Todd Field's provocative power study "Tár" opens with a clever scene in which New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik, playing himself, introduces a fabulous woman named Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), who has just written a memoir ("Tár on Tár") and with whom he's about to embark on a conversation, as part of what we assume is a New Yorker Festival event.
Gopnik reminds his audiences — the one gathered onscreen as well as those of us sitting in the dark beyond — that Tár is "one of the most important musical figures of our time ... ." She was a protegee of Leonard Bernstein; before taking command of the Berlin Philharmonic, she conducted orchestras in Cleveland, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston and New York.
As a composer, she's won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony — the grand slam of major entertainment awards. This puts her in the company of immortals like Marvin Hamlisch, Whoopi Goldberg and Mel Brooks (if any of those artists happen to exist in the fictive universe of "Tár").
She is, to quote Ron Burgundy, kind of a big deal.
Gopnik goes on for a surreal-ly long time, long enough for us to understand that his introduction is partly a self-referential joke about the egos of people who "need no introduction" and the ritual worship implicit in a public Q&A session.
Once the questions and answers begin, Tár reveals herself as a breezy, confident speaker — refreshingly candid and erudite, parrying Gopnik's observation that many people think conducting an orchestra is like being a human metronome by leaning into the misconception and pointing out that there's nothing insignificant about keeping time.
She's brilliant, she's disarming and she evinces the cool eroticism of a Vogue model. Her slight smile betrays her understanding of her power — she is almost demure, secure in her impregnable place.
BACH TO BASICS
Later in the first act, there's an even better scene — a single-take, 10-minute stunt that plays out in real time as Tár lectures a Juilliard class of impressionable and mostly overawed music students. She's self-effacing, funny — she refers to herself as a "U-Haul lesbian" — and clear-eyed about her work.
As she talks about her passion, her tone is a cross between unbridled enthusiast and fighting young priest who can talk to the kids. But then, she lights on soft-spoken would-be conductor Max (German actor Zethphan Smith-Gneist). How would he approach Bach? she asks.
He shifts nervously in his seat as he answers.
"As a BIPOC pangender," he says, "I have difficulty connecting with Bach — and wasn't he a misogynist anyway?"
That's right; this gentle- seeming Black-Indigenous- Person-of-Color doesn't much care for Bach, who may have been a misogynist and was certainly white and male. "Didn't he have like 20 children?" Max ventures.
The truth is, we don't really know all that much about Bach, though he did have a lot of kids, most of whom died young. It's said he once pulled a knife on an underperforming bassoonist. He's widely believed to have been antisemitic, and given that he was a devout 18th-century German Lutheran — Bach's job in Leipzig was to be a "musical preacher" for the city's main Lutheran churches — he probably was.
(That the 18th-century Lutheran church was antisemitic is inarguable. Consider Martin Luther's 65,000-word treatise "On the Jews and Their Lies," from 1543. In that mad screed, Luther suggests burning Jewish temples and seizing their prayer books and Talmudic writings. The homes of Jews who refused to convert would be burned, and they would be exiled from Europe. The Lutheran Church repudiated these writings in the mid-1990s.)
These days Bach's "St. John Passion" is considered controversial and rarely performed because its libretto — the words Bach set to music — come from Martin Luther's idiosyncratic translation of the Gospel of John, which characterizes Jews as enemies of Jesus (conveniently overlooking that Jesus was a Jew). This controversy only arose after about 1980 because until then, nobody seemed to care too much about what the German words the choir was singing actually meant. Some scholars say Bach underscored the lines attributed to Jews in the libretto with dissonant notes, that he made purposefully ugly music to accompany their parts.
On the other hand, historians tell us that when Bach was living in Leipzig there were only six Jewish families licensed to live there. (Jews had to be licensed to live in Leipzig in the 18th century.) So there were only a handful of Jews around for Bach to hate on. It's possible he never ran into one.
I can say I hate ghosts all I want. But if I've never met a ghost, am I telling the truth?
Sure, Jews exist; ghosts don't. (I don't think.) But there's not much evidence that Bach was any more antisemitic (or misogynistic) than any other man of his time.
Todd Field surely knew this about Bach — "Tár" is nothing if not deeply researched; if I know this much about Bach, the writer-director knows this much (and probably a lot more).
But he wrote the scene the way he did for a reason — Max may not know about the allegations of antisemitism against Bach. We might presume Max has heard a lot of bad things about the Old Masters, things that vaguely disturb him and genuinely turn him off their music. He does have difficulty "connecting" with Bach, because, old white cisgendered males did bad things back in the day (and continue to do them).
When he raises his objection to Bach's "misogyny," his voice slides up at the end, turning the statement into a question?
And Lydia Tár tears into the snowflake.
"If you want to dance the masque," she thunders, "you must service the composer. You've got to sublimate yourself. Your ego and, yes, your identity."
What she seems to be doing is arguing for the transcendent nature of great art. What's important is what is spiritually universal — one's specific concerns about being seen and heard don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. If you can't be that humble before Bach, then maybe you should take your business elsewhere.
I found it a stirring speech-let. Other critics thought it cruel and reactionary.
It doesn't take much reflection to realize that Max is a straw man, set up by the screenwriter to come across as overly self-protective and a little smug. But no student would actually be able to spar with Lydia Tár. She's too gifted, with special talents and an authority that comes from the many accomplishments Gopnik cataloged.
Field could have given Max better arguments; he could have had the student object to Bach on purely aesthetic grounds, or simply maintain that while he understood the mathematical elegance of the work and admired the precise, it did not move him. Instead, Max is portrayed as "woke," and therefore as fundamentally un-serious.
