Mogwai - Coventry Cathedral
“This is the worst ‘church’ I’ve ever seen” boldly announces an audience member awaiting Mogwai’s instrumental live score to Atomic, Mark Cousins’ film essay on the nuclear age. Basil Spence's modernist Coventry Cathedral is beautiful to most but has a deeper story, friendly host Dean John Witcombe describes his building and city "living and breathing reconciliation" after their wartime destruction on the night of 14 November 1940, the audience member now whispering to her friend, “I didn’t know.” Just as films are more than plots, buildings are more than bricks and mortar, and the rebuilt cathedral in the British city most devastated by war is this island’s most important setting for tonight’s anti-war performance.
Mogwai have a loud reputation and their telling of Hiroshima’s destruction makes people fear for the safety of the cathedral’s famous etched glass: bones rattle in line with the building’s foundations, ears hurt, just as they should. There’s no simple dichotomy, newsreel recalls the West patronising Japan as a quaint culture before 1941 but not patronising them after: actions have consequences, and while introspective moments are quietly soundtracked, this is the forcefully told story of how man’s hands became stained with blood, and his superficial efforts to scrub it off.
There’s a clear sense of narrative, a fairy tale or a waking dream, with death, eyes burning red, always running close behind. Some rate Andrei Tarkovsky’s film ‘Stalker’ as the best ever made, its ‘Zone’ – a no man’s land with teeth chattering in the shadow of Cold War policy – astonishingly referenced via found footage without added commentary. Death is held at bay by the hope of radiation treatment and human spirit of protest, but it’s soon breathing against the backs of necks, impatient at man’s ridiculous fallout defences against his own means of destruction. Honesty is biased, and despite an acceptance of progress, filmmaker and musicians' stated hatred of nuclear weapons is clear.
Not everything’s doom and gloom! The Dean instructs endearingly reluctant audience member Cousins to stand in receipt of applause, reminding all, despite the filmmaker’s famously lovely Belfast accent, Coventry is his birthplace and its cathedral the place of his baptism. If the clergyman’s arms were long enough he’d have pinched the Coventrian-for-the-night’s cheeks and ruffled his hair, a genuinely nice moment for those who Cousins helped fall in love with cinema through his work on Moviedrome and The Story of Film.
In deference to their partner’s work, Mogwai sit in the dark until Stuart Braithwaite stands in silhouette to play guitar over the closing credits. It’s difficult to tell if this is overly literal, or even intended, but Braithwaite corporealising the imprinted shadows of Hiroshima’s incinerated victims is a compelling end to an emotionally wrought, tentatively hopeful, night showcasing the unified grammar of film and music. Performed in what Mark Cousins names Britain’s “peace cathedral.”
Dominic Ross reviews Mogwai’s music to Atomic here.