WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 25, 2023
Only the Shadow knew: Even in the age of covid, certain films sell lots of tickets in their theatrical runs.
Certain films can still make money at the domestic box office! According to Box Office Mojo, these nominees for this year's Best Picture Oscar did sell quite a few tickets:
Domestic box office, Best Picture nominees
Top Gun: Maverick: $718.7 million
Avatar: The Way of Water: $598.4 million
Elvis: $151.0 million
Elvis hasn't quite left the building yet, according to those gate receipts.
Certain films—possibly, certain types of films—can still put keisters into soda-stained seats. Other nominees for Best Picture performed a bit less well:
Domestic box office, Best Picture nominees
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
Other Best Picture nominees have done even less well. But the critically acclaimed feature film Tár severely crashed and burned at the box office, despite the torrent of praise.
We don't think it's hard to know why. We also think there's something significant to be learned from all that unrequited critical praise.
As we've already noted, we rented and watched Tár over the past two weekends. In fact, we watched and watched and watched the film, in an attempt—an attempt which wasn't always successful—to figure out what was happening in the lauded fictional film.
In part, we rented the film out of curiosity about the reactions to the film of a telephone interlocutor in the Hudson Valley and her circle of friends.
As best we could tell from what we were told, they had basically loathed the film. After our initial attempt at watching Tár, we felt we likely knew why.
Has there ever been a major feature film which seemed to work so hard to keep its contents inaccessible to all put a few moviegoers? On our first viewing of Todd Fields' film, we began to fast forward about twelve minutes in.
In the film's initial scene, a great (fictional) conductor, Lydia Tár, is being interviewed before a rapt audience by The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik (playing himself). According to the screenplay, here's part of what was going on when we decided to speed ahead:
GOPNIK: Tough question, I know, but what was the most important thing you learned from Bernstein?
TAR: Kavanah. It’s Hebrew for attention to meaning, or intent. What are the composer’s priorities, what are yours?
GOPNIK: "Kavanah." I think many in our audience may have other associations with that word.
TAR: Yes, I’d imagine so.
GOPNIK: The first conductors on the scene weren’t all that important, right?
TAR: Yes, that’s right. By default it was the job of the principal violinist.
GOPNIK: When does that change? And why?
TAR: With the French composer Jean Baptiste Lully, who reportedly used a rather enormous, rather pointy staff to pound the tempi into the floor. It’s not something I imagine the players particularly appreciated. Anyway, that technique ended during a performance when he accidentally stabbed himself in the foot with the thing and died of gangrene.
But the conductor becomes essential as the ensembles get bigger. And once again, we go back to Beethoven.
(Sings opening of Fifth)
Doesn’t start with the eighth note. The downbeat’s silent. Someone had to start that clock. Now when that someone was Lenny, the orchestra was led on the most extraordinary tour of pleasures. He knew the music, Mahler especially, as well, or better, than anyone. And of course, deeply and truly loved it. So he often played with the form. He wanted an orchestra to feel like they’d never seen, let alone heard, or performed, any of that music. So he’d do radical things, like disregarding the tempo primo and ending a phrase molto ritardando.
GOPNIK: He over-egged it?
TAR: No, not at all.
Bernstein disregarded the tempo primo. He ended a phrase molto ritardando, but he didn't over-egg it!
So this screenplay goes and goes, then goes and goes and goes. For the record, Gopnik's remark about the audience's associations with the word Kavanah is a remark about Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, or at least so we came to believe over the course of time.
(In the film, the audience murmurs when Gopnik makes that remark.)
As we noted yesterday, Justin Chang is very bright reviewer for the Los Angeles Times and NPR. In his review for the Times, he says he loved the film.
In Chang's assessment, the pacing of this widely praised film is andante. On our first attempt to watch the film, we found the pacing to be interminably slow—and we found the content, again and again, to be basically incomprehensible.
Has there ever been a major film which involves so much "insider" technical talk, whether from the world of classical music or from some other (siloed) part of our vastly varied contemporary world?
Tár opens with a (very long) series of scenes in which the (often opaque) technical talk is (rather remarkably) general.
How opaque can the discourse get? The film begins with Gopnik's introduction of Tár—and his intro begins like this:
GOPNIK: If you’re here, then you know who she is.
One of the most important musical figures of our era, Lydia Tár is many things: a piano performance graduate of the Curtis Institute, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Harvard. And she earned her Ph.D. in musicology from the University of Vienna, specializing in indigenous music from the Ucayali Valley in Eastern Peru, where she spent five years amongst the Shipibo-Konibo.
She spent five years amongst the Shipibo-Konibo? We're prepared to admit that we didn't quite know who that was or is. (For edification, click here.)
