TUESDAY, JANUARY 24, 2023
A fire bell in the night: Long ago and far away, we received a telephone call concerning the critically acclaimed feature film, Tár.
In fact, the telephone call to which we refer most likely occurred in November. Our interlocutor had seen the film at a movie theater in the Hudson Valley with a group of her friends.
It seemed clear that they had all disliked the film, perhaps to the point of having been offended in some way. But our correspondent wasn't real clear about the reason for this apparent reaction.
Two weeks ago, we saw that Tár had become available, through On Demand, for what seemed to be the surprisingly low price of $5.99 for a two-day rental. We began to watch around 7 p.m. on Friday, January 13.
By minute 14 on our rental—maybe 12 minutes into the actual film—we were already fast-forwarding. We quit watching the film that night after a bit more than an hour.
The next day, we started over, after getting a clearer idea of what was apparently taking place in the widely praised film.
Good grief! If we had gone to see Tár at The Charles, we would never have stayed all the way to the end.
After an hour of watching at home, we had little idea of what was happening in the film. Even after watching the film several times over the past two weekends; even after schooling ourselves concerning its alleged contents; even after reading the official screenplay, which was recently published by Variety; there are still parts of the film we can't quite see or explain.
After our first weekend of viewing, we offered condolences to the friend who sat through Tár in that Hudson Valley theater.
It seemed to us that watching Tár would be a painful and maddening experience for the typical moviegoer, even for the typical moviegoer attracted to a "highbrow film." In support of our judgment on this matter, we'll go ahead and post these excerpts from the leading authority on this topic, as we did in yesterday's report:
On Rotten Tomatoes, 90% of 283 critics' reviews are positive, with an average rating of 8.3/10. The website's consensus reads, "Led by the soaring melody of Cate Blanchett's note-perfect performance, Tár riffs brilliantly on the discordant side of fame-fueled power." Metacritic...assigned the film a score of 92 out of 100, based on 59 critics, indicating "universal acclaim."
The film, in general release and about to be released internationally, has to date made 6.3 million dollars...
The New York Times estimated the total budget of the film at $35 million and argued that Tár and similar highbrow films "failed to find an audience big enough to justify their costs." Some commentators attributed the poor box office performance to the film's subject matter alienating a general audience, while others noted a larger trend in art house releases faring poorly during their cinematic runs following the COVID-19 pandemic.
In fact: according to Box Office Mojo, Tár seems to have earned $5.9 million in its North American theatrical run, which is now essentially over.
Even allowing for the ways moviegoing has changed in the wake of the covid pandemic, it seems surprising to us that a film which received such widespread critical acclaim could crash and burn to that extent at the domestic box office.
Why did this widely lauded film crash and burn at the gate in the way it did? Why were we ourselves fast-forwarding after only 12 minutes? Why did we give up after an hour, deciding we'd have to conduct some background research before we could work our way through the film?
Also, why did so many high-end critics praise the film as they did, without commenting on the rather difficult terrain it offers the moviegoer?
As we fought our way through such questions, we thought that we had wandered into an allegory for our times—for an age in which a very large, continental nation has been devolving into an increasing array of smaller, siloed groups.
"Something there is that doesn't love a wall," the poet once famously said. Can a giant nation expect to function as a collection of walled-off groups?
We're going to guess that the answer is no. If you think the answer is yes, we're going to quote Bruce Springsteen again:
Go ahead! "Take a good look around."
Tomorrow, we're going to start to try to tell you why we began fast-forwarding. For today, we're going to show you some excerpts from Justin Chang's highly articulate review of Tár in the Los Angeles Times.
Justin Chang is very bright—and he loved the film. "A lot of people I've spoken to about Tár were thrown off by the ending, even those who love the movie as much as I do," he said in a review for NPR's Fresh Air.
