Tar – A Unique Reward for Patience and Concentration (5*)

Tar is movie requiring much patience and concentration, but the rewards are unique. About a female who achieves the top position in the classical music world and then falls, it is also about power, individualism, and, yes, cancel culture. My first (5*) movie of the year.

Tar: Snapshot

A unique experience that requires patience and concentration.  Ostensibly about a woman orchestra conductor who has achieved more than anyone could have thought possible, she is a vile and awful human being with no true feelings for anyone else and, so, her “cancellation” is both expected and deserved.  Yet this is also a film about power and, quite possibly, the problems of our embrace of individualism and subjectivity.  (And includes what I think is the best-performance-ever from Cate Blanchett!). 

Where to Watch:

Stream: Peacock

Rent: Multiple sources ($6) or wherever you get your discs

Tar: The Oscar Buzz

Oscar Nominations:

Best Picture

Director (Todd Field)

Original Screenplay (Todd Field)

Leading Actress (Cate Blanchett)

Film Editing (Monika Willi)

Cinematography (Florian Hoffmeister)

Tar ranks fifth of all 25 general interest films in Oscar recognition with four major nominations, including Best Picture, and two significant technical nominations.  Field has never won an Oscar, but he was nominated for both of his previous film Screenplays Little Children (06) and In the Bedroom (01) – He hasn’t written much, but his work is highly regarded.  Reportedly, he wrote the Tar screenplay specifically with Cate Blanchett in mind for the title role.  Although I did not initially predict she would win the Oscar, after seeing the film I think she deserves the win – her performance is outstanding, probably the best of her career, and is, perhaps, the best thing about the movie.  While the Film Editing and Cinematography nominations are well deserved, I was surprised that it didn’t receive a nod for Sound and possibly Score as the music and sound design are absolutely critical elements.

Tar: The Movie’s Family Tree

The Following Movies Share Talent with This One 

(and if you like these films, you might like this one):

Carol / Blue Jasmine / The Aviator : Acting (Cate Blanchett)

Nightmare Alley:  Acting (Cate Blanchett) ; Cate Blanchett’s makeup (Morag Ross)

Moneyball : Sound (Deb Adair)

Joker: Music (Hildur Guonadottir – won the Oscar)

Inglorious Basterds: Production Design (Marco Bitner Rosser)

Mulan: Costumes (Bina Daigeler)

Tar: What Others Think

Tar is not going to overwhelm most viewers.  While critics were consistent in their approval (ranking it fourth out of this year’s 25 general interest films), the general viewer ratings consistently put it in the bottom quarter.  The film involves a subject that general audiences know little about and probably care about even less – the rarefied cultural world of high-brow classical music.  But in many ways that is unfortunate because it is a well constructed and executed example of quality filmmaking.  Glenn Kenny (RogerEbert) wrote that “Tar is the rarest of items: a prestige awards contender that’s also a genuine art film.”  Jessica Kiang (Sight&Sound) lauded the “…bravery of Field’s uncompromisingly intelligent script, and … Blanchett’s completely uncompromising portrayal.”  On Blanchett, A.O. Scott (New York Times) said she “…is completely convincing …in showing Lydia’s imperiousness, her sadism and her predatory manipulation of younger women like Francesca and Olga.”  James Berardinelli (ReelViews) noted the demands on the audience, “Tar relies on two qualities that…have all-but-disappeared: patience and concentration.  The movie rewards those who allow themselves to be immersed and aren’t guided by expectations that some great melodrama is going to unfold.”

Tar: Special Mention

Women and the Symphony Music World – The symphony orchestra is the largest “band” in the musical world, often containing 100 members or more.  They are organized into sections based on their musical instruments, and each section has a principal or lead.  The orchestra world has its own hierarchy with a few (like the Berlin Philharmonic, and the New York Philharmonic, being at the top). Competition for being admitted to one of the world, or nationally, top-rated orchestras is intense and rewarded with prestige, if not money. 

