FRIDAY, JANUARY 27, 2023
E pluribus, more of the same: About a third of the way through the feature film Tár, a beautiful human moment occurs.
There are very few such human moments in this critically lauded film. As a point of personal privilege, we want to cite it here.
In the film, a very prominent (fictional) conductor, Lydia Tár, shares a 6-year-old adopted daughter with her partner or wife, Sharon Goodnow. (The film doesn't say that the daughter is adopted, but the screenplay does.)
As Tár is driving this beautiful child to school, suddenly, and out of the blue, they recite an old nursery rhyme. In our view, it's a rare and beautiful human moment within a weirdly opaque feature film:
TÁR: Who’ll bear the pall?
PETRA: "We," said the wren. "Both the cock and the hen. We'll bear the pall."
TÁR: Who'll sing a psalm?
PETRA: "I, said the thrush as she sat on a bush, "I'll sing a psalm."
TÁR: Who'll toll the bell?
PETRA: "I," said the bull, because I can pull. "I'll toll the bell."
Together, parent and child then finish the rhyme: "All the birds of the air fell a-sighin' and a-sobbin' when they heard the bell toll for poor Cock Robin."
Because of the beauty and the innocence of this 6-year-old child, this leaps out as a rare human moment. Much later n the film, Tár's angry partner or wife says that Tár's relationship with this little gitl is the only relationship Tár has which isn't "transactional"—which isn't devoted to propelling or maintaining Tár's high-flying music career.
As we learned through a bit of googling, Tár and Petra were reciting parts of a very old nursery rhyme, Who Killed Cock Robin? Just a guess:
This moment is layered into the movie to foreshadow the impending fall of the highly transactional classical music maestro. The word "cock" may have bene floating around in Todd Field's mind as well.
We can think of one other such human moment in this very long film. It occurs when Tár's youngish assistant, Francesca, informs Tár that Krista Taylor, a 25-year-old former colleague of theirs, has taken her own life.
Francesca, who is a human being, is plainly distraught as they discuss this event. She weeps, and she asks to be held.
Tár reacts in a different, perhaps more transactional manner.
Instantly, Tár instructs Francesca to delete the tortured emails she has been receiving from Krista, whose name resembles Christ's. After Francesca leaves for home, Tár deletes a series of emails she herself has sent to major orchestras around the world, telling them that shouldn't hire Krista Taylor because she's too unstable.
For whatever reason, the powerful Tár has blackballed her former colleague from employment:
“I must warn you of the danger to your orchestra in hiring Ms. Taylor.” That's the way the screenplay summarizes the snippets of the various emails we see on the screen as Lydia Tár reads them, then clicks them away.
Now for a question:
Is it possible that these emails were actually sent in good faith? Is it possible that Tár really believed these representations about her young former colleague?
Almost everything is possible in this lengthy film. That said, critics have generally assumed that Tár, Francesca and Krista were all lovers in the past, and that Tár was blackballing Krista's prospects out of some sort of pique about the way things ended.
What actually happened between Tár and Krista? As with most such matters in this film, the moviegoer is never shown or told.
That said, the viewer does see what happens on that prior occasion when Tár drives her 6-year-old daughter to school:
Tár believes that one of Petra's 6-year-old classmates has been bullying Petra. After sending Petra off to class, Tár confronts this other 6-year-old girl and aggressively threatens her in this remarkable manner:
TÁR: Hello, Johanna. I'm Petra's father. She’s told me a lot about you. I know what you’re doing to her. And if you ever do it again, do you know what I’ll do? I’ll get you.
And if you tell any grown-ups what I just said, they won’t believe you, because I’m a grown-up. But you need to believe me: I will get you.
Remember this Johanna, God watches all of us.
At that point, Tár walks away. Presumably, "God watches all of us" is meant to prefigure the way that deity is going to bring Tár down.
There's a lot of prefiguring in the film Tár, and a whole lot less exposition. We're never exactly allowed to know what Tar's relationship with Krista was, but it's Krista's suicide which eventually brings Tár's career crashing down.
We do get to see Tár threaten a 6-year-old girl. We also see her deceiving her partner on various occasions in various ways, and we see her trick Francesca into letting her use her laptop.
After sending Francesca out of the room, Tár checks to see if Francesca has deleted Krista's emails, as she's been told to do. Francesca, who seems to be human, hasn't deleted the emails from her tortured friend, as the peeping Tom Tár now knows.
In short, we see Tár doing various highly unattractive things in the course of this long feature film. It's just that we're never allowed to know what actually happened between herself and Krista in the central event of the film.
(Or even between Tár and the adoring fan, or possibly the starstruck journalist, whose red handbag Tár apparently ends up owning! The moviegoer doesn't see that episode spelled out either, assuming that he or she has even noticed that the red handbag has changed hands.)
