Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A Late Quartet

I have not dedicated this space to a movie review in a while, but I saw a movie on a plane this week that I believe deserves comment. There are spoilers in this blog, so read at your peril. The movie is "A Late Quartet."

This movie is, to me, a look into struggles that each of us humans faces on a daily basis, even as we continue to play music together. The quartet represents us (whether you define "us" as humanity or the church or the community or your particular group of cohorts and colleagues), and the music (a Beethoven masterpiece in the movie) is our performance, our work, our offering to the world. Along the way, we risk playing the music badly and even abandoning the quartet altogether because of what life throws at us.

The first quartet member is Peter, the elder of the group. He is not only their oldest, he is the wisest. Many of the struggles that the other players face are behind him - we never learn which of these he had to face along the way, and it does not matter now. What matters to Peter is the music, that it be played well and that the playing continue. Peter's struggle is with disease, and it comes on several levels. There is his own malady that threatens his ability to play. There is the sickness that has taken his wife, his life partner, from him. And, more subtly, there is the cancer that is tearing the quartet asunder. This last is not a medical problem, but it is a disease nonetheless; and Peter sees it destroying the group's ability to make music as surely as his own illness will soon prevent him personally from playing.

Second is Daniel, the youngest and most talented of the group. Daniel's struggle is with self-absorbed obsession, manifesting itself in various ways. He is obsessed with his craft, striving to play each note with precision and perfection, making sure that every interpretation that has ever occurred to him along the way be incorporated into each performance, as he never dares take his eyes off his annotated score. He is obsessed with making bows, firing the wood just so and choosing the horsehairs with intentionality and purpose. He is obsessed - albeit hesitantly at first - with the lovely Alexandra. Ultimately, he is obsessed with himself, with his goals and personal expectations of how the music (both his and everyone else's) must sound. He may be fairly described as having the good of the quartet always in mind, and yet he cannot escape his own ambition as the filter through which he views the history and the purpose - and ultimately the future - of the quartet.

Next is Juliette, the group's only woman and the glue holding the others together. She is the one with unique relationships with each of the other three - student of one, admirer/past lover of another, and wife of the third. Her struggle is with disappointment. She walks in a cloud, haunted by her past. Her present circumstances result from a series of choices she has made. None of the choices can, on its own, be called wrong or mistaken or incorrect; yet, taken together in totality, her life's choices have led her to a place where she no longer knows herself.  Her husband and daughter are strangers, and her future is untenable. All she has left is the music; and the prospect of losing - or even changing - the quartet is unacceptable to her. Struggling with her past, she clings to the one present good of which she is sure.

Finally, there is Robert, the group's Everyman. Robert is talented, but not as gifted as Daniel. Robert is mature, but not as wise as Peter. Robert is reliable, but not as steady as Juliette. Robert undeniably loves the music; in fact, he is evangelistic about the necessity for others to hear and fully appreciate it. Robert, more than any of the others, sees possibilities in the music that have not yet been performed. He is ready to move off the written page and play from the heart. Robert is, therefore, each of us - maybe not the best, the smartest, or the most valuable, but the one who can see where the performance should go and the one who is willing to take risks so that the quartet can play even better. Robert, however, has his own struggle, and it is the struggle of failure. Robert sins. Robert gives in to temptation. Perhaps because of his Everyman identity, the consequences of his failure cut us to the quick. We understand why he has fallen, and we accept his immediate repentance. We want him to receive forgiveness faster than those he has injured want to give it to him. We want the ripples caused by his stumble to be halted before they destroy. We don't want his sin to find him out, though we know this hope is futile. We see in Robert our own tendency to wander, for we are all sinful.  We are all faced with temptation.  We all fail.

Through all of these struggles, what happens to the music? It starts and stops. It is played beautifully. Then, maybe, it seems that it will never be played again. Ultimately, thankfully, the quartet is not dependent on the current occupants of the seats - the music was written by the master and is greater than what any one player - or even what four great players - can produce. The music will be played. Quartets - and beginning grade school soloists and philharmonic orchestras and everything in between - will continue to rise and never let the notes go silent.

We struggle with disease and the physical frailty of our lives. We grapple with our own obsessions and selfishness and personal ambition, even as they hamper the work of our quartet. We reel in the aftermath of decisions of our past that we can never undo. And we stumble daily in our failures and weaknesses and sins. Still, the music plays.

The question is never whether the music will die, for it cannot. The question is whether we can overcome our struggles so that we continue to find our seat in the quartet. The master has written the music. The time has come to close the page and play from the heart.