GROUPS V. GROUPS: A telephone talk concerning Tár!


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


  1. Tre opening credits are long and boring!

    1. Are you suggesting that Somerby didn't even watch any of the movie, quitting 12 minutes in?

    2. I cannot recall any interesting opening credits on any film. I think people don't care about them, unless it is their own name on the screen.

    3. You'll understand when you see this movie. I hear what you are saying but these are actually interesting in a small way, but also long and boring.

    4. For interesting opening credits see Saul and Elaine Bass.

    5. The James Bond movies had inventive credits designed by Maurice Binder.


  2. tl;dr
    "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."

    Oh, dear. You, dear Bob, are clinically insane, we're sorry to say. No question about it...

    ...well, okay, to be fair: it may not be insanity. Could be severe autism. Anywho, your head ain't right, man.

  3. "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"

    Why indeed? Why would Somerby invest so much time in doing any research? Why would he care and why would he waste his time this way?

    He never explains that. But the answer seems to be clear. He wants more fodder to use to beat up on those he dislikes, which apparently include all people with tastes different than his own, with different interests, experiences and backgrounds.

    Implying that critics have all joined together to lie to him, is fairly paranoid -- on the level of conspiracy theory paranoia. Implying, if not outright speculating, that there is a high culture educated class of people who exist only to like the unwatchable, so that the lower classes will feel inferior -- that too is very paranoid.

    I have a list of things I've never enjoyed watching, doing, hearing. My solution is not to blame the others who claim they do enjoy such things -- I simply do not watch, do or listen to such things.

    We are a diverse society. There are bound to be unfamiliar things to experience if one goes outside the buble of youth. It is fair to sample and then reject what does not resonate, but that doesn't mean it is wrong for others to enjoy different stuff. Nor are they demeaning you when you do not enjoy the same things. Nor are they pretending to like things you find no enjoyment of. Nor is it a plot to classify people as high or low culture or right or wrong or smart or dumb. It is just difference.

    Things I do not like: electrified country music, rap, heavy metal, fusion, electronic music, discordant modern music.

    Things I do like that many others do not: opera, bluegrass, classical music (esp chamber music), show tunes, Bollywood.

    Things I do not like: modern art, literary novels (usually too sad), romance novels, spy and military fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction, self-help books, cookbooks, decorating books, how-to-fix-it books.

    Thing I do like that many people do not: English literature (esp Dickens, Thomas Hardy), history, biography (even of non-celebrities), sci-fi and fantasy, politics, historical romance, books on bridge (the card game).

    Things I do not like: action-adventure movies, anime and manga, porn, car chase films, martial-arts (except Jackie Chan), rom-coms, gross-out teen films, sad films about old people, dog movies, Woody Allen movies, Almodovar movies, Tarrantino films, coming of age movies.

    Things I do like that many people do not: foreign films with subtitles, Bollywood, Jackie Chan films, films made from English literature (except Jane Austen and Bridgerton), British feel-good films, documentaries, indie films.

    To each his own, but why does Somerby have to make such a big deal out of his own likes and dislikes, and why does he consider it a plot when the environment is not arranged to his tastes? Those with so-called high brow tastes are not calling others stupid, and they go off to their out-of-the-way art houses to see the films they like, without troubling anyone at the Multiplex. So why the fuss?

    I see this as Somerby furthering his right wing agenda by trying to widen the culture war gulf, suggesting that critics are laughing at the low-brow Trump supporters and mocking confederates with Trump flags on their 50K pick up trucks with the balls hanging over the license plates. But dang it -- they are funny in their toxic masculine display of affluence and arrogance. But none of us on the left waste time laughing at them -- when there are so many good films to go see in solitude at those empty movie houses. When did this stop being a free country in terms of movie watching?

    1. Why would Somerby need to research anything when the film is fiction?

    2. @1:48PM - perhaps cherry-pick is a more accurate term

  4. No one has mentioned the score. Might someone have enjoyed hearing classical piano?

  5. "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."

    There is a difference between being a classical music buff and someone who enjoys classical music. It may be that Somerby is neither. I had a friend who used to hang acoustical material from his living room walls in order hear the recordings properly in his apartment. I couldn't tell the difference myself, but I still enjoyed the music.