For ourselves, we don't see the point of exploring #MeToo themes in this type of fictional setting—a setting in which moviegoers are never allowed to know what actually happened, or possibly didn't happen, in the various interpersonal matters which lie at the heart of the film.
Someone else's mileage may differ with respect to this murky exposition. Mostly, though, we disliked the feature film Tár because of the ten million ways it makes its contents inaccessible to moviegoers, starting with the unbearably long opening scenes which are littered with references to the world of classical music, references the typical rube won't care about or understand.
On first viewing, we marveled at the way this lengthy film seemed to have been constructed. It almost seemed that the film had been deliberately constructed to make its contents incomprehensible to the vast bulk of moviegoers.
People who showed up to see the film may have taken that set of cues from this puzzling film's puzzling lack of clarity. In a recent profile of the film's writer-director (Todd Field) and transcendent star (Cate Blanchett), Variety's Kate Aurthur explains the problem like this:
AURTHUR (1/5/23): In a blighted landscape for movies, where fervid audience theorizing has been mostly reserved for television shows such as “The White Lotus,” and most films are forgotten the week after their release, “Tár” is an art-house movie that actually punctured the zeitgeist. During Halloween, Lydia Tár costumes populated Instagram. “That was unexpected!” Blanchett says.
Yet “Tár” has also become emblematic of the difficult period during COVID for the movie business, and the continuing uncertainty around the financial viability of prestige films. A New York Times story from last month, headlined “Highbrow Films Aimed at Winning Oscars Are Losing Audiences,” used an image of Blanchett as Lydia, looking spooked.
That “Tár” has grossed a mere $5 million in theaters as of this writing, and is a symbol of the box office crisis for Oscar-oriented movies, was decidedly not part of the [marketing] plan.
Variety's Aurthur is second-generation Hollywood. (Her father, the late Robert Alan Aurthur, was a substantial Hollywood screenwriter.)
Like the New York Times before her, Aurthur described the way this "Oscar-oriented / prestige film" bombed at the box office as an offshoot of Covid, which in part it surely was.
That said, Aurthur also makes some slightly odd claims concerning the vast sweep of Tár. It "punctured the zeitgeist," she murkily says—and she offers an odd piece of evidence in support of this claim:
During Halloween, Tár costumes populated Instagram, Aurthur says—whatever that statement might mean.
Quickly, a guess! We'll guess that you saw no such costumes at any Halloween parties you may have attended last fall. We'll even guess that you saw no such costumes when children came to your door dressed like Rachel Maddow, or perhaps like Tucker Carlson.
Is it possible that Aurthur is part of a siloed population—a siloed subgroup within which this highbrow film really did "puncture the zeitgeist?" Beyond that, is it possible that the nation's major film critics may now constitute some such group—a subgroup which is unable to see how a film like Tár will perhaps appear to regular moviegoers?
A subgroup which is perhaps unwilling to say what it knows for certain "transactional" reasons?
After first attempting to watch Tár ourselves, we were amazed by one aspect of the major reviews. The film is extremely hard to follow, but the major reviews didn't say so.
It's always possible that the major reviewers were able to negotiate the complexities of this film in a way which we ourselves couldn't. Aside from their genuine literacy in the world of film, they may have had a press kit in hand, a press kit which told them what they were (supposedly) seeing as the film's scenes rolled on.
Who knows? They may have had access to the screenplay, a screenplay which explains some of the points which go unexplained on the screen. In an unusual move, that screenplay was recently made available for Aurthur to publish and praise, just in time for it to be nominated for an Oscar.
Who knows? It's even possible that some film critics are involved in relationships which are somewhat "transactional." It may be that they're loath to criticize figures like Field and Blanchett, major figures they will want to interview on some future occasion.
That said, Aurthur's profile of Field and Blanchett is ripe with hints of "transactional" conduct. The keister-kissing never stops—the keister-kissing between Fields and Blanchett, to cite two examples, along with the apparent keister-kissing laid on by Aurthur herself.
In major profiles of this type, no statement by industry stars will ever be questioned or challenged. No performance of high credulity will ever be left behind.
Keister-kissing headline included, Aurthur's profile begins as shown. Tell the truth! Do you believe that this car crash actually happened?
Who Is Lydia Tár? Cate Blanchett and Todd Field Lift the Curtain on Their Oscar-Season Masterpiece
Cate Blanchett is not an actor who skims a screenplay when she’s considering it. “I read scripts very, very slowly,” she says, “but this one I read incredibly quickly...She turns to Todd Field, the writer-director of the film in question, “Tár,” and says, “And you crashed your car.”