The head of the orchestra is the principal conductor which is a very coveted position, and, as you can imagine, the conductor of a group like the Berlin Philharmonic is someone who has reached the top of the top – you just can’t go any further.  Lydia Tar, Cate Blanchett’s fictional character, has reached that position.  The film’s first long scene is her interview with a real life New Yorker writer and cultural critic, Adam Gropnik, who introduces Tar with a long list of accomplishments to her name.  There have, in the real world, been a few female conductors (Wikipedia lists about 90 of them), however they are almost always holding positions on smaller, regional orchestras.  Currently there are no women principal conductors of the top 25 American orchestras, and no woman has ever been the principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic.  (The Berlin Orchestra didn’t even admit women until 1982 and, as of last year, only had 14 female members!)   Just this month, the orchestra appointed its first female Concertmaster, which might be considered the second in command of the orchestra and is usually the first violinist.  (The conductor shakes the hand of the concertmaster on the way to the podium at the beginning of a performance).  A female head of the Berlin Philharmonic is, at least right now, a highly unlikely occurrence.

The movie also makes repeated references to “DG” or Deutsche Grammaphone.  It is not fictional and should be considered the major “label” for classical music recordings.

Gustavus Mahler and his Fifth Symphony – The movie is centered around Tar’s recording of Mahler’s Fifth symphony, which would complete her “cycle” of recording all nine of Mahler’s symphonies, a very difficult accomplishment given the demands of his work.  His symphonies often require large orchestras with expanded brass and woodwind sections.  His Fifth symphony was written in 1901 – 1902 and was significant because he used a lot of Counterpoint, a musical element originally mastered by Johann Sebastian Bach, involving harmonically meshing themes. These concepts are bandied about in an important sequence where Tar virtually eviscerates a poor Juilliard student who doesn’t want to play Bach because Bach is cisgender and he isn’t (point/counterpoint).

The other critical thing to know about Mahler is that he seemed to have an obsessive concern with power.  I mentioned that his symphonies typically require very large ensembles, sometimes requiring several hundred performers.  To write a symphony for such a large group requires a desire to exercise control, or power, over a large number of individual performers.  His music, for many music students, represents a culmination of everything Romanticism stood for – an emphasis on individualism and subjectivity.  He served as a bridge between European romanticism and the 20th century modernism.

Cancel Culture – Much is made in the press about this film and the concept of “cancel culture”.  Lydia Tar is, honestly, not a nice person and, given what we know about the music world, it probably isn’t realistic to think that anyone, much less a woman, could rise to the absolute pinnacle of her world being nice. The acquisition of that kind of power requires the use of it, sometimes in ways that are damaging and ugly.  (I’m not sure it has to be that way, but it usually is). So Tar, who describes herself as “a U-Haul Lesbian”, apparently made some advances on a younger woman a short time ago, but things didn’t end well.  Tar reacted badly and did some things that she shouldn’t have.  The result was not good for the young woman.

When that becomes public, there is a strong movement to “cancel” Lydia Tar.  “Canceling” is where someone who is believed to have spoken or acted in unacceptable ways are then ostracized or shunned.  It is usually exercised by left-leaning identity groups, although the right-wing famously wants to cancel NPR and Sesame Street, so it isn’t simply a liberal phenomena.  Canceling is a collective act usually by a group of people who don’t have much power otherwise.  In today’s social media world, canceling can become a very strong force, very quickly and so there is a developing back-lash against the notion, especially when it has the effect of infringing on free speech or inquiry on college campuses.  It can be a way of acting by those without much influence or power individually, against those who do have considerable individual power.

Tar has become highly controversial, though, not because Lydia was canceled – she really isn’t a likable person and her fall from grace is dramatic, complete and justified.  Rather, the controversy emerges because many people believe that she wouldn’t have been canceled so effectively if she weren’t a woman – that a man would have gotten away with his behavior and many do.  A real female conductor – who has achieved considerable success herself – laments that the first film that portrays a female at the top of the conductor success ladder then falls – it doesn’t speak well for women.  It is an interesting viewpoint and raises one of essential components of the film – do we view women with power in the same way we do men, and if not, then why?   (See Xan Brooks article in The Guardian – 1/16/23).

