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‘tar and feather’ meets ‘save the cat’
Tár, a bad movie, is the ultimate discourse machine
Briefly, I have a new piece out with The Dial about the transatlantic divide between the European and American literary scenes and the market conditions that cause it. You can read it here. I also wholly recommend checking out the The Dial in general, a new & excellent magazine featuring reporting from around the world.
Speaking of market conditions, however, I’m really here for some movie talk:
Tar and feather yourselves!
A few months ago, a friend sent me a long manifesto about the film everyone is still talking about. I am bad at reading instructions, so I got halfway through before scrolling back to the top, where I’d been warned not to read any of this until I’d seen the film myself. I am also slow. Only yesterday did I finally get around to seeing Tár.
I’m not especially sensitive to ruining the endings of things, mostly because it never works—I still get stressed out, or outraged, or cry, or generally reproduce whatever emotion a movie is designed to wrest from me, no matter how cheaply. In the theater, I am defenseless. For the purposes of this recap, I would like to suggest this also makes me a good barometer for manipulative narrative intentions.
Before seeing Tar, I’d read the reviews in which critics mistook Lydia for a real composer; the Zadie Smith essay that occasioned an ode to Gen X; half my friend’s email; various assessments of Blanchett’s acting; the unavoidable Twitter takes. Despite all this preparation, naturally I left the theater as totally stressed out and wired as anyone. This was not only a bad movie, it struck me, but perhaps one of the most cynical films I’d seen in a long time. Wreathed in endless ambiguities—yet creating the illusion of intimacy with its primary subject—it was designed not as a film, but as the ultimate discourse machine.
I have not waded through all the discourse on Tár (hopefully you haven’t, either), nor do I plan to, so I apologize if I’m repeating what your favorite critic has already said, but repeating someone else this late in the game, and this close to the Oscars, strikes me as inevitable, as well as crucial to the producers’ bottom line.
Another disclaimer: There are of course some great long-shots and visuals in the film, but I’m obviously going to focus on the storytelling.
From what I can tell, the usual critical approach to the film’s narrative content is to zoom in on individual scenes that, like grenades, are designed to explode under close analysis. When Lydia bullies the child picking on her own daughter in the schoolyard, is she a monster? (To me, this was the film’s sole moment of humor—perhaps don’t ask me to babysit.) Is calling out composers for sexual misdeeds morally comparable to denazification in the Nachkriegszeit? (What?!) Is the otherwise invincible and ageless Cate Blanchett’s acting actually kind of bad? (Unhappily, yes—since when does a master of an art form most of us are totally illiterate in command viral social media attention without an ounce of charm??) Above all, having ridden the internet wave to the crest of cancel-culture discourse, how are audiences to receive a sexual predator who is not only a woman, but a lesbian—as a rude form of equality, or (queasy thought) a cheap ploy for novelty? Finally, who in the world is Krista??
The film intentionally takes no view on any one of these divisive questions, especially not the last. One justification would be that the film withholds in order to leave space for the viewer to “interpret the story for herself.” This is a pro-ambiguity newsletter, and in support of this creed, it’s worth restating the obvious. The narrative arts are indeed highly suited to investigating deeply imagined, complicated, uncomfortably erotic relationships that would never hold up in the court of public opinion, let alone actual court, but whose complex psychology makes us complicit in our attempts to judge them—because the point of a psychological drama isn’t to reproduce a legalistic mindset (which has its place: in court), but to tell us more about what it’s like to be alive. The relationships in Tár, however, are, as in a horror film (a genre with its own charms and capacities, of course), kept intentionally wooden and flat, suggesting alternative designs. (Also I’m pretty sure the film is interested in reproducing a legalistic mindset.)
Another, far more profitable, and therefore more probable, justification (this is Hollywood) for hollowing out the relationships in the film of any details that would aid us in inhabiting Tár’s behavior or decision-making is that a lack of information better stokes the flames of endless debate over hypotheticals designed to get people shouting at each other.
When faced with a self-perpetuating discourse machine, the only dignified thing to do is to try to take it apart and see what makes it whir—a brief exercise in reverse-engineering.
Save the Cat!