On this chilly Sunday afternoon in mid-November, Blanchett has made the long trip to Los Angeles from Australia, where she’s been in production. She’s here to attend the Governors Awards as a formidable Oscar contender, having given one of the most rapturously reviewed performances of her career as Lydia Tár—troubled, lesbian, world-famous conductor of a major orchestra in Berlin. She’s sitting next to Field, who, it’s true, got into a bad car accident trying to get the screenplay to Blanchett. Field hadn’t made a feature since 2006’s “Little Children”—and, unbeknownst to Blanchett, had written “Tár” only for her, during a 12-week sprint in the lockdown stage of early COVID.
In September 2020, Field was driving while on the phone with Blanchett’s agent, Hylda Queally, who’d just delivered the devastating news that her client was booked for the next three years and wouldn’t be able to star in his movie. And then he crashed.
“I think because Hylda felt sad for me doing that, she agreed that if I wasn’t in too bad a physical condition, I could get home and send her the script, and she would read it,” Field says.
That “Tár” started with a car crash feels right, maybe even poetic...
Do you believe that Tár really started with some such car crash? Granted, it's a Perfect Story—but did it really occur?
Certainly, it may have happened, but there's no obvious way to know. There's also little way to know what's happening in major parts of Tár—until you read the major reviews, where no such problem is noted.
The kissing of keisters is general through Aurthur's profile. Todd Field kisses Blanchett's keister. Blanchett then kisses his.
Aurthur kisses both their keisters. The stars are looking for Oscar wins, and Aurthur has landed a major profile with two major industry stars.
To our ear, another secret may start to dribble out in Aurthur's profile: this screenplay may be somewhat challenging. Ther are many such suggestions within this profile, and in the overview Aurthur provided when she recently published the screenplay.
(In that overview: "On repeat viewing, Cate Blanchett’s performance as the famous conductor Lydia Tár deepens and becomes more complicated, beautiful and upsetting, as the enigmatic layers of Field’s screenplay continue to unfold for the audience.")
There are "enigmatic layers" to this Oscar-nominated screenplay? Back in Aurthur's profile of Fields and Blanchett, we're quickly told this as well:
"For the most devoted fans of 'Tár,' it’s a puzzle, a treasure hunt, with clues so subtle you have to freeze the frame to catch them."
Say what? You have to freeze the frame of the film to solve the puzzle, to win the treasure hunt?
Question: Can you freeze the frame of a film in a large movie theater? For people who aren't its most devoted fans, the film may be less a puzzle, more an annoying miasma.
At any rate, Aurthur seems to be noting the difficulty of the screenplay at various points in her piece. You can go on a treasure hunt for such hints. For today, we'll post only this:
AURTHUR: The film’s acting ensemble worked with Field on the backstories of their characters’ relationships so there would be a textured, lived-in feeling to them. Noémie Merlant plays Lydia’s beleaguered assistant, Francesca—an aspiring conductor herself, and one of her boss’s former lovers—and she says it was easy to channel her character’s relationship with Lydia: “I used my admiration for Cate.”
“She’s still in love, my character,” Merlant continues. “She needs time to realize that Lydia is not in love anymore with her.”
The film doesn’t give you easy footholds into understanding what any of those relationships are,” Blanchett says. “So we absolutely had to go into the nuances. And it’s almost like we overwrote all of the scenes in our heads—and then you cut out all the dialogue until it’s sort of like a haiku.”
Merlant is kissing Blanchett's keister at the start of that passage. At the end, Blanchett seems to be saying that they cut out so much dialogue out of the film that a lot of the scenes are "sort of like a haiku."
For us, the film was sometimes sort of like a haiku with the middle seven syllables missing. For more literate students of film, mileage may conceivably differ—but we saw no critic who warned the rubes that this film would be hard to follow unless you could freeze its frames, making time stand still.
We'll take a guess:
The rubes who actually went to the film produced zero "word of mouth." Their silence helped lead this film to the fall.
Tár crashed and burned at the box office. The critics adore it still, and there's no reason why they can't or shouldn't.
But when we first tried to watch this film, we thought we were seeing a minor example of a much larger problem which is currently bringing our society down, much as Lydia Tár crashed to the earth.
Like Cock Robin himself, our society is slipsliding toward perdition. In no small measure thanks to the ideology of our own blue tribe, we're dividing ourselves, again and again, into ever smaller siloed demographic groups.
Each group has its favorite reporters and friends, and its favorite Storylines.
Each group massages logic and fact to serve itself enormous helpings of Story. Very few invidious comparisons seem to get left far behind.
In some small way, is it possible that our nation's upper-end critics are one such siloed group, operating without awareness of, or perhaps regard for, the outlooks and understanding of us the rubes? We think that was one of our reactions when we first tried to watch this film a million years ago.
E pluribus, our modern culture just keeps giving us more such groups. Our high-end critics can't seem to see how this film will appear within the zeitgeist of us the rubes. Either that or, for whatever reason, they know that they mustn't tell.
Out of pluribus, we keep building additional silos around additional subgroups. Can a large, major nation really expect to function in this way? We'll answer your question as always do:
Go ahead—take a good look around!