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[The following story contains spoilers from the film Tár.]
Well before Todd Field’s Tár opened in Thailand, I got my first review of the film from my friend, director Paul Spurrier. Paul had seen the film while in Los Angeles for the American Film Market.
“So we have here a mad genius conductor, who is kicked out of a major European orchestra after an act of violence, has rather ambiguous dealings with some young prodigies, ends up in Southeast Asia conducting a youth orchestra in a tawdry venue …,” he began.
“Oh!” I said, “You went to a screening of our film?” Because Paul was giving me the exact plot of our own film, The Maestro: A Symphony of Terror, a horror fantasy we made two years ago, which I wrote and starred in as the aforementioned “mad genius” conductor.
“Actually, no,” he said. “I just saw Tár.”
Since, I too have seen Tár and, as it turns out, Paul wasn’t wrong. Field’s movie does have a similar plot to The Maestro. Alas, I am a poor substitute for the incomparable Cate Blanchett, and our film is wholly different in substance anyway, being a modest little tribute to the horror films of the 1980s. In any case, the fall of the mighty, from Prometheus to the present, has always been the very essence of what we mean by the word tragedy.
Now I can’t write an unbiased review of Tár because I’m actually credited as a consultant on the film. (Though my work, such as it is, only graces a few minutes of the 158-minute epic) and because my youth orchestra, every single one of them credited by name, appears for a few minutes as well. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll remember the scene. If you haven’t seen the movie, look away now, as the rest of this piece includes major spoilers.
The scene I’m talking about is the movie’s closing sequence when Blanchett’s Lydia Tár — once the conductor of the grand Berlin Philharmonic, now exiled to an “unnamed Asian country” — is reduced to conducting the live music for a screening of Monster Hunter, an action movie based on a popular video game.
Much has been made of this ending of the film — where my orchestra appears, as it happens — and most critics I’ve read see it as bathetic nadir of Tár’s existence, of her karma coming to roost. I disagree.
As I said, I can’t write an unbiased review of this film, given my (slight) involvement with it, but this is one of the few films ever made that credibly inhabits my world, the real world behind the scenes of classical music, and which references hundreds of little things that only truly make sense to people who live in that world. One of the questions I was always asking myself throughout this movie was: “Would anyone get this?” Occasionally it was the opposite: “Why would these characters explain something just to the audience in an expository lump that everyone in the field would already know?”
It’s a balancing act, which, to me, succeeds pretty well, on the whole. I think though that for Blanchett’s character to have to be told, for instance, something as well-known to conductors as the story of Wilhelm Furtwängler’s denazification struggles (there was even a movie about that! [2001’s Taking Sides]) doesn’t ring true. I also don’t buy everyone talking of Mahler’s 5th Symphony as Mahler’s “big one.” I mean, in terms of size, there’s the 2 and the 8. In terms of “What is his greatest symphony?” most people I know would probably say 6 or 9. Calling Mahler’s 5 the “big one” the way Beethoven’s 5th is a “big one” just feels too “popular” an opinion for practicing musicians to have. I’d say that this characterization of No. 5 is at best debatable, unless you were first turned on to Mahler by the Visconti movie (which Blanchett does make fun of in the course of Tár).
The film also includes the popular Hollywood myth that composers sit at the piano and try out a few notes and say, “Ah, that’s it!” and jot it down. That might be true in the pop world, I don’t know. I and every composer I know write music in our heads and jot it down (or enter it into software) … but alas, that’s not very visual.
A more interesting question for the layman, perhaps, is how good is Cate Blanchett’s conducting? It looks very good. It’s flamboyantly cinematic. My kids said that they had a spot of trouble because she seemed to be conducting in 7/4 instead of 6/4, but when I watched the movie she didn’t seem to be getting it wrong. However, I do understand why they might have thought so. Blanchett’s upbeats are not fully realized, like a golfer who hits the ball perfectly without doing the perfect swing beforehand. But this is also true of many famous conductors. That’s because orchestras that are as good as the Berlin Phil don’t need that much warning. They can play the piece anyway. All the work is in the rehearsal (as the character herself says). Those dramatic gestures, in a sense, are for the audience — guiding them through the unfolding adventure. It’s actually only a problem with a more inexperienced orchestra. So I’d say top marks on conducting the music and a bit of nitpicking on how she conducts the silence just before the music sounds.
