GROUPS V. GROUPS: What did the critics fail to say?


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


  1. The movie is a dream she had about being cancelled. The events mostly didn't really happen. Like her neighbor's apartment is small and decrepit compared to hers. This was because she was dreaming.

  2. "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 "

    When you watch films based on comic books, there are always things that are unexplained but known to those who have grown up reading those comics. In addition, the super hero movies tend not to make their dialog easy to hear amidst explosions and the chaos of buildings falling down or whatever action is part of the film. It is often hard even distinguishing the characters from each other, especially ones who come from other or previous films in a series.

    An afficionado of DC/Marvel films would laugh at these criticisms, just as those who are familiar with classical music find Somerby's peeves to be overblown. You can either make an effort or skip the film, but expecting a filmmaker to dumb down a film to reach the lowest level of preparation is unfair.

    Yesterday I listened to the guys on Pod Save America debate whether they needed to explain what the debt ceiling was, before discussing the Congressional concerns about raising it. They finally did explain, but such choices are part of decision making by director and writer in any film. If Somerby doesn't like his own state of ignorance, he should know how to remedy that. Whining about movies isn't going to change anything, and people are not wrong for disagreeing with him about adding more explanation. It would lengthen the film to do so, and it would bore the people who know such stuff to tears. I almost turned off Pod Save America because it was boring me, to have them explain stuff I already know. In a movie, it interferes with the pacing of the film and delays the narrative.

    If Tar was dreaming and the entire film is a dream sequence, that is an important piece of information that Somerby has been withholding in order to make the film seem worse. That is very dirty pool, a major thumb on the scales.

  3. "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."

    It is not funny or cute to say aspic-kissing instead of ass-kissing when that is what is obviously meant. Why is Somerby coy like this? He is a grown man and his affectation of daintiness is annoying.

    Somerby doesn't like it that a film which he dislikes (for no good reasons) is getting a lot of positive attention. There is no evidence that Variety is kissing anyone's ass by writing a positive review.

    Somerby has not made a very good case that this is a bad film. He also has not explained why it bothers him so much. I tend to agree with the commenter yesterday who pointed out that Somerby is not likely to enjoy a film about an accomplished middle-aged woman who is at the top of her field and knows things that he does not. But why is Somerby working so hard to protest the positive attention by critics? He exults in the poor box-office receipts (although obviously the film was snapped up by streaming services), as if it were personal to him, that this film should suffer for its temerity because it has no business being considered for an Oscar when Somerby doesn't like it!

    He didn't have to watch it, even once. He doesn't have to understand or like it. This is a free country. He doesn't have to watch the Oscars either. A vendetta against a film that others like is mean-spirited, but makes others wonder what put a bug up his ass to this extent. This is a disproportionate response to something that doesn't materially affect anyone except the people involved in the film. So why does Somerby care?

    1. I appreciate the humor but:

      GERMANIC --- OLD ENGLISH --- aers
      DUTCH --- aars
      GERMAN --- Arsch
      ENGLISH --- ass

      "Arse is the British slang word referring to (1) the human or animal posterior, or (2) a stupid person. Ass is the American equivalent. Arse is an old word, with origins going all the way back through Old English to the language's Germanic roots."

    2. The movie is boring as fuck as is the above dipshit, cuntrag troll commenter.

    3. You’re excused. You can leave now.

    4. One wouldn't want one to be coy, would one?

    5. Are you aware that a cuntrag is a menstrual product? Kind of a misogynist putdown, dontcha think?

  4. There is some irony that Somerby, who is slippery and elusive in stating his opinions, is now puzzling over a film that is equally slippery about telling viewers what is real and what is dream, hallucination or delusion. The filmmaker leaves it vague, just as Somerby leaves so much vague here, having everything both ways and committing to no stable point of view.

    Here is an analysis of the possibilities intended in the movie Tar:

    "I will go to the mat to say that reading the “plot” of Tár literally is a mistake. For long stretches of the film, we have exited the realm of realism and are firmly in the world of the supernatural. Tár is not truly a cancel culture movie. Tár is a kind of ghost story, in which we’re so deeply embedded in Lydia Tár’s psyche that nearly everything that appears onscreen is up for debate."

