Why would writer-director Todd Field make the character so eloquent, cast her with such a beloved actress, and spend so much screen time building pathos for her, all the while coupling her side by side on-screen with others who don’t have the skills of articulation to counter her point of view (as in the Juilliard Master class), if he wasn’t in some way using this character as a mouthpiece to give his own opinion about the current state of the world?
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If you’ve been to see Tár, you may walk away feeling like I did, that the strangest thing of all is how fun it is to watch. Lydia Tár herself, played by the unimpeachable Cate Blanchett, is interesting and funny, even elegant at her best. At her worst (a pitch she stays at for much of the movie), Tár is pretentious, narcissistic, spiteful and arrogant, pompous and performative and out of touch; yet, strangely, even when Tár is at her worst, there is something gravitational about the character and, as a result, something deeply watchable about Tár. That the film remains watchable even when its characters are at their worst is, of course, a necessity of good cinema, but it does seem that amidst our current news cycle and political climate, the idea of sitting through another near 3-hour piece about a white person who uses their power in sinister ways would be nearly unbearable, or at the very least hard to watch. But it’s not. It’s fun.
The fun of watching is not just the experience of the 90% of critics who’ve rated the film as “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes: the love of watching is built into the fabric of the film. Again and again, the filmmaker (Todd Field, Little Children) portrays Tár as mediated through the perspective of another onscreen audience. In the first shot of the film, for example, an unknown person live streams a sleeping Tár. Our first glimpse of her, then, is mediated through the gaze of another. This texter (or perhaps another) recurs throughout the film, either observing Tár in action or filming the spaces she inhabits, typically speaking of her derisively, but always observing. The supporting characters, too, are all seduced by this urge to go on watching, no matter whether they love or hate her. A pack of protesters, for example, chase Tár’s car as she’s brought to a sold-out reading of her book; in another example, she is unknowingly filmed during her Juilliard master class, a fact which turns out to be pivotal to Tár’s (and Tár’s) arc.
While the characters in-film are fascinated with Tár, her celebrity in fact seems to extend beyond the frame of the film. She has crept out in a number of instances from her film: her fashion sense has been captured by GQ, The Cut, and Harper’s Bazaar. Vulture has a piece entitled “49 True Facts about Lydia Tár,” a playful listicle parody with information about where the character was born, her education, and more, always treating her as if she were a real-life celebrity. Recently, more than six months after the film’s debut, Vulture used the Barbie Movie’s selfie generator to post a picture of Tár with the caption, “Please call me mother.” Most compelling of all, the filmmakers themselves have made Tár a website describing her as “Composer, Conductor, Thought Leader,” with Martin Scorsese being quoted as saying, “Listening to Lydia’s collected works transformed me. The clouds lifted.”
While of course all of the above are playful, even ironic uses of Tár’s likeness, there is a sense of fondness or adoration for the character at play in all of these examples. Tár’s essential independence from her film can be attributed in part to the craft of Todd Field and the design team: she feels so iconic, we almost want Tár to be a real figure in our world. This fact, that we actually walk away from the theater in some way liking Tár, or at least being interested in her as a celebrity, feels problematic: this is well-identified by many of the film’s earliest reviews. Why would writer-director Todd Field make the character so eloquent, cast her with such a beloved actress, and spend so much screen time building pathos for her, all the while coupling her side by side on-screen with others who don’t have the skills of articulation to counter her point of view (as in the Juilliard master class), if he wasn’t in some way using this character as a mouthpiece to give his own opinion about the current state of the world? This question is, of course, the source of the theory that Tár is an outspoken critique on cancel culture, as well as the more imaginative (but also more absurd) take that Tár is a horror film or an “everything is a dream” movie that, following Tár’s meeting the dog in the basement, sees her haunted by the ghosts of her past until everything she has dreamed of drops away from her grasp. While this line of reasoning does have significant evidence to back it up (as I’ve mentioned above), it neglects the autonomy of the viewer, whose own force of ethics ought to, in the end, necessarily rebel from Tár and all she stands for.
