I've been thinking about leaving the Actionettes for a while now, and in my drama-queen way it's always felt like contemplating sawing off one of my own limbs using a rusty bread knife. Apart from anything else, performing with them has long been my single atonement for the sins of criticism, my meagre attempt to give something back to the world. But last week it finally happened. For a few days afterwards I felt a bit like I did after a big car accident several years ago: fine, perhaps relieved, quite possibly numb with shock, replaying the events over and over in my head as though to confirm their reality. I still remember the song I was singing to myself when I had the accident: Nosferatu Man by Slint (how's that for ridiculous melodrama?). The song that came up on my mp3 player, moments before I realised I had finally decided to say goodbye, scouring my mind to clarity, was this one:
“You won't find it by yourself, you're gonna need some help, and you won't fail with me around, come on let's go.” Oh, Trish Keenan. I've idolised her for so long; I'm still mourning her death earlier this year. Based on nothing more than listening to her songs, I always felt there was something brave and uncompromising about her: she lived by her own truth, and made/makes me want to live by mine.
So there was that in my head that fateful (drama queen!!) Thursday morning, and there was this: a shard of Hal Hartley's 1991 short Ambition.
Dwell on uncomplicated beauty: the landscape, the sun on your face. Nothing touches you. Keep the image of your death cheerfully before you at all times. Gain perspective. Seek to clarify and comfort, not to obscure or mystify. Your aspirations are pointless; your ambitions come to nothing.
I've carried these words in my head for half my life: they were a teenage mantra, although I realise now my fallible memory conveniently let slip that final, trenchant line. And I know, I know: written out plain, in this context, the words clang with hyperbole. No wonder the adolescent me clung to them. But within the film itself – which, by the glorious power of youtube, I've just watched for the first time in maybe a decade, revelling in its note-perfect oddity, the violence of its choreography, its concision and starkness of expression – these words radiate a kind of hope. Instead of the selfish pursuit of personal aggrandizement, choose friendship, kindness, humanity. Instead of money or fame, seek truth and beauty. As a teenager, I felt there were words of warning here; as a thirtysomething – and this film is so the work of someone starting out on their 30s, shaking off the gung-ho confidence of their 20s (a confidence you don't even know you have) and struggling to figure out what meaning can be achieved – I find solace. I know I'm being laughed at a little bit, but I can hear Hartley laughing at himself, too. He asks the same questions I ask, and to hear him do so both pains and assuages me. I'm pretty sure I'll never gain perspective – but, in a funny way, leaving the Actionettes has been one way of trying to.