I read today that this past Thanksgiving weekend marked the lowest box office (adjusted for inflation, I assume) in the history of the motion picture industry. Which demonstrates once again just how out of sync with the rest of my countrymen I tend to be, because I went to the movies on Friday for the first time in several months. I’d gotten my yearly check-up that morning (I’m nice and healthy, potential employers), then done something else atypical for me – a little early Christmas shopping, braving the chaos of Black Friday. And then, on my way home from Manhattan, instead of changing trains at the Atlantic Avenue hub, I disembarked the station entirely, walked over to Brooklyn Academy of Music, bought myself a ticket, and sat down to watch the new Cate Blanchett movie, Tár.
I’m still reeling from the experience.
Now, I’m not the only person you’re going to find on the internet telling you how amazing Tár is; it’s gotten rapturous reviews. I do, however, feel like I have a special insight into this movie about the classical music world. I don’t discuss it here on my blog, because I’d like to remain employed, but my day job is in arts education, in the classical music field. For twenty years, I’ve helped coordinate masterclasses and draft artists’ contracts; I’ve been the guy writing up programs and setting up the music stands. And for decades prior to that, I’ve known and loved the repertoire, ever since Mrs. Del Rosso’s second grade music class. And I can tell you that the level of accuracy in this movie, the attention to detail, is mind-boggling. It’s not just that Blanchett herself is conducting the orchestra we see on screen, for real – it’s that her style is specifically linked to her character’s backstory as a Leonard Bernstein protégé, and that her interpretations of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and the Elgar Cello Concerto are directly linked to the character’s journey. Hell, the fact that Lydia Tár’s a Bernstein protégé in the first place is a crucial insight to the character. The varying intonation styles of different cellists turns out to be a major plot point. The fact that the elite symphonies audition new members behind a screen is an even more crucial plot point. A pivotal scene is built around decades-old gossip concerning the conductor Herbert von Karajan. The central premise of the movie – conductor Lydia Tár’s inappropriate sexual behavior and abuses of power coming back to haunt her – is built on real-world gossip that only went public months ago. To chronicle every single reference, to provide a footnote for every frame of film and line of dialogue, would take exponentially longer than the film’s running time.
Ah, but Michael, I hear you (hypothetically) say, isn’t this just another case of artists being flattered into liking a work simply because it’s talking about them? Which means that critics will love it because it speaks their language, but if you don’t already know this material you’ll be hopelessly lost? And that’s a valid question; insularity in the arts is a real danger (and one of the major subjects of the movie). But the critics who’ve been rhapsodizing over this film don’t have any special knowledge about its subject matter. At all. And their reviews have made that spectacularly clear.
The best evidence of what I mean comes in the discussion of the film’s most mind-blowing scene. It comes early on in the film, as Lydia Tár gives a masterclass at Juilliard. (And even though it’s a purely interior scene and there’s no way anybody would know it wasn’t shot on a soundstage or some alternate location, it was clearly shot on location at Juilliard.) The masterclass unfolds as a ten minute unbroken take, in which uncomfortable questions of identity politics are raised as the Western canon is discussed (and in which Blanchett not only plays an excerpt from Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier mid-way through her monologue but breaks out a Glenn Gould impersonation while doing so, because apparently she can do anything.) At one point, as she tries to stress the importance of mastering the standard repertoire even if it’s not what you personally respond to, Tár exclaims, “if you want to dance the masque, you must service the composer.” Which is a florid way of making the point, but that’s the character.
Every single review I’ve read which mentions this scene – and again, it’s the most mind-boggling scene I’ve seen in years, and you can’t discuss the film or Blanchett’s performance without discussing it because how the hell did she do all that in an unbroken ten minute take – has quoted this line incorrectly. They transcribe it as “if you want to dance the mask,” which is a nonsense phrase. The question makes no sense. (Just so we’re all clear, a masque is a formal court dance. Depending on the masque, you might wear a mask if you’re performing in one, but they’re two separate things.) Since the intent of the question is abundantly clear from context, if the critics are garbling the line like this it’s clear that they don’t know that context. The dialogue might as well be gibberish. And yet, they completely grasp the power dynamics of the scene, and of the movie, so they’re accurately praising what they don’t fully understand.
And ultimately that’s why I wanted to write about Tár today, and encourage all writers and performing artists to see it. (They’re not paying me.) The standard procedure, the advice writers are invariably given when setting a story in an unfamiliar milieu, is to find a way of orienting the audience. To give Tar some sidekick who’s brand-new to the classical world, let’s say, so that arcane concepts can be helpfully explained. To make concessions to the audience. But Tár works spectacularly precisely because it never makes any concessions to its audience. It lets its characters have long conversations about abstruse musicological points right off the bat, and trusts that we’ll follow along. And we do, because the emotional truth of the scenes is right there. More to the point, the emotional truth of any given scene is enhanced because there’s no phony, clumsily inserted explanations to try and dumb things down. The characters know what they’re talking about, and instinctively we know they know what they’re talking about, and we believe them as a result, The specificity is what makes us care.
So, filmmakers and artists of America, please go see this movie and take away its lesson. You don’t need to dumb anything down. You don’t need to talk down to us. Go ahead and realize your worlds, whatever they are, in the most painstaking detail you can. Let them be truthful. Maybe then we’ll start going to the movies on Thanksgiving weekend again.