Take the almost buried tragedy of the movie, the suicide of Krista Taylor (Silvia Flote, above) and Tár’s heartless attempts to distance herself and her assistant from it (“she wasn’t one of us”). Tár is seen, again and again, to be dangerous, unscrupulous. She treats all those around her (with perhaps the exception of her daughter) as chess pieces in her plotting and scheming; she is perfectly willing to sacrifice the career, the well-being, and even the existence of those closest to her for the fulfillment of her own (personal, professional) desires. In this context, the role of conductor is perfect for someone like Tár: when she is working she is in total control. That life cannot be controlled in the way that a symphony can leads to the casualties of Tár’s ascent, and what makes her so dangerous is not just her fantasies of control but the fact that we, along with many characters in the film and seemingly the filmmaker himself, are willing – even eager – to give her that power by going on watching. Krista Taylor’s suicide is a tragedy of one pulled into Tár’s orbit, who “sublimated” herself, who effaced her identity for a taste of Tár’s self-assurance. When Krista is remembered in the film, therefore, she is faceless; this is just one of many victims, not just of Tár but of anyone who has wielded the impersonal weight of their power for personal ends. And indeed Tár herself becomes almost a metaphor for that very will to power that the film demonstrates as dangerous, for she is certainly not the lower-middle-class Staten Island girl Linda Tarr that we catch glimpses of toward the end of the film, who played accordion and field hockey. Tár is a creation: she is all identities and none, an ambiguously international person of art, genderless and intellectual, who speaks a smattering of many languages just enough to seem like one who speaks all languages, who in constant travel is seemingly everywhere all at once. In total command of herself, her words, and her movements, we are drawn to Tár ineluctably: her willpower draws the camera and our eyes always back to her. Caught up in the sheer force of this willpower, we become the audience shown in the final shot of the film: we are either enamored or numb, staring blankly as Tár alone proceeds with the work. It is not difficult to move forward with this message and translate Tár to an authoritarian or strongman figure leading us toward something, with the subtle point that when the strongman is preaching a message we believe in, they are at their most dangerous to us.
We could stop this essay here, departing with the message that Tár enacts our foibles for the strongman, but I would argue that Field’s work goes deeper than this. Tár does not just problematize Tár as a figure; it problematizes her audience – that is, us in the movie theater – and our very desire to continue watching. By problematizing its own audience’s desire to continue watching, though, Tár becomes a polemic against itself, arguing for its own destruction even as it perpetuates its own immortality. To see this more clearly, we need to meet with Tár’s heroes: Bach, Beethoven, and Bernstein.
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In her master class at Juilliard, Tár tries to find some middle ground with her recalcitrant student Max by presenting Bach, only to learn Max “isn’t into” Bach. Bach, born 15 years before the end of the 17th century, is likely one of the most recognizable and beloved names in classical music. While many in the audience of the theater will have an idea about what Bach sounds like and some might even have a favorite piece of Bach’s, nearly all would recognize, for example, his Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major (Yo-Yo Ma’s favorite). Even more than all that, likely everyone understands that Bach’s music is generally considered “good” and often “beautiful.” This being true, with the student Max’s inarticulate rejection of Bach (“Didn’t he sire, like, 20 kids?”), it is likely many in the audience would call Tár thoughtful and justified in the Juilliard scene. Max, in this context, becomes another liberal drone corrupted by our institutions of higher education, replacing beauty with, as Tár puts it, “the sound of violins tuning”: another casualty of the age of wokeness.
One of Bach’s most well-known qualities is his skill in counterpoint. Counterpoint is “the combination of two or more independent melodies into a single harmonic texture in which each retains its linear character” (my emphasis). Bach’s music was linear, mathematical – the opposite of the music presented by Max at the beginning of the Juilliard class that might be described more as a field of sound. Keep this idea of linearity in your mind as we move on to Beethoven.
While deeply influenced by Bach, Beethoven is likely even more known, better remembered, and more beloved by audiences of Tár than Bach. Beethoven was and is, to put it crassly, a 19th-century hit machine: the audience will be familiar, no doubt, with the highly recognizable opening notes of Symphony No. 5 Op. 67 (the one that goes like, “buh buh buh BUH, buh buh buh BUH”), the symphony Tár references in her New Yorker Talk, but audiences will also recognize (and probably even be able to hum along with) the Moonlight Sonata, Für Elise, and Ode to Joy at minimum. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that Beethoven is as inescapable in classical music as Shakespeare is in theater. In fact, to bring us to Bernstein, Leonard Bernstein famously adored Beethoven, describing his music in Forever Beethoven as, “still the most fantastic music no matter how often you hear it.”
By making Bernstein Tár’s mentor, Field is implicitly sketching a lineage that begins with the “inevitable” Bach, ascends to the “triumphant” Beethoven, proceeds to the admirable and respected “Lenny,” and ultimately culminates in Lydia Tár.