    It sounds like Somerby may be undereducated in classical music and thus not care about the initial interview. I avoided the film because I don't much like Kate Blanchett in any of her films, so I had no expectation of liking Tar. But it seems Somerby doesn't like her either. Or perhaps Somerby cannot conceive of any woman being as accomplished as Chang expects the audience to accept. That would hamper his ability to find interest in the first scenes of the film. Why doesn't Somerby admit his own contribution to his dislike and inability to understand the film? I have admitted mine, but I don't feel any compulsion to explore a movie further once I have decided it isn't my thing. Why does Somerby -- we do not have a culture critic decreeing that all citizens MUST watch anything.

    It seems to me Somerby is only here to denigrate those who do like such films, including film critics, but also those who might find it credible that a woman could be a successful musician or conductor. Maybe Somerby feels he will be blamed as part of a musical establishment that grinds women down and makes them mad when they try to break into a long time boys club? I haven't seen the film, so I don't know if that is what the film says, but perhaps Somerby, by aggressively attacking not only the movie but those who like it, is trying to defend against accusations of misogyny, while also bashing critics and high culture enthusiasts.

    Notice how casually Somerby throws in the "her" as he describes his friend's recommendation of the film. He wants us to know he has a female friend (I would have doubted it), but he also is perhaps planning to make this a gendered argument at some point, suggesting that the problem is that Blanchett and women are not believable as musical geniuses.

    Because Somerby doesn't say anything very explicitly, one must guess, but maybe it is just that Somerby is again in over his head and blames everyone else for his own misunderstandings. In any case, male entitlement reeks from Somerby's complaints.

  6. "When we spoke again with our interlocutor, we offered our condolences to her and her whole party."

    Sounds a bit like Somerby is piqued because he wasn't invited, and he is now saying "well, I wouldn't have wanted to go anyway" since the film is so bad.

    Does anyone here call any of their friends "interlocutors"? Remember that she probably only asked him if he had seen the film yet.

    interlocutor definition: "a person who takes part in a dialogue or conversation"

    Is Somerby trying to demonstrate that he is high brow by using such language? He sounds like a cow trying to speak English by memorizing big words, not like a person talking about a friend who called to chat. In other words, the word choice is ridiculous, as is everything else that follows from it. Pretentious Somerby attacking critics for being pretentious in their recommendations.

    Somerby is being an asshole again. And note how he denies all assholery in the very act of committing it! He isn't challenging Chang's sincerity, he claims, just all the other critics.

  7. "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."

    Low box office for a film about classical music shouldn't be a surprise when classical music itself has always struggled to survive financially, relying on donor support not box office receipts to keep itself alive.

    "Classic FM spoke to classical music venues and ensembles to learn how the the music industry is struggling to keep their heads above water this winter, and whether there is a light at the end of the tunnel."

    American Composers Forum says:

    "As a community, we have made measurable strides over the last few years in supporting underrepresented composers, diversifying the voices we champion, and trying to build alternatives to the top-down, stylistically-narrow, white-male-centered culture that was the norm in classical music for centuries. But my experience has been that under these positive currents, you don’t have to dig far down to see musicians walking away from the creative art they have poured time, blood, sweat, and tears into. And very often when we press to understand why, the answer is money and opportunity. These two things are so inextricably intertwined that it often feels like we are afraid to say out loud what so many of us have seen or experienced – that the workings of money and opportunity in classical music present an insurmountable obstacle that pushes talented musicians out."

    A film about NASCAR would attract many NASCAR fans because there are lots of them. How can one expect a film about classical music to attract fans when classical music performances themselves have trouble attracting an audience in the US? Rich people support the arts. That has been true throughout time, when composers had royal and wealthy sponsors and did not rely on popular appreciation to survive.

    1. Amadeus.

      I don't know why I read these comments.

    2. Amadeus is a superficial but amusing biopic about a household name, Mozart. It has fart jokes in it. Not exactly a contradiction to the thesis of @11:44.

    3. 12:18: I don’t know either. It’s more unclear why you respond.

    4. Amadeus was a fable, not a biography.

  8. A big decide between critical reaction and the publics reaction is not unusual, and they run both ways. Believe it or not “Porkys” was not loved by critics and did not get great reviews. Nobody ever figured out why the well received “The Right Stuff” bombed. Examples abound. Bob is just afraid to write about the moral collapse on the right.

    1. Unintelligible, even with "divide" substituted.

    2. 12:23: It was perfectly intelligible. If you didn’t understand it, that’s on you.

