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Painting a Picture of a Human Being or: Thinking About Lydia Tár As If She Were Myself photo

Over the past two years, I’ve been baffled by how quickly critical consensus develops around a
film. I guess this shouldn’t be much of a surprise given the current state of social media, but I
can’t be the only one who thinks that art, particularly the medium of film, should be something
that we examine slowly and carefully. We should be looking at a film and working to understand
what it is that is being communicated to us on its own terms. The vast majority of criticism today
strictly looks at cinema through a socio-political lens, which can be a valid way to analyze a
film, but all too often critics, film twitter, and letterboxd addicts alike will only read a film in this way, quickly devolving it into an obvious liberal or conservative reading, moving on to the next, leaving so much meat on the bone to rot that could instead be used to briefly satiate our everlasting desire to understand the human condition through motion pictures.

In writing about film on this website, I hope to give movies their proper due; to meet them where
they’re at and treat them as artifacts to be mined to better understand how we see our own
existence by reflecting it in our art.

I first saw Todd Field’s Tár in a packed theatre in Bloomfield Township, Michigan with a crowd of mostly middle-aged and above upper to upper-middle class New Yorker-tote-bag liberal types. During the first 20 or so minutes of the film I found myself annoyed, fidgeting in my seat and groaning as I sat through the titular EGOT winner’s conversation with Adam Gopnick. I was (internally, not literally) rolling my eyes as Blanchett and Mark Strong jargoned their way through what felt like a 30 minute long lunch scene. It started to make sense to me why this movie had been so hyped up. Everyone else in the theatre seemed to be eating up this pandering bullshit. I couldn’t believe I was going to have to sit through 2+ more hours of this. I’d fucked up
terribly thinking the latest prestige Oscar-y drama would be anything other than some over-written, and under-shot, pretentious coastal pandering. As the movie charged into the pivotal one-take scene where Lydia “destroys” (or “abuses,” depending on your political view) a self-proclaimed BIPOC pan-gender first-year conducting student, my perspective flipped on those two scenes. I was falling victim to the exact same simplistic mode of film critique that I so deeply despise and was merely seeing the film as a political dog whistle. I should’ve trusted Nick Nightingale. Of course it wouldn’t be so obvious.

Blanchett waltzes through the scene, speaking and moving as though she were Moses himself, bringing down knowledge of what is right and what is wrong in the kingdom of classical music to the peasants of music school. Lydia is ridiculously harsh. I can easily project myself onto Max, thinking about past experiences I had with pretentious Yale and Harvard grad professors in law school whose sole existence seemed dedicated to exerting their seniority onto you through shame and making you look like an ignorant child.

I began seeing her for all that she was: a complex, conflicted human being. When she finally lands at that piano and calls Max up to sit beside her, she displays all of the talent, skill, and passion contained within her, playing a piece in multiple different styles to showcase how vital personal interpretation is to music. Personal interpretation is all that one has in a world where you are not only expected, but forced to play the hits.

A week later I found myself at the YMCA in downtown Detroit. I’d been mulling over Tár every day in my head, fascinated that a movie could confuse me so much at this point in my adult life. I couldn’t get this person out of my head. Did I love this woman? Did I hate her? Did I want to be her? Was she everything I vehemently detest? As I got ready to struggle through another set of
pull-ups, I tossed on a pod featuring Field and Cate Blanchett discussing the film after a screening at Film at Lincoln Center. Then I heard Field’s response to a question about what his intentions with the film were: “The aim is to paint a picture of a human being.”

I realized he had done just that. When you truly get to know someone, they are completely laid bare. You begin to see them as honestly as you see yourself. When they make mistakes you wince, because you too know what it feels like to fuck up. We live in a world today that rejects complication and nuance; one that imposes a black & white perspective of morality with little to
no room for contradictory beliefs, as if one could not have conflicting feelings about a person’s actions and still love and respect them as a human being all the same. Lydia Tár may have broken her former lover and mentee Krista, pushing her to the point of suicide. But we, as the viewer, don’t get that information. This is left purposefully gray. Who are we to judge her? To
me, I see all of these aspects of the film, the facts that are left out, as mirrors that reflect back to the audience their own worldview. Many have, and will see, Lydia as a monster, assuming the worst about her, and thus, about humanity as a whole. Others will see her as the victim of cancel culture, which also seems to assume the worst about humanity: that everyone is always out to get you. But there is a third rail: Not just that she could be both at the same time, but that she could, in fact, be neither. She could just be a human being struggling to move through day to day life. We don’t know the intimate nuances of her relationship to Krista. We don’t, and will never know, the things said and kept quiet between them. We know that she is haunted, but I don’t think it is by Krista or Mahler’s music. She is haunted just as we all are by the relentless pressure of modern existence to be all things at once for everyone. She is haunted by the push we all feel to craft, and by identity; to be an “individual.” Lydia is haunted by herself.

