Reflection on Tár

[Spoilers to follow, in case you’re worried!]

We recently watched the film Tár starring Cate Blanchette. It’s a film with a lot, I mean a lot, of talking. We split our watching over two days. But the acting was so compelling, the camera work was so fascinating, and the story was so gripping, that we kept thinking about it over those two days. It’s a film mainly about power, and also what it means to dedicate everything to art, and the sacrifices one makes.

By the time we meet the main character, Lydia Tár, she is a monster. She is wickedly intelligent and utterly devoted to her career as one of the greatest musical conductors of all time. She holds her own with any intellectual and acts decisively and confidently. Also, she is a lesbian, and uses her power to entrap young lovers and burn their careers as soon as they become too demanding. Eventually, in the age of wokeness and #MeToo, her past catches up to her, and her career is destroyed.

By the end, I think no one can feel sorry for her. She has destroyed careers and driven one promising young talent to suicide. She has manipulated almost everyone around her, and the loss of her preeminent status, and more seriously of her relationship to her young daughter, is really a small cost to pay for what she has done. By the end she still has a life and a job in music, and she seems willing to return to the basics of her life and move on. She is a tragic hero who deserves what she gets, and maybe more.

We also see what goes into making this monster. Lydia—originally Linda—grew up in a modest household on Staten Island and had to work hard to gain her career in music. In the film, giving advice to young conductors, she says, “You want to dance the mask, you must service the composer. You gotta sublimate yourself, your ego, and, yes, your identity. You must, in fact, stand in front of the public and God and obliterate yourself.” It’s clear she has obliterated her old self, and as the film starts she has published her book Tár on Tár, a book by a constructed self about that self. It’s not clear that she can see much else beyond herself and her work, which is to wring the sublime from classical works, like Maher’s Fifth Symphony. 

Having constructed this new persona, Tár inevitably collides with a younger generation which is all about crowing over one’s identity. She harshly reprimands a young student who dismisses Bach on the basis of his heterosexual white maleness, starting with “Don’t be so eager to be offended. The narcissism of small differences leads to the most boring kind of conformity”, and then continuing on to “If Bach’s talent can be reduced to his gender, birth country, religion, sexuality, and so on, then so can yours”. He eventually calls her a bitch and storms out, and later the whole episode is distorted into a damning Tik Tok video.

The thing is, though Tár is a monster, she’s right. “The narcissism of small differences” does lead to an intellectual and aesthetic wasteland. I don’t believe that one has to obliterate oneself, let alone become a remorseless predator, to create great art. But great achievement won’t come from smugly defending one’s identity, either. At some point one must decide that the art is more important than the boundaries of one’s own comfort zone. Tár’s fame is not based on nothing: she is creating great performances, performances that change the history of music, and she is able to do so because she has sacrificed herself to the cause. The power of Mahler’s fifth is vastly greater than anything to be found on Tik Tok—and yet it is Tik Tok that slays this beast.

(added, upon further reflection) I don’t know how to balance the value of great art against the value of owning one’s identity and being accepted for how one is. I suppose there is an unavoidable conflict between wanting to be content with how you are, and wanting to change yourself or challenge yourself into being or creating something else. It seems generally true that significant creation costs something–time and effort at the very least, but sometimes also friends, family, simpler forms of happiness, and maybe bits of one’s soul. “Was it worth it?” is probably a question that often does not have a clear, stable answer. But when the cost is the suffering of innocent bystanders–well, then, no, I am tempted to insist: no, it was not worth it.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
This entry was posted in Meanings of life / death / social & moral stuff, Music. Bookmark the permalink.

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