While that characterization may or may not be true to life, it works in the context of the movie, because over the next hour we will discover that Tár — with whom most of the audience will have thrown in — is not the chic, funny, hyper-competent artist she presents as, but a monster of Weinstein-ian proportions.
And Tár could have acknowledged Max's concerns — she might have empathized with him. She might have made him feel "seen." And then she might have made the more persuasive and pragmatic argument that in order to accomplish his vocational goals, Max had better find a way to get around his distaste for Bach to conduct the music.
But this is drama, not pedagogy, and for "Tár" to work as a movie, Field's first move has to be to make us love — or at least root for — this complicated monster. If he fails to do that — as he invariably will with some watchers — the movie will slide off them like a cranky political screed.
But while Tár seems comfortable enough in her own skin, she doesn't think being a U-Haul lesbian has any more to do with her work than her hair color. This is admittedly an old-fashioned culturally conservative way of looking at things, but it's also something a lot of us believe.
Maybe it's even true, though we ought never forget that art is a human product. However pretty it may be to think it, Bach did not pull his music from the cosmos. He — a flawed and perhaps problematic dead white male — made it.
Just as Hitler made watercolors. Maybe they are mediocre and ordinary, but divorced from their provenance, some people would find them postcard pleasant. They would have a certain commercial viability. (That they are worth much more as souvenirs of horror is a separate moral problem.) Hitler was not a great painter, but his being Hitler does not make his paintings worse.
Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot wrote some of the most important poems of the 20th century. No one would argue that either of these artists were was bad as Hitler (who's on the short list of worst humans ever); most would concede that they were great poets. And while you could give Pound a pass on the grounds that it was mental illness that led him to embrace fascism and antisemitism, it now appears that Eliot's antisemitism was far more virulent than the background level that infected people of his time.
Bad guys. But some great poetry.
Pablo Picasso's misogyny has been well documented. Eric Clapton has expressed problematic views on race, taken them back, and repeated them again. Caravaggio was a murdering thug.
Bad people make good art all the time. It's so commonplace that we expect high achievers and singular talents to be difficult, self-absorbed perfectionists with little tolerance for those of ordinary ability. Basketball players Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan are lionized for their selfish dedication to winning at all cost.
There are people for whom work is more important than being liked. In Martin McDonagh's "The Banshees of Inisherin," Colm (Brendan Gleeson) takes ruthless action when he finds he is having trouble prioritizing his work over his happiness. He aspires to be like Bach, to have people remember his music. He can't achieve this by being nice.
Nice guys finish last. (What Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher actually said when asked about his crosstown rivals the New York Giants on July 6, 1946, was "The nice guys are all over there, in seventh place." So, the quote is more accurately paraphrased, "Nice guys finish second to last.")
We don't expect moral behavior from genius. We suffer jerks because they give us something to talk about, something by which we can be awed. The rules — of society and of law — are different for them. To fail to notice this is to be as child-minded as callow Max.
Watching this scene, most of us will agree with Tár; I think that's Field's intention anyway.
He wants us to feel aligned with her, to accept her as the NPR-approved culture hero she seems to be on that stage with Adam Gopnik. We can admire her tailored jacket, the tastefully appointed Brutalist apartment she shares with her concertmaster wife (the great Nina Hoss), the books on her shelves and her grand piano. She has a loving (but not smothering) relationship with her young daughter. Her private world is restrained and casually elegant. No doubt she drinks better wine than we do.
In a more conventional film, none of this would make her happy. She would be a miserable soul trapped in a beautiful world she understands is a lie.
But "Tár" is not that facile a film. Even as we begin to understand that Tár is a manipulative sexual predator with blood on her hands, we retain some empathy for the character. Part of this is because Field (mostly) reveals her transgressions elliptically, so we don't see her so much engaging in bad behavior as we see her colleagues and family processing that behavior. The young cellist Tár attempts to groom is either oblivious to her mentor's intentions or willing to play the game (up to a point) to get what she wants.
When Tár does something startlingly antisocial — hissing "I'll get you" at a young girl who's been bullying her daughter at school — it plays almost as comedy. And she's protecting her child. Let those among us who've not wanted to cuss out a snotty 6-year-old throw the first stone.
Another interesting factor that the audience at the New Yorker Festival where Tár is being interviewed would certainly know is that classical music has seen a number of high-profile male conductors disgraced as power-abusing sexual predators.
That she is a pioneer woman, making unprecedented progress and pulling down glass ceilings in a male-dominated industry where, for decades, powerful men got away with casual and criminal sexual misconduct, asks us to consider whether testosterone or inoculation from accountability is the more important factor in turning someone into an abuser.
And, as the movie rolls into its third act and Tár's world begins to unravel, and she retreats from Berlin to her childhood home of Long Island, we learn that her upbringing was lower middle class; that her first instrument was an accordion, which her parents may have bought on time from a door-to-door salesman because they could not afford a piano. (That's what my parents did for my music-major sister in the '60s; later we got an upright piano, but the accordion came first.)
We learn that she is estranged from her family; that when she was growing up they called her "Linda," not "Lydia," and that her brother — a scruffy man glimpsed briefly in a dim hallway — is disgusted by the airs she took on after she finally escaped what she no doubt considered the suffocating ordinariness of wage-earning America.
And, in the end, as Tár makes her way deep into the jungle on a journey that (surely purposefully) resembles that made by Martin Sheen's Captain Willard in "Apocalypse Now," we might wonder what Kurtz she's on a mission to murder.
Maybe her ego, so she can once again dance the masque.