    Somerby sounds frustrated to be unable to take Tar literally. We often feel that same way here, where Somerby is not only coy but deliberately contradictory: "It could be true, then again, we don't know whether it is, and anything is possible," is Somerby's favorite litany. Having to make sense out of Tar seems like a punishment that suits Somerby's daily crimes.

  5. "Can a very large nation really hope to function that way?"

    Yes, if you allow Democracy to work as intended. It is tailor-made for resolving competing interests and determining action in the midst of disagreement. Our nation was founded out of disparate competing colonies with different economics, nationalities, languages, religions, and regional needs. Our government allows this multiculturalism to reach decisions, but only as long as the various peoples respect the process and do not attempt to interfere with it in order to gain personal power.

    Somerby apparently objects to diversity, but he doesn't say what he thinks the solution should be. Is he urging that we get rid of all those who are different? How exactly would that work? Is Somerby aware that part of Hitler's grand plan was to expel different nationalities from countries in Europe in order to produce greater homogeneity, not just in Germany but also in France, Italy, Austria, and the Eastern European states. He put people on trains to relocate them, not just to send undesirables to camps. The displacement of non-Jews in Europe was huge at the end of the war, as people tried to return to their pre-war homes. Ironically, the people who helped rebuild Berlin after the bombings were middle Eastern, largely Turks, who settled there are now part of a more diverse population in Germany's largest city. They were construction workers, not refugees, coming for the jobs and staying to rebuild Germany.

    However, I do agree that America would be stronger if we sent Ted Cruz back to Canada, where his Cuban parents immigrated. And all those Irish and English transportees are not the best people, some are rapists, murderers, but some are good people (Trump says).

    This is one of Somerby's more idiotic ideas.

  6. Classical music is our heritage. We should know all about it.

    1. I don’t know a lot about classical music, that does not make it impossible to follow the film. Bob is a reverse snobbery snob.

  7. "Our very large nation is rapidly devolving into a large array of siloed demographic groups. "

    The word devolving implies that we were once unified. That has never been true.

    The word siloed is an odd word to apply to people. It generally refers to processes and communication:

    siloed definition: (of a system, process, department, etc.) isolated from others.
    "managers have been told to break down the walls between siloed applications"

    Somerby seems to think that the problem is that people are not talking to each other. I disagree. I think the problem is that people disagree when they talk. That is bound to happen when one side engages in untruthful discourse and spreads disinformation. It is bound to happen when one side does not talk in good faith with the other. That is what is happening now in Congress and in the right wing media. The right has decided that it is in their best interests to avoid cooperating with the left, to seek power to override others and to force compliance with their own agenda, which does not consider the needs of anyone except themselves.

    That has nothing to do with being siloed (i.e., kept separate). It has to do with abusing the system and ignoring others as people. There are blue tribe members in every state, just as there are red tribe members in every state. We are not living separately from each other. Nor are the many other forms of diversity being "siloed" in our culture. The problem is that one group (Republicans) wish to operate as if others did not exist.

    I believe this problem will resolve itself when the right learns that it doesn't have sufficient power to operate on its own and is forced to cooperate to achieve goals. That is inevitable, but it is hard on everyone while we are waiting for the right to come to its senses.

    Meanwhile, Somerby is part of the problem, not part of the solution. Yelling at liberals for being liberal doesn't achieve communication, much less cooperation, and it is only making liberals mad, not addressing any problems. Somerby needs to stop enabling Republicans by defending their misdeeds, and he needs to stop pretending to be something he is obviously not. Lying impedes communication.

    I think it would be a major improvement at this blog if Somerby were to start reading his comments. It is hard to see how communication can improve when Somerby goes around with his fingers in his ears.

    1. Somerby is siloed away from his readers.

  8. If you start fast forwarding not very fair into a film, fine, but you are not the person I want to hear bitching that it doesn’t make any sense. Bob insults the movie’s creator and star because he hates them for getting above their station, that is, making something to hard for him to understand.

  9. "Decipher" isn't necessarily binary. There can be things you get and things that remain ambiguous. Should people feel like bad divisive elitists for recommending James Joyce?

  10. Somerby's efforts here daily to denigrate experts and challenge the idea of expertise or knowledge, to attack the media which is an important source of information