Imagine, then, a Hollywood writers’ room: the script doctors and producers (?) sit around a large, sleek table set with mineral water (?) and a bowl of tropical (?) fruit. (I’ve never been to Hollywood.) They’ve secured abundant funding for a film on the urgent issue of cancel culture. Now they have to, you know, come up with the film. They begin brainstorming who could possibly serve as the protagonist. A man, especially a white cis man, seems too simple, too done, too talked to death. Also, we kind of just had Phantom Thread re: domineering male genius. So they decide to make her a woman—perhaps even a lesbian. As inspiration, someone brings up the ambiguous artist-muse relationship at the center of Blue Is the Warmest Color. During the filming that movie, someone else recalls, the male director mistreated and humiliated his female leads. A silence. They do need an actual art monster, probably not the sex. Someone spills a bottle of Pellegrino (?), and then it’s time to call it a day.
Having predestined the protagonist to be a predator, the rest of the film can be explained by the effort to build sympathy for Lydia’s character (and preferably without developing any of her erotic relationships). Here we reach for the ultimate screenwriter’s handbook, Save the Cat. If you haven’t run across this cornerstone of screenwriting instructionals, the commandment is simple: Have your protagonist “save a cat” in the first few minutes of the film to clinch the audience’s sympathy, especially if she’s going to turn out to be awful. (Additionally, you can win sympathy by giving her a special skill, e.g., art genius.) In the first ten minutes, Lydia Tar shows lackluster rival Combover Conductor Guy – I forget his name – a cute picture of her timid daughter, whom Lydia later rescues from the abusive playground bully. Check. Not long after, on a run back in Berlin, she hears a woman’s screams in the woods; she runs toward them, seeking to help. Late in the film, she returns home to culturally condescended-to Staten Island, where she grew up. As Adam Gopnik, playing Adam Gopnik, stresses in a fictional New Yorker interview in the opening scene, few art forms have been less welcoming to or more dismissive of female genius than conducting or composing, historical hurdles Lydia more or less dismisses. She is the ultimate American bootstrapper—we do love a bootstrapper—and the cat she’s saved is herself.
Back in the writer’s room, where the fruit bowl has been refreshed, the team is discussing further ways to optimize the film for social media fervor. “People love horror.” “Horror is always in.” “I’ve got it, I’ve got it, she’s haunted by her past.” “Aren’t we all?” “Identification!” This is how we arrive at the steady parade of thriller tropes. In Lydia’s luxurious Berlin apartment, we have the haunted metronome; the crepitating fridge; the missing score of Mahler’s Fifth. Elsewhere, the descent into the abandoned basement; the approach of menacing, unidentified footsteps; the monstrous neighbors who leave their shut-in mother to die on the floor, covered in filth.
Someone peels a blood orange (?).
“What about the Krista girl?”
If you’re writing for an algorithm, follow your own rules
Weirdly enough, the first rule of formulaic writing — but maybe especially a type as formulaic as Hollywood screenwriting – is that the most important scene in the story has to be in the narrative present. When it’s shoved into the past, usually it’s because that scene is hard. We sense the author has “flinched.”
The most important scene in Tár is, of course, Lydia’s off-screen and in-the-past treatment of Krista, the mentee who commits suicide after Lydia blocks her from getting a job at some thirty-five-and-counting orchestras. The details of Tár’s behavior are unknown, but the damning nature of her behavior is implied. I fully accept that it’s possible to write a version of the screenplay without this scene, but also, I really don’t trust this movie. As written, it’s shoving this particular scene (or rather any scene with Krista) into the past that makes the film such an excellent discourse machine, reproducing basically the same perspective we have on all scandals involving famous abusers of power (we weren’t there), while perfectly calibrating the level of ambiguity + horror for us to read our own ghosts, traumas, terrors, generational experiences, and above all political biases into the gaping hole in the middle of the film. This is its own kind of cynical brilliance.
That Tár so closely reproduces an audience’s default perspective on moral scandal disseminated through social media, however, is also what makes it a bad story, robbing the dramatization of complexity and rendering Lydia—designed to accommodate every viewer’s possible take—impossible for Blanchett to act.
Hire me to write your movie!
However little I know about a Hollywood writer’s room, and however exaggerated or unfair my wild speculations about said writer’s room above may be, I cannot unsee traces of just such a reverse-engineered process in Tár, nor forget that the primary goal of all algorithmically driven writing is to do numbers, to sell. Then again, if you want to pay me what I hear screenwriters get paid, I will totally save your cat. I have immediate availability. Simply reply to this email.
PS please do read my essay & others in The Dial!