What are we to glean from this lineage? To paraphrase one commenter on the YouTube trailer, to evoke Leonard Bernstein through Tár is completely out of line: Bernstein was a brilliant, thoughtful, kind, and beautiful human being, while Tár is simply a narcissistic psychopath. While this characterization of Tár is certainly a reduction, what if this is the very provocation Field hopes to invoke with the film? When Tár is playing Bach for Max on the piano in the Juilliard classroom, she describes his music as “question, answer, another question.” There’s a logic to the music that we can follow, and this logic leads to the hummable melodies and emotional resonance that characterize the music. Beethoven and Bernstein followed in Bach’s footsteps with a similar logic to their compositions that gives them a certain degree of listenability. But the niceness, or listenability, of music has not been the objective of all musical professionals, especially in the past century. In fact, many artists in the 20th century rejected Bach and Beethoven’s music. John Cage, a composer from the late 20th century (likely best remembered for his so-called “silent piece”), once said of a project he was working on, “The theme is diversity, abundance and Mozart, as opposed to unity, fixity and Bach.” Coincidentally, Cage also once flat out said, “Beethoven was wrong” and had his own share of personal difficulties with Leonard Bernstein during his career. But the difference identified by Cage between Mozart (diversity) and Bach (unity) is the nature of the essential split in musical thinking that occurred early in the 20th century. Beginning mostly with the Second Viennese School (which notably included Alan Berg, Anton Webern, and Arnold Schönberg), and proceeding with many including John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Earl Brown after the first world war, composers became increasingly uncomfortable with the linearity of the tonic system, developing and exploring music that was atonal like the piece Max presents at Juilliard. To put it simply, one cannot say what “key” these composers’ pieces are in, because they reject the tonal or tonic system that forms the basis of popular music and most classical Western music. Umberto Eco on the subject wrote in The Open Work, “The tonal system has governed the development of music from the Renaissance to our own day,” continuing,
Tonal music is a system in which, once a given tonality has been chosen, the whole composition is articulated through a series of crises and dilations deliberately provoked in order to reestablish, by the final reconfirmation of the tonic, a state of peace and harmony . . . many people have also maintained that this type of formal habit has its roots in a society based on respect for an immutable order of things; in other words, tonal music is merely another way of reiterating the basic attitude of an entire educational system at both a social and theoretical level. (Eco 140)
As Tár mentions, in the works of Bach and Beethoven the musician (often the conductor) begins the work and leads a passive audience through to a satisfying, identifiable conclusion. As many 20th-century composers began to identify and as we’ve discussed above, however, Tár’s fantasy situation of the conductor controlling the music and by extension the audience is not dissimilar in general dynamics to a fascist rally, with every aspect of the aesthetics designed to bring the crowd into unity through emotional appeal. Modern musicians, observing first the Great War, then World War II, deliberately stepped aside from the inherited taste of Bach and his descendants, which they likened to nationalism and the order of the military to a more open form that relies on thoughtful participation of the audience rather than an appeal to the emotions, to memory, or to taste. The controversy these artists created when they began to explore other modes of musical expression can still be seen playing out today when, for example, we witness someone roll their eyes at “modern music.” Theodor Adorno wrote of modern music in 1948, “How fundamentally disturbed life is today if its trembling and its rigidity are reflected even [in music], in a sphere that people suppose provides sanctuary from the pressures of the harrowing norm, and that indeed only redeems its promise by refusing what they expect of it” (Adorno 5) – in other words, in order to relieve us from the “harrowing norm,” modern music requires we dispense with what we like or what we’re used to for something more challenging, provoking, even boring.
Seen in this light, we certainly know where Tár and for that matter Bernstein stand. When Tár rails against modern music in the Juilliard classroom, it may strike many in the audience that in fact Tár is right in some way – the Bach piece she plays is nicer than the first piece we heard, we might think. But at what cost? Tár is the force of order and singularity imposed on multiplicity: as she indicates in her New Yorker talk, with her right hand controlling time and her left hand shaping, Tár becomes the myth of order that posits human reason as the only defense against an otherwise chaotic and senseless world. Her music is a fantasy of control and subservience: “to dance the masque you must service the composer; you’ve got to sublimate yourself,” she says in the Juilliard classroom. And yet this sublimation is not that of a person losing themselves in work for the benefit of the collective like we might find advocated for by Hegel or Marx, a situation where one realizes themselves as real (objective) through active participation with the world: this sublimation advocates for an irretrievable rejection of the individuality of the human subject in service of the music they create, much like the human worker works in service of the product they produce in an industrial factory, losing their identity in the process. Let us not be under any misconception: the music, in Tár’s fantasy, plays the players, never the other way around (“There are no discoveries in performance,” she says).
