Diminuendo: A Master Descends In ‘Tár’

Greatness isn’t what it used to be. For better and worse, the rules are different now, changing rapidly in the past few years after staying more or less the same for decades… maybe centuries? Cancellation has come to call on so many luminaries. Many, perhaps most, deserve to have their actions interrogated, but it’s rarely a terribly thorough or well-reasoned investigation. The current corrective for all the decades behind us, in which inquiries into problematic behavior didn’t go far enough, is to take them too far. The speed and fury with which that happens allows for all sorts of mistakes, but that’s not a bug, it’s a feature. We want to do it hastily, knowing that if we slow down and consider things from multiple angles, we won’t get the buzz of satisfaction that accompanies the slamming down of the red rubber stamp:“Cancelled!” Angry mobs go after monsters with poorly-proofed tweets instead of flaming pitchforks now, but the mentality is the same.

Bemoaning “cancel culture” is almost as trendy as the cancelling itself; the argument against cancellation is delivered most fervently by those who suspect they’re about to be cancelled themselves. (And often, they are quite right about that.) Todd Field’s Tár tackles this ultra-relevant topic head on; it’s impossible to watch it without your favorite (or least favorite) high-profile cancellation popping into mind. But it views this spectacle at a remove, without the rapid-fire ferocity and keyed up tribalism that accompanies each of these scandals in real life. Real cancellations unfold so quickly, so intensely, in the worst possible forums for rational, nuanced discussion. We never get to examine them from an objective point of view.

Tár introduces us to a woman who needs no introduction in the world of this film. Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) is a renowned composer who also happens to be a deeply flawed human being. We’re never given quite enough information to assess whether or not she deserves to be cancelled, because that’s not the point. The film is an investigation of talent — not talent itself, but the way talent is perceived by others — and how that gaze has shifted in recent years.

Field’s film is tightly tethered to this current moment, explicitly taking place post-pandemic, with flourishes that make Lydia seem like a real celebrity (such as the lengthy Q&A with Adam Gopnick that opens the film). Within minutes, you’ll swear you read about Lydia Tár in last week’s New Yorker or stumbled across a video of her recent concert on YouTube the other night. Fake celebrities often seem fake in narrative films, because star quality is enigmatic and hard to replicate. Tár, though, could easily pass for a biopic; Lydia is more like a flesh-and-blood human being than Shirley, Harriet, and Judy combined.

How awesome is Lydia Tár? Well, she’s an EGOT winner — a rarefied artist standing shoulder to shoulder with Audrey Hepburn, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Rita Moreno, Mike Nichols, and Richard Rodgers. There is no debate about her musical genius. We watch her work in public and private. We hear her speak on composition and conducting insightfully. She is intimidatingly intelligent. (Nearly everyone in her orbit is — she has carefully selected her inner circle, as only those in her exalted position can.)

Her eminence has also made her somewhat naive. We see scandals gunning for her long before she does. She thinks she can will her transgressions to disappear. She assumes she has that power because she did have that power — once upon a time, when adulation was a shield. But things have changed. The formerly untouchable can now be held accountable for their actions. Lydia attempts to bury her mistakes — hoping that merely deleting some incriminating emails off her personal computer will suffice. She believes her accomplishments outweigh her indiscretions in the grand scheme of things. She might even be right. But that’s not good enough in the court of public opinion nowadays. The knives are out, and Lydia’s baton won’t fend them off for long.In one of Field’s strongest scenes, Lydia debates with Max, a Juilliard student, about Bach. He’s ready to dismiss the illustrious composer because of his problematic personal life; Lydia argues that if Bach’s brilliance can be dismissed because of his archaic 18th century whiteness, and all the complications that come along with that, then Max might be similarly judged for the color of his skin, or his sexual orientation, or any number of attributes that have nothing to do with his skill as a musician.

The seeds are planted here. Controversy will sprout later. It is in this scene that we learn just how old school and out of step Lydia Tár is. She may be right about Bach, but her insensitivity to delicate discourse doesn’t bode well for a prolonging of her esteem with Gen Z. This Tár character could just as easily have been written as a straight man; in making her a lesbian, Field forces us to view this confrontation with more nuance. Lydia has some privilege, being cis and white; as a queer female, she’s probably faced some discrimination, too. In a room full of smart, privileged college kids, we glimpse the Cancel Monster lurking in the shadows, sharpening its claws, awaiting the perfect opportunity to strike. Lydia is blissfully unaware.

Through a quintet of female characters, we come to learn everything we need to know about Lydia Tár over the course of the movie. That includes her intuitive wife, Sharon (Nina Hoss), who is also part of the her orchestra; her capable assistant, Francesca (Noémie Merlant), an aspiring conductor herself; and cellist Olga (Sophie Kauer), a new protégé whose rough edges have yet to be sanded off by renown. The fourth is her daughter Peta (Mila Bogojevic). The fifth is a non-character, a young woman we never really meet or even see clearly; she is Krista, a troubled former protégé of Lydia’s, and likely a former fling, too. By the time Tár begins, Krista has been decisively, pitilessly cut out of Lydia’s life. As clueless as Lydia is about the mechanics of cancel culture, she is haunted by her treatment of Krista even before tragedy strikes. A few scenes threaten to turn Tár into a supernatural thriller, though the spookiness is really just a manifestation of Lydia’s troubled conscience. She won’t actually admit any wrongdoing — not to anyone else, and not to herself — so her subconscious cops to it for her.Through Lydia,Tár pulls back the curtain on the whole machine enabling a towering talent like hers. Conservatories, universities, publications, fellowships, endowments, institutions of all kinds. Tastemakers are instrumental in exalting a star like Lydia Tár. She would never be where she was if these institutions hadn’t granted her the opportunity. And now Lydia Tár is in a position to lift those beneath her, if she so chooses, to join her up on the podium. (Don’t hold your breath.)

