Directed by Todd Field
Starring Cate Blanchett, Noémie Merlant, Nina Hoss and Julian Glover
By Peter Cameron
I wonder if the ancient Egyptians felt it necessary to separate art from the artist. Life was brutish and brief back then, so I’m not sure what an artist could’ve done to offend those ancient sensibilities. The main concern, I imagine, would’ve been trying not to offend the Pharaoh. In those days, the separation would have been to separate the artist’s head from their body. I wonder how long this issue has existed. Maybe it’s new?
The debate around separating artist from art certainly does fixate on the past: past transgressions, sins of the past. I don’t think I need to dredge up any examples. We’ve seen them all on social media. The artist did something in the past and that action is unforgivable. The metaphorical guillotine is raised above the artist’s neck and the work of art. They must both be punished.
It’s a false dichotomy. Yes, an artist obviously creates their art (unless they’re Jeff Koons). That is one of the primary connections – the creative connection, but their transgression is not a metonym of who they are in totality. Recent discussion tends to force the creation and the creator’s transgressions together like two different colors of Play-Doh. The connections, however, are more varied and layered – like the ecosystem of an alpine lake. It isn’t an either/or decision. We don’t have to separate or combine two things. The object isn’t complicit in the offense like a soldier who was just following orders. When we look at anything through a two-dimensional prism, the image is flat, and, I think, uninteresting. The better view is: if an artist is convicted of a crime, they should be behind bars. But their art should not.
This issue gets even trickier when we judge cultures of the past. What was acceptable then might not be acceptable now. What was commonplace then might be a crime today. I am not qualified to fully define morality as a cultural construct or a divine revelation. I will say that, as with most issues, we oversimplify what is an immensely complex set of assumptions and conclusions that are then shoehorned into a reality that is neither an assumption nor a conclusion. Like I said: it’s tricky. Or in Tár’s case: it’s sticky.
In the first act of Todd Field’s Oscar-nominated Tár, the title character, Lydia Tár, lectures her students at Julliard on intention and interpretation. Her student, Max, is conducting “Ró” by Anna Thorvaldsdóttir. It’s a sparse, atmospheric piece with hollow, awkward thumps on a wood block — very modern for its time. Lydia halts the run through and asks Max why he came to Julliard.
“Because it’s the best,” he says.
She responds by backhandedly mocking his choice, describing the school as “a bed of strings pretending as though they’re tuning.” She’s not wrong. A bit mean, but not wrong.
Lydia asks Max to be seated and begins to dig deeper. She wants her students to consider two questions: “What are you conducting?” And, “what is it actually doing to the listener?”
Max is noticeably anxious when Lydia poses these questions. Perhaps he’s intimidated by her presence, but he replies anyway. His answer, like the composition, is vague, and therefore isn’t good enough for her.
After going on for a bit about interpretation, she singles out Max again, (who is now seated – his left leg nervously twitching). She asks him if he has conducted Bach. “I’m not really into Bach,” admits Max.
“You’re not into Bach?” (This, to Lydia, is unbelievable.)
Max replies, “Honestly, as a BIPOC pangender person, I would say Bach’s misogynistic life makes it kind of impossible for me to take his music seriously.”
Impossible?! “What do you mean by that?” asks Lydia.
Max responds by stating that the composer sired 20 kids, as if that alone should prove his point.
I’m not qualified to prove for or against Bach’s misogyny. What I do know, and I am no Bach, is that when I sing to my girlfriend, she admits to becoming acutely moist in a particular region. So – and I am going out on a limb here – maybe when either of Bach’s two wives happened to pass by the parlor as Johann was extemporizing an Olympus level fugue, they got a little hot? I would’ve.
Regardless, Bach did sire a lot of kids. But he made even more music. Lydia addresses the class and asks an important question: “Can classical music written by a bunch of straight, Austro-German, churchgoing white guys exalt us, individually as well as collectively?” To which she adds “And who, may I ask, gets to decide that?”
Many film critics have pointed out that Tár represents an authority figure. Authority figures used to be the deciders, but perhaps the mantle is now passing to the people (or ‘the cretins,’ as Tár sarcastically describes them.) Does that make for better art? Who should decide? More importantly, what is Max’s intention when he interprets Bach in two-dimensions? I have ideas, but Tár is right: “it’s always the question that involves the listener,” not the answer.
I didn’t have a hard time separating the cellist in this film, Olga Metkina (played brilliantly by Sophie Kauer), from her cello. She was so Gen Z and irreverent, which might come across as cool to some. To me, it just felt childish. Maybe I’m a curmudgeon. I did just turn 40. But her character has no character. Her playing has character. Her performance of Elgar’s cello concerto is arresting. Her mannerisms, however, and lack of manners make her come across as crude and disengaged. If being crude and disengaged is cool, I don’t wanna be Miles Davis.
What I can’t separate is Lydia Tár from Cate Blanchett. Her artistry is of the highest order. She carries this film effortlessly, which I can only assume means she’s put a tremendous amount of effort into her career and this performance. Cate Blanchett gets my vote for the Oscar, but the Oscars are another authority figure. So… Ms. Blanchett just gets my vote… period.
Also Todd Field. I can’t separate the fact that Mr. Field wrote and directed this film, and he was the pianist in Eyes Wide Shut. I can certainly see Kubrick’s influence. Each scene is well crafted, the pacing is methodical, and the handheld camera work is either legato or sforzando. I am also going to assume that Mr. Field, as a fan of Kubrick, is also a fan of classical music and great art in general. If Tár’s tale tells us anything, it’s that the future is no country for old art.
Plot-wise, from there Lydia gets embroiled, and her life gets sticky. The climax feels a bit forced. I enjoyed the denouement, but the first and second act outperform the third.
Tár isa film I would recommend to anyone who values great art, though I would add that they shouldn’t get their hopes ups for easy answers to the debate around separating the artist from their art.
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