward to now is a substitute for a life. Or as Buffy would have it, "I live in Hell, 'cos I've been expelled from Heaven."

A life in Hell is made even less bearable when you have had a glimpse of Heaven, saw perfection, if only for a split second. How does anyone continue to exist? This is the answerable question which Vaughan Williams poses in his Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. The major orchestral chord which fades up at the beginning of the piece - like sunrise - represents the ideal, perfection, Godhood. Yet it is abruptly eclipsed, and most of the rest of the work's 15 minutes describes attempts to regain it. The theme was the third of nine psalm settings which Tallis wrote for Archbishop Parker's Whole Psalter of 1567; significantly, it sets to music the psalm which begins "Why fumeth with fight" - in other words, why try to regain something which you can never have? It sets the boundaries. Variations on the chord surface briefly here and there, but it's never quite the same chord, not quite the same magic we heard at the beginning, and the piece, after the solemn opening statement of pure Tallis melody, becomes increasingly agitated in its efforts. The theme is varied, every type of diatonic counterpoint is attempted with the theme like an imperfect jigsaw puzzle. Eventually, in what sounds more like frustration than catharsis, the first violins declare the melodic line fortissimo in sopranino register. It's a cry of rage, but soon recedes. We still have to clear up the mess. The orchestra subsides into what appears to be a mood of resignation. At the end, one violin plays an ascending five-note augmented minor scale which sounds like unbearable weeping, and a chord returns to end the piece - not the original chord, but as good as we're going to get, as near to God as man can be. In order to continue living, we have to accept the reality of this.

It is strange how the entirety of Charles Ives' The Unanswered Question (sometimes subtitled "Contemplation of a Serious Matter") is based on the exact same opening "perfect" chord. But here Ives does not worship it; quite the reverse. He is amused by it and merely tries to augment his own "imperfect" musical visions upon God-made perfection. Thus the bitonal trumpet motif - so anticipatory of Miles Davis, so strangely cognisant of the "rudimentary" notes which Vaughan Williams makes the lead trumpeter play in the second movement of his Symphony No 3 (the Pastoral) as a recollection of a bugler in the French trenches in WWI. Ives is curious, and the other agitated and sometimes atonal orchestral flurries and motifs which he periodically introduces into the work can be directed and introduced by the conductor in any order - written in 1910 (the same year as Fantasia), this is prototype aleatory music-making which anticipates Cage by a good 30 years. I can appreciate Michael Gibbs' comment that the trumpet on The Unanswered Question "comes from another planet" - but really, it is we, humanity, who are on another planet from that in which "perfection" exists, and this might be God's way of analysing us - perhaps remove the indefinite article from the subtitle and consider it as contemplation of serious matter. Ives doesn't strive; he just observes and indicates. It is up to us to make what he will of it.


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