THURSDAY, JANUARY 26, 2023
A nation of siloed groups: How hard can it be to follow the action in the critically-acclaimed—and Oscar-nominated—very long feature film, Tár?
The film goes on for a very long time (158 minutes). In our experience, it's also quite hard to follow.
Forgive us as we walk you through one minor event in the film—a minor event, or set of events, which we finally deciphered during our second weekend of viewing.
The events in question occur near the start of the very long (fictional) film. It seems to us that they help to raise an important question about one siloed, very American, contemporary population group.
Aa we've noted, the movie opens with a series of frequently highbrow discussions. In the third of these four discussions, the famous conductor Lydia Tár is luncheoning in New York City with Eliot Kaplan, a philanthropist with whom she runs a foundation and a would-be conductor himself.
Their conversation jumps all about, as will happen with conversations between close associates. For better or worse, the conversation is littered with references which will almost surely be obscure, if not opaque, to almost all moviegoers.
Eventually, it becomes clear that Kaplan wants to know how Tár managed to pull so much "from the strings in the last movement" of some unspecified composition in some apparently recent performance with "the Israeli Phil."
(The piece in question may be "Mahler Three," whatever that is.)
"How did you get them there? Was it the hall? The players?" Eliot asks, as you can in the official screenplay.
Tár doesn't seem to want to share her secret, but so what? Eliot continues to ask for a chance to review her "notes," whatever they might be. Along the way, this happens:
KAPLAN: What time are you heading back tomorrow?
TÁR: Francesca’s looking into flights [from New York back to Berlin].
ELIOT: Call her off. Leave when you like.
TÁR: You don’t have to do that.
ELIOT: My motives are far from altruistic. Just a peek. One peek at your performing score?
Eventually, Tár seems to give in to Eliot's request. (Moviegoers may not understand that fact, based on the limited dialogue). She seems to say that she'll let Eliot see her "performing score" later that day, at 5:15 p.m.
From there, the lunchmates engage in some derisive insider chatter about the playing technique of someone named Sebastian. Among other alleged problems, Sebastian "truly is Mr. Tempo-rubato," and he's also in the grip of "nostalgia for pre-war Kalmus miniature scores."
As the luncheon scene ends, Tár finally seems to tell Eliot the secret of her success with the Israeli Phil. It was apparently based on "free bowing," whatever the heck that is.
From there, the movie moves to a lengthy insidery discussion during a class at the Juilliard. Before long, the next morning arrives. Tár and an assistant, in a car, execute this grumbling exchange:
TÁR (not happy): When were you informed of this?
FRANCESCA: Just this morning. Mr. Kaplan was very apologetic. I was able to get us on the seven a.m. you like through Munich. The connection’s short, but special services are standing by.
"Where are things with DG?" the unhappy Tár now asks. No one explains what DG means, though we eventually figured it out.
We were finally able to decipher these events, though not until our second weekend of watching this very long film. As best we can tell at this time, what has happened is this:
The wealthy Eliot has told Tár, at the start of that posted exchange, that she can fly back to Berlin, whenever she likes, on his private jet. Perhaps in a bit of a trade, she then agrees that he can review her performing score later that afternoon.
The following day, it turns out that the offer of the private flight has somehow fallen through. Tár is grumbling with Francesca, her aide, as they're headed to the airport to take a commercial flight.
Is that what actually happened there? We're fairly sure that it is, though we wouldn't bet grandmother's farm on this interpretation.
We'll also guess that few moviegoers will understand this upon a first viewing—and this is just one tiny example of the million-and-one parts of this film which are quite hard to decipher, disentangle, digest.
For the record, this question of the private jet has absolutely nothing to do with insider technicalities of classical music.
We'll guess that the technicalities of classical music create constant problems of comprehension for the typical moviegoer. That said, the film is also hard to follow on the basis of simple private events in the life of Lydia Tár and those with whom she's surrounded as her brilliant career in classical music—and among the Shipibo-Konibo—comes crashing to the ground.
The fictional Tár's brilliant career comes crashing down in the course of this very long film. The film Tár also came crashing down when it arrived in North American movie theaters last fall.
We're going to guess that the film received exactly zero (good) "word of mouth" from the people who actually showed up to watch it. That might explain why a film which upper-end critics had praised to the skies crashed and burned at the box office in the manner shown:
Domestic box office, Best Picture nominees
Top Gun: Maverick: $718.7 million
Avatar: The Way of Water: $598.4 million
Elvis: $151.0 million
Everything Everywhere All At Once: $70.0 million
The Fabelmans: $15.0 million (to date)
The Banshees of Inisherin: $9.4 million
Tár: $5.9 million
If Elvis hasn't quite left the building; Tár barely got in the door.
At the New York Times and then at Variety, this box office failure has been written off as the fate of "highbrow films" in the age of covid. That said, we'll guess that the bizarre obscurity of this film is a rather large part of the package.
Full disclosure! In a few of the provinces, including Variety, some writers have possibly begun to hint at the difficulty of this Oscar-nominated film and its Oscar-nominated screenplay. Tomorrow, we'll look at the fleeting admissions which can perhaps be found in this aspic-kissing Variety profile, in which, or at least as its headline insists:
Cate Blanchett and Todd Field Lift the Curtain on Their Oscar-Season Masterpiece
In that aspic-kissing profile, Variety kisses the aspic of Fields and Blanchett as Fields and Blanchett bang the drum in search of Oscar nominations and/or wins.
A few weeks later, the Oscar nods came. For us, a question lingers:
Why did so many mainstream critics fail to note a fairly obvious fact? Why did they fail to say that this very lengthy feature film may be extremely hard to decipher, even for those who may jump at the chance to see a "highbrow film?"
Why did the nation's high-end critics fail to mention this fact as they spilled with praise for this rather strange film? Is it possible that they failed to notice this problem as they sat and watched the film, perhaps with press kits in their hands and sugarplums dancing in their heads about future interview sessions?
Meanwhile, how about this?
Is it possible that we're the ones who are wrong? Is it possible that the feature film Tár really isn't especially hard to decipher?
Everything's possible all at once, but in defense of our supposition, we'll offer those box office figures again. Tomorrow, we'll show you the peculiar semi-admissions which turned up in that ascot-kissing Variety profile.
Once again, we direct you to those remarkably puny gate receipts! As we do, we pose a question about our failing nation's high-end, erudite film critics:
Our very large nation is rapidly devolving into a large array of siloed demographic groups. From that, these questions follow:
Can a very large nation really hope to function that way? Also, did the critics, journalists all, in this and perhaps in other cases, maybe perhaps and possibly behave as one such cosseted group?
Tomorrow: E pluribus, even more of the same