January 25, 2023

TÁR-rible: A Female Conductor’s Thoughts on the Film

Every once in a while, a great theater-piece-meets-pop-culture work is born. The result is a richly-detailed portrait of our flawed humanity, so masterfully crafted as to speak to its audience on several levels. It offers something for everyone: surface intrigue; deeper societal and psychological commentary; and insider winks and nods to be savored by cognoscenti.

As a native New Yorker, I recall one particular contemporary small screen example which is set against the backdrop of my beloved hometown: the immensely popular yet niche and cynical Seinfeld. While broad audiences connected, laughed, and cringed along with the show’s Fab Four of Jerry, Elaine, Kramer, and George, Upper West Siders like me could secretly delight in recognizing echt local references such as “THE diner”, Zabar’s babka, and eccentric local vendors. The “show about nothing” offered a brilliantly-scripted menagerie of anti-heroes doing unremarkable things in a most compellingly human way. Seinfeld was an original, multi-season high-brow nihilist theater piece in pop culture’s clothing. It was genius.

To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen: “TÁR is no Seinfeld.”

I am a conductor by passion and trade. I have navigated the choppy waters of the classical performing arts milieu for over 20 years, and now perform, teach, and write about conducting on both sides of the Atlantic. I have personal experience with or knowledge of almost all of the insider references woven through Todd Field’s TÁR. I was therefore particularly keen to see the movie which promised to be a thoughtful commentary on contemporary culture set against the backdrop of my beloved métier.

A disappointment, the film sins on several levels. Let us examine three of the most grievous.

Hailed as a work of genius by some who are distinctly under Hollywoodian influence, TÁR is formulaic. The movie seems not to be sprung from Jupiter’s thigh, as the French say, but rather from GPT-3. The query is simple: write me an arthaus-esque Oscar buzzworthy script including ’20’s themes (#Metoo movement + GBTQQIP2SAA + #femaleconductors + #classicalmusicmovie + #deathinvenice + #vampires + #retrochic). To quote Gertrude Stein, “there is no there there” - only a pixelated mattering of trending elements.

Next, the movie is - to put it kindly - derivative. The main character is constructed by hijacking and appropriating the life of a real, well-respected conductor, mixed with elements of America’s Greatest Maestro and other borrowings from European conducting documentaries and high-brow interviews. No wonder so many were confused as to Lydia Tár's existence in real life!

As Jerry might say: Ethical, schmethical.

Doctoral theses submitted for review are put through human and AI plagiarism checks. Plagiarism is the most serious of offenses in academia: it betrays the intellectual honor code by stealing others’ original words and thoughts while attempting to pass them off as the writer’s own original content. The perpetrator of plagiarism is proven by their peers and superiors to be dishonorable: a fraud, a mockingbird masquerading as an authentic thinker. The offense engenders serious and long-reaching consequences, as Rice University’s article “Plagiarism: Recognize and Avoid It” explains: “Plagiarized work can result in a failing course grade, expulsion from graduate school, rejection of a paper submitted for publication, denial of an advanced degree, loss of your scholarly reputation, or loss of job.”

TÁR should officially be put to the test of a plagiarism check. It would fail. The consequences should be real and long-lasting for its creators.

Finally, this movie is a poorly-constructed attempt at nihilist theater. As masterpieces from the theater of the absurd demonstrate, a great stage work does not have to contain likable characters. But its characters do have to display true, instantly recognizable human traits, and the work must portray the essence of the human condition with dexterous clarity and insight. TÁR loses its way on the path to nihilism. It is not a bone-chilling, spinetingling, stomach-churning portrayal of a psychopathic serial abuser getting her just deserts (Don Giovanni, anyone?). It does not masterfully examine the complex interactions between an egocentric maestro and a conductor-in-training, a forgotten partner, an overlooked assistant, a demented elderly neighbor, and a feral virtuoso. Instead, TÁR is a limp grotesquerie of cultural stereotypes, themes, and sterile intéllo-speak, ultimately missing the mark.

Of course, there are some remarkable elements of the film. Lydia Tár's stark, luxurious surroundings are perfectly chosen and in direct contrast to the soulful yet dilapidated student digs she desperately clings to as her refuge. The idea that Tár is both perpetrator and victim of the career machine steamrolling over her life is a good topic to explore. Cate Blanchett does a formidable job of harnessing multiple foreign languages, the conductor’s choreography - a language unto itself - , and a slew of insider musico-lingo-infused dialogue. Chapeau bas, madame. Yet as the eminent conductor, Leonard Slatkin comments in his recent blog post, the film’s overall pantomime of professional musicianship falls short.

Ultimately, TÁR is not about controversy, as the film’s star claims; it's about surface, contemporary sensationalism. It's about the giant film production machine rolling on towards world-wide openings, #buzz, and closed-circle prizes.

To the Tinseltown Awards powers-that-be: Will you have the artistic integrity, the moral compass, to defend the standards of excellent filmmaking your institution purports to uphold? Or will you reward this derived product impersonating an original arthaus film?