Chang reviewed Tár for NPR and for the Los Angeles Times. Here are some of the things he said in his longer newspaper review:
CHANG (10/6/22): It’s not until an hour into “Tلr” that we see the title character—a classical conductor known the world over as Lydia Tلr and played by an unimprovable Cate Blanchett—do what she was born to do. It’s an astonishing performance nestled inside another: In one shot, Lydia towers like a colossus over the podium and the camera, her face visible only to the musicians seated off-screen, her arms spread wide as if she were embracing or perhaps possessing the world. Classical music buffs, who will have a particular field day with this movie, will also have sharper observations than mine on the merits of Blanchett’s posture and baton technique. But this actor doesn’t even need to lift a baton, or approach a podium, to make us feel we’re in the presence of a singularly gifted musical body and mind.
A lesser movie—and one of the weird pleasures of “” is that you can’t stop imagining the lesser movie it so easily might have been—would have introduced Lydia in full-blown maestro mode, so as to convince us of her genius at the outset. But writer-director Todd Field takes that genius as a given and trusts we’ll do the same; he respects the intelligence of the audience as surely as he does the magnificence of his star. And that respect is clear from the long, teasing reveal of an opening sequence: an onstage Q&A moderated by New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik (playing himself) that ushers us, with tasteful chuckles and radio-smooth applause, into Lydia’s rarefied cultural sphere.
Full disclosure! It was during "the long, teasing reveal of [that] opening sequence"—that introduction into Lydia’s "rarefied cultural sphere"—that our initial act of fast forwarding occurred.
For the record, we aren't "classical music buffs," but Chang says he isn't one either.
At any rate, what was "long" for Chang was interminable for us—and we'd have to say that that opening sequence, and several others which quickly followed, struck us as very strange.
Chang felt that Field was showing that he respects the intelligence of the audience. Our own reaction is substantially different—but at any rate, Chang also offers this:
CHANG: And now Field, bringing a 16-year absence from filmmaking to a well-deserved end, has imagined Lydia’s inner and outer worlds with a clarity and rigor that makes 158 minutes fly by like a dream. If “time is the essential piece of interpretation,” as Lydia claims early on, then this filmmaker’s own mastery of cinematic time is worth singling out. So, for that matter, are the cool, somber precision of Florian Hoffmeister’s images, the fluidity of Monika Willi’s editing and the sleek, luxurious chill of Marco Bittner Rosser’s production design. If there’s a reason this movie flows so absorbingly, even with its decidedly andante pacing, it may be that Field’s storytelling draws no artificial distinction between the big and the small, the important and the mundane; everything we see and hear matters. And because each moment serves at least two purposes—“Tár” is both a superb character study and a highly persuasive piece of world building—you may well find yourself marveling at Field’s economy.
To Chang, the pacing was andante. On our first attempt to this widely praised film, the pacing was unbearably slow—and we almost thought we might be hearing a fire bell for our country, off somewhere in the night.
Justin Chang is very bright, and he's an experienced reviewer. For him, the 158 minutes flew by. For us, we had to watch Tár again and again to figure out what was occurring.
When we spoke again with our interlocutor, we offered our condolences to her and her whole party. It seemed to us that going into a theater to try to watch this (lengthy) film would turn out to be, for most people, a frustrating, painful experience.
Lizard brains may tend to insist that we have to be wrong. In support of our reaction, we'll off this evidence once again:
Among high-end critics, this film was praised to the skies—and beyond. But based on the North American gate, we'll guess that no one ever got on the phone and told their friends that they just had to go see it.
Full disclosure: We aren't saying that Chang's assessments are "wrong." We're saying what Thoreau said, right at the start of Walden, concerning everyone else:
I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience. Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men’s lives; some such account as he would send to his kindred from a distant land; for if he has lived sincerely, it must have been in a distant land to me.
We're not entirely sure what that means. But it seems to mean that a sincere reaction, described sincerely, will always come as a surprise.
We don't doubt the sincerity of Chang's reaction to this Oscar-nominated film. We'll admit that, based upon past experience, we're a bit suspicious of the general critical reaction, a point we'll touch upon before the week is done.
That said, we don't think a giant nation can long endure if its population separates itself into an array of disparate groups walled off from one another. We'll also say this about Tár :
We don't think we've ever seen a major film which worked so hard to make its contents inaccessible to "the mass of men" (and women!) who might show up in a movie theater, or pay six dollars at home.
Tomorrow: Concerning the andante paving of that long, teasing reveal