For a film that, if you want to be blunt about it, tanked at the box office, Tár has provoked an inordinate amount of conversation. It is possible that the discourse surrounding the film – about a powerful, highly successful and extremely problematic conductor named Lydia Tár, played by Cate Blanchett – is as interesting as the film itself.
I have heard various, conflicting interpretations of Tár: that it is a shameful misrepresentation of the field of classical music; that it is all too real; that it is all too surreal; that it carries an intellectual power rare in the movies; that it is not half as clever as it thinks it is; that it is not about conducting, it is about power; that it’s not about power, it’s about narcissism; that it is about a clash of ethics between the generations; that it is about third wave feminism; that its central character, in all her “unlikeability”, is touchingly complex; that its central character is irredeemably hateful; that it is a fascinating, level-headed anatomization of “cancel culture”; that it is actually a “regressive” movie that “bitterly aims” at identity politics. Then there is an extensive online debate devoted to decoding his eerie final act. There is something exciting about a film that is such an open text, that requires so much discussion.
However, this is not unproblematic. The classical music world is talking about Tár, and not in a good way. (A leading London conservatoire, for example, politely declined to host the British premiere.) The anxiety stems, not least, from the fact that the biography of the central character bears more than a passing resemblance to that of the conductor Marin Also displayed. Like Tár, she is American, was mentored by Leonard Bernstein, is a lesbian, is the partner and co-parent of a sometime orchestra player, and set a foundation for early-career female conductors. Alsop herself criticized the film, and I have some sympathy with her. Tár is, among other things, a bully and an abuser, and Alsop is not. Her larger point, however, is that a small handful of women have struggled to push through into major roles in conducting. Of those who “made it”, some are certainly more pleasant and better behaved than others. But literally none of them are shaped like the fictional Tár. The kind of abuse Tár committed – blackballing, use of power to extract sex – is unfortunately present in classical music, but the perpetrators, known mainly by rumor and word of mouth rather than, yet by open accusation, are men. Women in classical music may be bullies and behave horribly. But none, to my knowledge, have allegations of abuse hovering over them of the kind that led, for example, to the firing of the late James Levine from his position at the Metropolitan Opera.
The counterargument to this perspective is that the film is not really “about” classical music in any meaningful way, and that the setting is secondary to its purpose. But that would be to overlook the fact that the film does want to tell us something about art, and works of art about art often have an intriguing meta-narrative to tell. Consider other films set in, or adjacent to, the world of classical music. There is, of course, Amadeus; Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player, Denis Dercourt’s The Page Turner, the Du Pré biography, Hilary and Jackie, Shine, A Late Quartet (memorably with Philip Seymour Hoffman as an embittered second violinist) . What do they have in common? Here’s a clue: the main characters in George Cukor’s Gaslight – the film that gave its name to an entire form of abuse – are an aspiring opera singer and a pianist.
Not all of these films deal with abuse and violence, but all deal with obsession and mental illness in one way or another. I can’t escape the idea that classical music provides a way for filmmakers to represent some of their darkest, most twisted thoughts about art and creativity. In a way, one can see why: of all the corners of the interlocking artistic worlds, classical music, along with ballet, requires the most rare, intense form of lifelong commitment. It offers creators of fiction an extreme version of art making.
Films about films, on the other hand, tend to be colored by nostalgia or sentimentality (think La La Land, or Sam Mendes’ new Empire of Light). Steven Spielberg’s latest film, The Fabelmans, written with Tony Kushner, has a bit of both: it’s actually Spielberg’s own Bildungsroman, even origin myth, and – of course! – there is an early moment in which the main character, Sam, goes to the cinema for the first time as a child. Of course we see the reflected light from the screen playing over his face; naturally, in this way, the flickers indelibly work their magic on him.
The Fabelmans are far more interesting than this description suggests, and, like Tár, have something to say about power, in this case that which is invested in the bearer of the film camera – the reluctant holder of secrets, the hero-maker, the manipulator. Classical music is also invoked in the movie by Sam’s mother, a thwarted pianist, again covering that familiar thematic territory of loss and mental illness. However, the Fabelmans are poignant and accurate about what art actually is, feels like and consists of. There’s a beautiful hint of this in his great name: the name Spielberg recalls the German or Yiddish for “play”; the word Fabelman from the word for “story”. In this movie, stories arise from play: there is a clear line from Sam’s first films, made for fun with his fellow scouts, to the work for which the real Spielberg is known.
Joy, playfulness: these are qualities completely absent from the vision of art presented by Todd Field’s Tár, perhaps deliberately so. Lydia Tár is a dictator – a model of power for conductors in sharp decline, and in fact largely out of reach for women, based heavily on traditionally male patterns of authority. Most encounters between conductors and orchestral musicians actually function, at their best, through collaboration and, yes, playfulness; conductors tend to use persuasion and charm rather than blunt command to get their ideas across. The balance of power is not entirely on the conductors’ side: orchestra players can be merciless towards conductors they do not respect.
There is one film I haven’t mentioned that deals with conductors and composers, and also ballet: Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948). Here, too, there is abuse, and obsession, and mental illness. Like The Fabelmans, like Tár, it suggests that art and domestic life are impossible to reconcile. But unlike Tár, in the midst of its darkness, it presents a joyful image of what it is to love art, to be an artist, to be part of a company of artists. Unlike Tár, which invokes rather than says anything particularly interesting about Mahler, The Red Shoes contains a strange and lovely work of art unto itself in the form of the ballet-within-the-film also called The Red Shoes. It is a film that has nurtured generations of impressionable youngsters into artists. Will Tár ever have that galvanizing effect? Discuss.