Tar: Michael’s Moments

While the “cancel culture” aspect of the movie is interesting, I don’t think that is the best, or even the essential,  part of this movie.  Unquestionably, Blanchett’s portrayal of Lydia Tar is of an extremely intelligent woman who fully understood Mahler.  She believed supremely in her power as an individual and that her subjectivity was the only thing that mattered.  Tar’s view allowed her to roll over people as she wished because she had accomplished more than anyone else and deserved whatever she wanted.  If she was attracted to women, she felt she had a right to conquer those she wanted, when she wanted.  She represented the personalization of everything the romantics had stood for – subjectivity and individualism taken to its highest degree.  And the social system “canceled” her very effectively for that.

But her cancellation was, I think, bigger than that – there is more than meets the eye in this film.  And it requires, as Berardinelli pointed out, patience and concentration to appreciate these aspects of the film – the hints are so subtle that I certainly didn’t catch them on the first viewing and barely got them the second time.  This isn’t a “popcorn” movie – it requires a lot of work, but, as opposed to some films, I found the rewards satisfying.  (To sort of test your willingness to sit through this film, the movie actually starts with five minutes of technical credits that almost always occur at the end of a film – if you can’t sit through that, you definitely won’t make it through the movie.)

To fully understand what writer/director Todd Field was trying to say, pay full attention to anything having to do with Krista Taylor or any references to a previous conductor in the “Accordion” group.  There is actually a first reference to Krista when Lydia is having dinner with Elliott Kaplan around the 17 minute mark.  In addition to a couple of comments about someone who might be a problem, there is also a fully developed discussion of the power politics they are engaged in – power and relationships are important.

At the 25 minute mark, Lydia is beginning a “master-class” at Juilliard.  During this class (which, by the way was, reportedly, filmed all in one take) Lydia again demonstrates her fierce intellect, passion for music, and her total disregard for someone else’s feelings as she totally destroys Max, a student, who had the gall to not be interested in Bach because Bach was cisgender.  Lydia’s point is that a conductor must do full service to the composer and that might require “obliterating” oneself – something she may have learned to do with perfection.  (The scene at Juilliard has been referred to frequently as the best expression of just how awful Lydia Tar can be.)

On the airplane back to Berlin, at around the 50 minute mark, Lydia is in the bathroom and unwraps a book given to her by (someone important).  Lydia gets to the title page, sees a picture of a maze or mandala, rips it out and throws the entire book away.  The source of the book and that image will reappear multiple times in the movie.  (The book, Challenge, is a real book by Vita Sackville-West, who was lesbian and had some interesting stories to tell in her own right, including a relationship with Virginia Wolf.). 

For the middle third of the movie, the story moves on and we learn interesting  information about Krista (the letters of her name, as is pointed out, are an anagram for something else).  Lydia, who has a domestic relationship with Sharon, her concertmaster, where they share parentage of a daughter, remains unsatisfied.  She moves on to start a new conquest with the young female cellist who is seeking to become a member of the orchestra.  All of that happens during this development stage building on the information we’ve learned.

During this time, Lydia begins to hear noises emanating from various locations.  (The sound design for all of this is impeccably done and I’m curious why it didn’t get an Oscar nod!). We hear them too, but maybe with not as much urgency.  For Lydia they become key elements of her experience and are translated to her new musical composition.

At around the 1 hour and 55 minute mark, the movie enters new territory.  Some have argued that the last 50 minutes of the movie are all in Lydia’s mind.  Maybe, or maybe something else is going on.  As you sit on the edge of your seat, pay attention especially to the scenes at night, when the lighting is extremely low and, frequently, Lydia is sleeping.  Look in the shadows.  You might just see, several times, images that just shouldn’t be there.  Who or what are they?  And what do they mean?

Is it possible that when someone reaches the kind of pinnacle of power that Lydia Tar (and, infrequently, many other, real-life people) achieve that the mind doesn’t know how to provide context?  That things just can’t be arrayed properly?  Is it possible to cancel one’s self?

I’m writing this while I listen to Mahler.  As the last of those who championed the Romantic era of individualism and subjectivity, his music seems to capture the essence of that time, and of this movie.  But who listens to Mahler these days?  What happened to Lydia Tar?  Indeed!


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