Belonging to the small but vocal minority of people who spend too much time on Twitter, I typically first encounter media and art in their abridged, non-contextualized states before I ever consume them the way that we are “supposed to.” (But, who even knows what that means anymore?)
This was the case with Todd Field’s 2022 faux-prestige biopic, “Tár,” which I initially perceived as a movie about the maneuvers and recoil of “cancel culture,” a conversation topic interminably favored by blue check midwits. But Tár really isn’t that; it builds on this conceit to probe its unexplored valleys and frontiers, leveraging what it knows we will reduce it to in our 280-character treatises to coax from us scrutiny of the self and of the culture.
“Tár” is a philosophic gradient. At times it’s startlingly lucid: The opening scene is an exhilarating takedown of the elitism of cultural institutions contrived as an dialogue between the eponymous fictional composer Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) and The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, playing himself of course.
But other scenes require more guesswork as to the ideological stance of the film, which to me seems like the only way to make a movie that tries to adjudicate or texture the very concept of modern (online) ideology. Tár is a person who finds herself immeasurably malleable to the “culture,” and not always just as it relates to her individuality — another pivotal scene follows Tár as she bullies a young pangender musician for their derision of Bach on the grounds of his “straight-white-maledom.”
Her takedown of this student is vicious. Tár seems to occupy the position of someone who views herself as outside the social media bedlam that has enabled the kinds of opinions her students now express when, in fact, she is also liable to them, just to the opposite end.
In terms of fleshing out Tár’s character (the primary pursuit of the film), the scene is useful insofar as it details the way Tár views herself — a woman and a lesbian — as part of a lineage of male artists. Many times we see her reject the notion that sexism has had a tangible impact on her career and her celebrity because it seems like too whiney or topical of a grievance, despite its partial truth.
That said, it would be similarly objectionable for Tár, onstage with Gopnik, to simper and bemoan her subordinate sexual status given the strides women have been able to make professionally and her undeniable elite status. Like all of us, Tár is inclined towards self-flattery and narrative control. Her mistake is in thinking that her contrarianism and antagonization is flattering. Is it a cardinal sin to simply not be able to keep pace with the culture?
In our world, and also the world of the film, it is. Tár suffers accordingly, when edited videos from the incident bubble up on Twitter later in the film, again attracted like opposite poles of a magnet to the narratives they fancy.
What Field wants us to pick up on here is that each side of the ideological coin is weathered by social media and its narrowed, optical discourses — and that his film very likely will be too. “Tár” occasionally feels like it lacks cogency because in a lot of ways it does, and it’s supposed to. It’s not a movie about online ideology and the proliferation of morality, but it’s also not so naive as to sidestep these topics in their entirety.
Instead, Field sets them on a collision course with the inescapable narcissism of Lydia Tár and then forces us to fix our gazes on the crash for an uncomfortable three hours. What results from this refusal to engage with the Internet on the level that it tempts us to is ultimately a far better movie. Art is simply more interesting when the specificities and complexities of life (real, non-online life) are forefronted.
Tár works in the off-screen space. I mean that both in the sense that it is intellectually demanding of the viewer, requiring contemplation long after the credits roll, and in that it’s not easily distilled into digestible fragments.
I am writing this column the day after the 2023 Oscars ceremony, where (unsurprisingly) Tár was snubbed in every category it was nominated for. That award shows privilege sentimentality over intellectualism is a truth so readily recognized it doesn’t really bear mention. For this reason, it would be silly for me to be all that incensed by this outcome. It’s to the film’s credit that it flopped at the ceremony, because its true value lies in how it exists inside of the social media wasteland but doesn’t acquiesce to it.