    3. That’s oK, 12:23 is a little slow, always had been.

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. Meanwhile, M&Ms has capitulated to Tucker Carlson and will be removing the shoes. That's the real divide, people who use cultural trivia to flex their muscles and exert power over others, not those who have obscure interests, such as stamp collectors and classical music buffs (I've heard some people actually play such instruments despite the public's total lack of interest). Is square dancing really more politically pure? Ask Somerby.

    And where is the reliable commenter who asks us why Somerby never discusses class issues? Isn't this one? Very few people can afford to spend $25 at the movies on a dubious film that may not even be interesting. Somerby is perhaps blaming critics for wasting the money of every-day Joes, but such folk already know they will be happier watching Avatar (spoiler: lots of stuff blows up).

    1. Somerby has comfortable housing, plenty of food and medical care, On Demand, and was able to rent the movie for the low price of $5.99!

      He cares about the working poor, dang it. So much so that he writes posts about … renting and watching movies.

    2. M&Ms are better than movies.

    3. Only because Tucker stopped M&Ms from using electric stoves to teach Kindergartners CRT.

    4. Remember when CRT meant cathode ray tube?

  11. “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.”

    Why not doubt Chang? He may very well be part of the conspiracy of elitist movie critics giving rave reviews to this movie.

    It’s unclear whether the critics get together on a Zoom call to decide their picks and pans, or if it’s just movie critic brainwaves traveling through the ether.

    At any rate, Somerby tells us that, sure, lack of popularity isn’t a sign that a film is bad, but, dang it, if my friends didn’t like it, I didn’t like it, and the general public didn’t like it, he’s quite suspicious….

    Also, did those same critics agree to praise “Top Gun: Maverick”, the top hit of 2022, giving it generally favorable reviews?

    It’s such a mystery. Damn those cosseted elites critics, who conspire to praise flops AND blockbusters, while “walling themselves off from” society by … liking movies that I don’t like.


  12. I can’t help recalling Somerby’s rants about “The Shape of Water”, six years ago, where he asserted that the movie’s purpose was to show contempt for conservatives. And he also claimed to detect something fishy when the “east coast” critics did not have the movie on their own top ten lists, yet the “west coast” Academy chose it as best picture. It also did ok at the box office.

  13. “Most people.” Christ. How did Bob get to be such a dolt? I know some very regular type folk who liked the movie a lot more than me. There is no accounting for taste or the way a given person is going to respond. The pain the liberal world is inflicting on Bob’s redneck friends ( a general impression of what any viewer is in for is available in reviews beforehand) is to him a much worse affront than Jan 6th.

    1. Somerby spent a week a while back gushing over Ken Burns’ country music documentary. He accused liberals of mocking what he called the “music of Trump country”, without acknowledging (or being aware of the fact) that some country artists are liberals, that liberal music critics generally rave about artists like Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, and Dolly Parton, and that rural states don’t consist 100% of country music fans. Or conservatives.

      He also fails to point out how famous rural areas are for walling themselves off from outside influences, or progress.

    2. I notice also that TDH didn't have a word to say about the Ken Burns documentary about the US and the Holocaust.

      BTW, Ken Burns is a liberal. Why would he make a multipart documentary about a subject he thinks is mockable? Did TDH ever explain that seeming contradiction?

    3. As I recall, Somerby did have things to say about it, especially Anne Frank. Just not any of the stuff about how the US didn't want to help the Jews seeking asylum. Somerby defended Burns from the accusations of Tucker Carlson.

  14. And we might as well come clean: spending a couple of hours with a lesbian character might make Bob feel he is being groomed.

    1. Isn't he a bit old for that? And the wrong sex? Or has the right redefined the word "groomed" again?

    2. I assumed Bob just didn't like the Jew shit due to his upbringing. Of course his over-lizard won't let these workings of his lizard rise to consciousness...

  15. In the section of the movie that made Bob start fast forwarding, Tar is talking about Alma Mahler. I was sort of able to follow this because of a satirical song written about her by Tom Lehrer, a professor and graduate of Harvard. There’s an irony sandwich for ya

  16. I liked it. It was very psychological and I didn't find it slow even. You'd think a lizard-watcher like Bob would appreciate such a lizard-themed movie.

    Protip: you're supposed to see how pretentious and obnoxious the the character is during the interview. Maybe if I'd had media interviews I unconsciously was ashamed of it would've triggered me...