Some critics have picked out the amazing scene near the start of the film where Tár bullies a Juilliard student in a conducting workshop, reading into it inklings of the hubris that leads to her downfall. Again, I disagree. First, this is a scene of staggering virtuosity: a quarter of an hour or so done in one take, with the camerawork (Steadicam I presume?) as seamless as Blanchett’s flawless, nuanced reading of every complex line in the scene. This has got to be one of the most technically astonishing monologues in all of cinema. But most critics have focused on the fact that Tár mercilessly takes apart the poor little conducting student who’s only trying to cancel Bach for being a straight white Protestant.
Because those kids at Juilliard haven’t been through the fiery baptism of what it takes to become a conductor, they often miss that what Tár is telling them are some of the deepest truths about why we do music. Conductors do it all: persuading, cajoling, insisting and, in the end, bullying, if that’s what it takes. And if this kid can’t take it, he’s not cut out for it. Conducting is a cruel profession. That monologue, truthfully, is full of things that I have said to my own students, though I’m usually not quite as mean about it. Sometimes, years later, I realize I should have been more mean. The truth is, I am the most mean to the students I care about the most. I guess you’d call it tough love. Lydia Tár, it seems, is simply a lot more promiscuous in her meanness than me. In my reading of the scene, Tár did the right thing. She may have belittled little Max, may have condescended in her tone, but the substance of what she said did not talk down to him at all.
But what about the final scene? Now, I personally believe that Mahler (and Bach, of course) exist on a higher plane than Monster Hunter, and I did not know this music. But let me tell you, the kids in our orchestra were familiar with the score. My resident conductor, Trisdee, who is in his 30s, and who is a world expert in early music performance practice, has played this video game all the way to the end. The hushed, religious intensity of the kids in weird costumes is as real as the fervor of the old folks listening to Brahms. I know for a fact that this gaming world is as rich and as real to those who are in it, as the nuances of romantic “sehnsucht” are to those who love Tristan.
The reason I don’t think Todd Field intends this to be purely a fall from grace is that Tár is never shown denigrating or despising this music at all. She’s seen studying it seriously, and when she conducts it, she gives it as much her all as in her illustrious Berlin career. Indeed, she subsumes herself — exactly as she told little Max he had to do in the Juilliard scene.
And we all know there’s more money in video game music than in playing Mahler symphonies. That’s just the real world.
I think that we are expected to see this as the classic tragedy — a great figure whose hubris leads to death (career death at least). But the director has pulled a fast one. It’s not a tragedy at all. The tragedy is just the top stratum of this multilayered work.
And the clearest foreshadowing of this is in the Apocalypse Now reference we see just before. Tár has arrived in the “unnamed Asian country” and is on a river trip in a canoe. She’d like to take a swim but the boy, one of the young men from the orchestra, tells her the river is full of crocodiles who were imported to “be in a Marlon Brando movie.” “That was a long time ago,” Tár notes. The boy’s reply: “They survive.”
Crocodiles are predators. In our story, Lydia Tár comes to be viewed as a predator. She’s done a lot of bad things, sure. Like the crocodiles, she eats people alive. But like the crocodiles in the river, she’s still there at the end. Every indication is that she’s going to climb her way all the way back again. Before her departure for the old “unnamed Asian country” we learn that she’s already reinvented herself once before, dropping her decidedly “white trash” past for the exotic mystique of the name with the funny accent. I am not at all sure that she won’t have the last laugh in this story.
The joke is on me, too, because when Living Films, the Chiengmai-based production company, tapped me to consult on getting a youth orchestra in Thailand, they didn’t tell me much. The only parts of the script I ever saw were a few sides that some of the young musicians needed for their audition. At first, I thought it was going to be a “white savior” movie about some do-gooder musician who brings us benighted Asians to enlightenment through the power of music or some such. It turned out to be a movie that really asks questions about the nature of creativity and whether geniuses can be “bad people” — and whether this matters in the context of their genius and of history.
In a real sense, this could actually be read as a “brown savior” movie. Arrogant white genius gets canceled as a result of bad action and finds salvation in Asia, because we don’t (yet) have cancel culture here. Instead of a film about an artist self-destructing, you can read it as it being about the artist taking the first steps toward redemption.
Again, Field gives us a hint this is his plan all along. The movie opens with the credits, turning the traditional sequence back-to-front, like reversing a film. Instead of watching Lydia Tár fall, maybe we are seeing her begin to rise.
Somtow Sucharitkul is an acclaimed conductor and composer, an occasional actor and screenwriter and was a musical consultant on Tár. He also writes novels under the pen name S.P. Somtow.
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