The real key to the film, the answer to the question of who and what Lydia Tár really is (posed by the combination of the Gopnick and the classroom scene), is revealed when Lydia’s career has finally collapsed and she returns home to Staten Island.

She wanders into her childhood room like a ghost. She looks completely ran-through. Gone are the brutalist German apartments and mid-century modern offices. In its place we find the decor of lower and middle-class life: shelves over-stuffed with childhood accomplishments and papers pasted and tacked to the wall. We also see a stack of old vhs tapes. She pops one in. We watch Lydia--once Linda--watch Leonard Bernstein in the first episode of Young People & Concerts', What Does Music Mean. I’ve seen numerous critics call this scene tacky or laughable, even going so far as to say it's the worst part of the film. Anyone who thinks this way doesn’t seem to have much of a heart.

We see a grown woman stripped bare of her identity--a mother, a lover, a partner, a leader, a world-renowned composer and conductor. She thought she was a Big Man, but she is Nothing. In that devastation I saw a child. In that child I saw myself. I saw the kid that I once was dreaming of a way to be a part of something greater than myself, thinking that one day I too could be a participant in the flow of human history through creation and art. The strive to create an identity will always be a failed one, because who we are as people is forever tied to all of those who came before us. Our worldviews, our emotions, our desires, our aesthetics, our taste are all products of those who have paved the way to allow us to live in this modern world.

It is not a political, or social, or even psychological read that this film demands, but rather an economic one. Tár is ultimately, in my estimation, a film about how the business and culture surrounding art gets in the way of its creation. The meta-conversation we’ve burrowed into as a culture about who gets to make art and the value of diverse work has gotten so lost in the weeds that it has distracted us from the fact that work based on real human emotions is being pushed further and further to the margins. Lydia, a queer woman, has been exiled from the land that once proclaimed her as the greatest composer of her time, and though she will be fine, it is only because when one’s passion and love for the art that they create and participate in is true, that it can never be killed. When Lydia smiles through her tears as she watches the Bernstein tape, I realized she really was about that art life. The business of the art world she had entered into had tried to strip that from her, but they couldn’t take it completely. That fire was still in her. Looking at the film in this light, I think the final moments of the film are incredibly uplifting. Despite the revelation of the final shot, that she is conducting a live video game or anime score, she approaches the craft with the same rigorous effort and preparation that she had when conducting for one of the most prestigious orchestras in the world. The business of art has convinced most of us that there are massive distinctions between the high and low, when really those distinctions are just monetary facades. The approach is what matters, which is exactly what Lydia was trying to communicate to Max in the classroom, and what Tár as a film seems to be communicating to us.

Whenever I’m thinking, or talking for way too long about the nature of cinema, I always come to the conclusion that movies are their own realities. We are watching the combination of sight and sound, which is what crafts our own reality as we move through it. It is why filmmakers have forever been obsessed with dreams, memory, and time in cinema. Kubrick, Tarkovsky, Malick, Varda, Godard, Linklater, and Denis are a few that immediately spring to mind in this regard. Deliberately or not, Field is grappling with the same things these men and women were. He is not necessarily crafting anything new, but attempting to use the language that the filmmakers before him have refined generation after generation and inject his own perception and interpretation of these seemingly simple, yet weighty concepts. Film can be used to create new realities that are not our own; realities that can be used to better understand what this world is in which we live our day to day lives.

To reduce Lydia Tár to a metaphor or a representation of problematic celebrity artist is to deny the power of film as an empathetic medium. Lydia, in the reality that Field and his collaborators have created, is a human being. One who struggles to square the way she sees herself with the way the world sees her, just as we all do each and every day we exist in our own lives. She is simultaneously a liar, a potential abuser, an egotistical fuck, a genius, a fraud, a mentor, a woman, a mother, a partner, a composer, and a conductor among many other things. By viewing Lydia as a human being, we can better understand not only those in our lives who we view as imperfect, but our own flawed selves.

The ten films that moved me more than any other in 2022:

1. Tár, Field
2. Babylon, Chazelle
3. Strawberry Mansion, Audley & Birney
4. Stars at Noon, Denis
5. Cha Cha Real Smooth, Raiff
6. Bones and All, Guadagnino
7. Decision to Leave, Chan-wook
8. Sharp Stick, Dunham
9. Speak No Evil, Tafdrup
10. Ambulance, Bay