Tár spent five years in the Ucayali Valley. Continuing, Gopnik says this:
GOPNIK (continuing directly): As a conductor, Tár began her career with the Cleveland Orchestra, one of the so-called Big Five in the United States. A string of important posts followed at the Philadelphia Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra, and New York Philharmonic. With the latter, she organized the Highway 10 refugee concerts in Zaatari—concerts attended by over seventy-five thousand people.
She organized the Highway 10 refugee concerts in Zaatari? After doing a bit of checking, we ended up knowing this:
The Zaatari refugee camp is a refugee camp in Jordan, located 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) east of Mafraq, which has gradually evolved into a permanent settlement; it is the world’s largest camp for Syrian refugees.
Within the context of the film, that may help explain why Tár and her partner have a 6-year-old adopted Syrian daughter.
Well—the screenplay says the daughter is Syrian. As far as we know at the present time, nothing in the film itself actually tells us that, though we may get a tiny hint of the adorable child's status if we understand the film's one fleeting use of the term "Biodeutsche."
Tár starts with a lengthy introduction of Lydia Tár, the film's (fictional) main character. To our ear, it almost plays like a parody of a type of pompous high-end introduction, and it's entirely possible that that was the director's intent.
(Or then again, possibly not!)
From there, the film meanders through a succession of scenes clogged with references which will be unfamiliar to the vast majority of moviegoers—even to moviegoers who will react favorably to widespread critical praise for a "highbrow film."
After Gopnik's lengthy introduction of Lydia Tár, her actual interview with Gopnik runs something like eight or nine minutes. At one point, we briefly fast-forwarded through part of that interminable insider discussion.
Alas! That discussion was followed by an insidery exchange with an enraptured fan of Tár, with whom Tár has a sexual exchange that evening (or then again possibly doesn't). After that, we watch an insidery luncheon discussion with a philanthropist funder of Tár who is also a minor conductor himself.
From there, we move to a very insidery session at Juilliard, during which Tár engages in a rather hostile exchange with a BIPOC pangender student conductor. And so on and so on from there.
At this point, we'll take a guess:
We'll guess that the average consumer of highbrow films will have little sense of what has been discussed to this point in the film, which has now been running for something like half an hour. (Because our second rental of the film has ended, we can't provide precise time.)
For the record, it isn't just the technical discussions of classical music—and of endless classical music figures—which will almost surely leave the average consumer of highbrow films at sea as this film proceeds.
It's also the unexplained, insidery aspects of the bureaucracy of classical orchestras—of their audition procedures, for instance—and it's the speed with which the film flits through various events which are supposed to let us know where the film is headed on the personal level.
We'll offer an example or two tomorrow. For today, these points:
Have we ever seen a feature film which seemed to be so weirdly designed to keep its theatergoing audience wholly in the dark?
Upon our first attempt to watch this film, we gave up after roughly an hour: We didn't have the slightest idea what was transpiring in the film, on any particular level.
Others may have been able to watch with more comprehension and care. But as we later told our interlocutor in the Hudson Valley, we pitied the moviegoers who had seen this lauded film cold—who had actually sat through this lengthy film in an actual movie theater.
Such people couldn't do what we did—they couldn't stop the film, then come back the following day after performing substantial background research as to what is allegedly taking place in the lengthy film.
Indeed, even after our background research, we still found it hard to understand various scenes as we returned to this puzzling film. So it went on our winter vacation as we tried to watch Tár.
We watched and watched and watched and watched Tár through the past two weekends. After that, we may have watched it a little bit more.
Eventually, we pretty much came to understand what was occurring in various scenes (or then again, maybe not). That said, we have no idea how anyone could have followed the film upon a single traditional viewing in a movie theater.
This left us with a bit of a puzzle concerning the ecstatic way the film had been reviewed.
Justin Chang is very bright. As we noted yesterday, he said, in his review for the Los Angeles Times, that the film's 158 minutes "flew by like a dream" for him.
We don't doubt that claim. We'll also guess that this film flew by for very few people who went to a movie theater to see it. We'll guess that this may help explain the egg it laid at the box office.
For Chang, the film flew by like a dream, even including "the long, teasing reveal of an opening sequence" in which Tár is interviewed by Gopnik.
For us, the film was almost wholly unapproachable, very strangely so. We didn't find its pacing andante. For us, the pacing was glacial, if we may use a metaphor which may be on the way out, in large part thanks to our ongoing societal breakdown.
For us, that raised a question about the other critics who praised the film without noting this blindingly obvious problem with its basic construction. Also, it almost seemed to be teaching a lesson concerning the increasing existence of siloed groups in this, our failing age.
What were those characters talking about in those various scenes? Only the Shadow—and the nation's high-end critics—seemed to think they knew.
Tomorrow: Through a glass very darkly