Tár points out that we remain addicted to those individuals of immense willpower who are our leaders, whether in politics or the arts. The point, though, is that we follow because we are addicted to the order they grant us, the feeling of a cosmos amidst a world that increasingly feels like a chaos of arbitrary meaninglessness. This order and organization is, in fact, the feeling of watching Tár, so well crafted, so tastefully crafted, that it’s simply a delight to watch. And when something is tastefully done with a message we consider good, beautiful things can happen – the life of Leonard Bernstein attests to that. Yet as Tár demonstrates, our taste can just as easily make us forget the aberrations and look past the discomfort for an orderly and safe homogeneity (to forget, that is, about the case of Krista Taylor). The film finds itself, then, in a position of antinomy: in its content it advocates that we look away from our taste and our powerful leaders while nevertheless focusing untiringly on a representative of this very structure of control, ironically becoming its own enemy and the site of its own criticism, its ability to criticize itself inhibited by its very success at demonstrating its point. Tár will always be at odds with Tár in the same way a captive will always be at odds with their captor, and so long as we keep watching, we too will remain in an untenable and schizophrenic situation with our minds (what we like) at odds with our bodies (the truth we sense) in a classic case of unchecked Cartesian dualism.
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Where do we go from Tár? The final line of the film is not Tár’s; it is spoken by the narrator of the strange video game adventure experience that Tár is conducting and is oddly reminiscent of Shakespeare’s St. Crispin’s Day speech: “He which hath no stomach for this fight, / Let him depart” (IV.iii). If we determine that we have no stomach for the fight that Tár is fighting, the fight for dominance over our environment, how would we depart? More specifically, how would we depart in a way that still affirms this life, but does so in a way more in keeping with our modern sensibilities?
Tár’s own last line of the film is, “Let’s take a minute to talk about the composer’s intention [with this piece].” Intention can mean many things, but Tár’s understanding of intention can never move outside the realm of control: what so bothers her about the piece Max brings in at Juilliard is there is apparently nothing to conduct, apparently no “intention.” While intention is an attempt to bring order from chaos, and even the Zen concept of “non-intention” requires a much more rigorous practice of intention than most of us practice in our daily lives, for Tár intention evokes a baroque sensibility that sets up the composer (and, by extension, the conductor) as a god of their environment, imposing linearity and causality on a world whose governing law is the law of entropy. Tár’s music is made for us to sit passively, watching and consuming, something we’re all too happy to do in a world and a news cycle that feel more and more chaotic, more and more senseless. A feeling of order amidst our reality is nothing but welcome. But this order is a trap and a lie, for in subscribing to it we risk losing ourselves forever, as Krista Taylor did but also as Tár herself did: when she returns to her childhood home, her brother says, “You look like you don’t know where you’ve come from, or where you’re going.” Erich Fromm writes in Escape from Freedom that one “has no choice but to unite [oneself] with the world in the spontaneity of love and productive work or else to seek a kind of security by such ties with the world as destroy . . . freedom and the integrity of [the] individual self” (Fromm 21). Tár is perfectly willing to sacrifice the individual (Krista Taylor, Linda Tarr, etc.) in order to achieve the security mentioned by Fromm above – in order, that is, “to dance the masque.” The question is, are we willing to make that same sacrifice?
The final provocative question of Tár is this: is there a form that can successfully refute Tár without implicating itself in her aesthetics of control? Bach and Beethoven’s music was a response to the time in which they lived, and Tár shows us the danger of answering new questions with old answers. Can we answer new questions with new answers? Or does the film indicate movement in a direction of total openness and multiplicity, in which question (cause) and answer (effect) are themselves acknowledged to be an outmoded formula? What would that film look like? Do we have the openness for such a film? Can we bear this kind of love?
Adorno, Theodor W. “Preface.” Philosophy of New Music. Ed. by Robert Hullot Kentor. University of Minnesota Press, 1947.
Eco, Umberto. “Form as Social Commitment.” The Open Work, Harvard University Press, 1989.
Fromm, Erich. Escape from Freedom. Henry Holt, 1994.
Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare’s King Henry V. Ed. by Kellogg, Brainerd. Clark & Maynard, 1883.