Throughout the film, Lydia commits a series of tiny betrayals that we suspect will end up snowballing — and they do. She’s not a scoundrel, but she makes the decisions that serve her best interests. Loyalty is not one of her strong suits. She capitulates to her sexual interest in Olga when deciding who will get the coveted cello solo in an upcoming performance; she rethinks Francesca’s deserved promotion because of the potential for gossip about the nature of their relationship (which, in this case, isn’t even true). All the while, Lydia assumes she’s exempt from the repercussions of her disregard for her disciples. (They always do, don’t they?) But it’s 2022. Her bill will come due.

Lydia grants special favors to pretty girls. She cuts off communication with her unstable, jealous mistress. She fires and promotes those in her employ based on self-interest rather than an objective assessment of their skills. She’s no saint. But we recognize ourselves in her misconduct — even if we wouldn’t make the mistakes she does, we do make mistakes. Tár could have stacked the decks against cancellation and let us pity poor Lydia; we don’t. She gets what’s coming to her, sort of; they’re not necessarily unjust desserts. Still, she starts off so big, and ends up so small — from sharp to flat, from major to minor. What’s the point of her expulsion from the limelight? Are those who will rise to take her place any less flawed than she is? In the end, a fallen Tár loses nearly everything she has, and the world loses a brilliant musician. Ours might be the greater loss.

When it comes to the people we consider to be great, we expect them to be great people. But that’s not the same thing, is it? When our idols fail us, we don’t just register that disappointment and carry on, with or without them. Not anymore. Now, we want to see them suffer. Now, we want to watch them burn.

Tár unfolds almost entirely from Lydia’s point of view. We come to know her incredibly well. She feels like a real celebrity, and a real person. And yet, Tár is not really about Lydia Tár at all. It’s about our perception of Lydia Tár, which means it’s about us.

A colossal talent like Lydia Tár can only become colossal if we let her; if enough of us join together and decide that she’s worthy of our attention and respect. By the same token, a Lydia Tár can only fall from grace if we collectively agree that that’s her fate. We used to decide not to let that happen very often, unless their follies were truly heinous; now we’ve decided that it happens a lot. Nothing about the Lydia Társ of the world changed in that time. So what changed? Us.

It’s possible to come away from Tár thinking Lydia got a raw deal. It’s possible to come away thinking she got off easy. Tár doesn’t ask us to think either good or ill of cancellation at large. It just asks us to think.

Which failings are permissible from our magnates? Which flaws are fatal? We all draw the line somewhere. Is it between Harvey Weinstein and Woody Allen? Michael Jackson and Johnny Depp? J.K. Rowling and Louis C.K.? Joss Whedon and Dave Chappelle? Sia and Ellen DeGeneres?

Merely naming these potentially incendiary names threatens to derail a productive discussion about this film, inviting the keyed up tribalism Tár wisely avoids through its fictional protagonist. But these names are likely to pop into your head while watching Tár, because Lydia Tár is presented to us as part of a pattern — better than some, worse than others.

Tár provides us with our first real opportunity to consider the cancellation phenomenon for what it is. We enter without any skin in the game. We have no bias for or against Lydia Tár, no preconceptions about her guilt or innocence. We don’t know whether we are Team Lock Her Up or Team Leave Lydia Alone. Field remains committed to this objectivity throughout the film. He doesn’t push us to love or loathe Lydia. We’re not wired to either damn or defend her, the way we are with famous figures we’re already invested in. That permits us to examine the mechanisms of one such spiral downward independently, and consider our thoughts on cancellation in isolation.

Clocking in at over two and a half hours, with a couple of particularly lengthy and talky scenes right up front, Tár  is antithetical to the lightning-quick speed of social media. No knee-jerk hot takes allowed. The case against Lydia Tár is built slowly; we’re forced to take our time examining the evidence bit by bit. There is no echo chamber of like-minded followers, nor opportunity to scroll through wildly dissenting opinions. Most real world cancellations get maybe five minutes of our attention before we make a snap judgment; that’s hardly enough time to do our due diligence. Tár is the antidote to the barrage of information and opinion that scatters our brains and demands satisfaction — rewarding less and less thought with more and more action. It unfolds at a methodical pace, structured like a classical piece that takes time to build and build and build before it finally crescendos majestically.

In the Q&A with Gopnick, Lydia describes her talent as controlling time. She prepares extensively before a performance, she explains, getting it just right — there is no room for discovery during the performance itself.

Lydia has taken the same approach to her own celebrity persona — she rigidly, rigorously constructed herself, starting only with raw talent. Everything else took hard work. Now she hopes to coast on her laurels, but that’s not possible in a rapidly changing world. Tár prepared herself to be a brilliant musician yesterday; she hasn’t kept up on what it takes to excel today. She’d be wise to do a little of that discovery now that her magnum opus is in full swing. She may have played the public like an orchestra once, but today’s discourse will not obey the commands of her baton. She can’t conduct us.

In the end, it makes no difference whether Lydia Tár deserved her cancellation. In the minds of the next generation of musicians and tastemakers, she’s as passé as Bach. And she has the misfortune to still be alive to witness her legacy crumbling before her eyes, her artfully rendered, timeless melodies drowned out in a cacophony of 21st century wrath.

Lydia Tár once learned to master time itself. But times change, and time’s up.

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