The cosmic coin of director/writer Todd Field’s “Tár” really depends upon the status of female conductors in the reality of today. Presented and publicized as if it was a biopic, “Tár” is about the fictional first woman conductor for the Berlin Philharmonic, a real organization which was founded in 1882. Yet this psychological drama veers into the illusions of ego and guilt. Off screen, the film seems to deflect the reality of the #MeToo movement, making the film seem slightly misogynistic. While the film is supposedly about genius and the abuse of power, without any reality check, people will be unaware that the cinematic reality of “Tár” is so far from contemporary reality as to seem like a science fiction alternative universe.
The title is the last name of a musical genius who can’t outrun the sins of her past. Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), 49, is a Curtis Institute of Music-trained pianist. She graduated from Harvard, attended the University of Vienna for her Ph.D. and went on to not only be an EGOT composer, but also has conducted the Big Five: New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra and Cleveland Orchestra. Currently she is the conductor at the Berlin Philharmonic and she can fiercely conduct in German.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she wasn’t able to complete a Mahler cycle but the film focuses on her preparing to complete the cycle with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Her mentor Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) had done the cycle first in the 1960s and then again in the 1980s.
While her preparation is obsessive and Blanchett makes even these moments interesting, she is also orchestrating her value as a commodity through mentorship and a preemptory book tour for her autobiography, “Tár on Tár,” that is also meant to stroke her ego as well as increase her legend.
While she teaches a graduate masterclass as a guest lecturer at Julliard, she has a bristling encounter with the new generation. A Black student rejects classic genius in a way that we end up siding with Tár. “As a BIPOC pangender,” Max (Zethphan Smith-Gneist) offers, “I have difficulty connecting with Bach — and wasn’t he a misogynist anyway?” Max mentions that Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) had fathered 20 children.
For the record, Bach was married twice and the children were issues from those two marriages. He had seven children with his first wife, Maria Barbara, who died suddenly in 1720. Three of those children died in infancy. His second wife, Anna Magdalena (1701-1760), married Bach about a year and a half after his first wife’s death. Together, Bach and his second wife had 13 children, seven of whom died young. There was no reliable birth control at the time. Bach’s sons were educated; the daughters were not. Bach’s second wife died in poverty.
But the question Max raises is: Should we throw away the foundations of Western classical music based on character evaluations with Bach as an example? If he had been a slave owner or a Confederate, one might have easily agreed with Max in this Black Lives Matter era. Asking a woman about the misogyny of Bach, particularly one who has excelled in a field dominated by men, seems to be a cheeky challenge, veering on mansplaining but Max is pan gender.
Tár responds, “But I’m sorry. I’m unclear as to what his prodigious skills in the marital bed have to do with B minor. Sure, alright, whatever. That’s your choice. I mean, after all, ‘a soul selects her own society.’ But remember, the flip side of that selection closes the valves of one’s attention.” There is a danger in shutting oneself off from people who are different from oneself, Tár explains, “But you see, the problem with enrolling yourself as an ultrasonic epistemic dissident is that if Bach’s talent can be reduced to his gender, birth country, religion, sexuality and so on, then so can yours.”
Yet Tár concludes, “If you want to dance the mask, you must service the composer. You’ve got to sublimate yourself, your ego, and, yes, your identity. You must, in fact, stand in front of the public and God and obliterate yourself.”
This exchange, curiously videotaped and vindictively edited, will come back to haunt Tár, but we know that she is already haunted by mysterious sounds, portending a lonely, loveless old age or incriminating her for predatory actions of her past. For this, I’ll say, look for the redhead–not someone with DC comic book Mera red hair, but a real shade of shoulder length red hair. You’ll quickly become aware that Tár, at times, becomes infatuated with women and has transactional expectations. That’s despite Tár being in a stable relationship with a wife, Sharon Goodnow (Nina Hoss), who also serves as the concertmaster for the Berlin Philharmonic.
Tár’s assistant, is also a woman, Francesca Lentin (Noémie Merlant), who stays despite all she has witnessed because she hopes to become the assistant conductor. Francesca knows that Sebastian Brit (Allan Corduner), Tár’s current assistant conductor is on the way out. But Francesca is also privy to other secrets such as Tár’s questionable relationship with Krista Taylor (Sylvia Flote) who had been part of the Accordion Foundation fellowship program, an organization co-founded by Tár and investment banker and amateur conductor Eliot Kaplan (Mark Strong) to help further the training and opportunities of women conductors.
One could conclude that Tár failed to sublimate both her ego and her identity and thus her cosmic coin suffered devaluation in the end as she stood in front of the public and God and some API cosplayers.
Allusions in ‘Tár’
To better understand the film, you need to know more about the composer, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). Mahler wrote his Fifth Symphony in 1901-1902. According to the LA Philharmonic,
The Fifth Symphony occupies a pivotal place in Mahler’s endlessly fascinating output. It was his first purely instrumental symphony since the First, which he had worked on during the 1880s and subjected to heavy revision in 1893. He composed the Fifth during the summers of 1901 and 1902, during his annual holiday from his job as director of the Vienna Court Opera. It was in Vienna the winter prior to beginning the Fifth Symphony that Mahler met Alma Schindler, the beautiful daughter of a famous landscape painter. Mahler proposed to her in the fall of 1901, and the symphony, with its trajectory from mourning to triumph, reflects this development in its composer’s personal life.
Further, the Fifth Symphony is considered personally romantic because the symphony’s final part begins with the Adagietto.
According to the conductor Willem Mengelberg, an early Mahler champion, “This Adagietto was Gustav Mahler’s declaration of love to Alma! Instead of a letter, he confided it in this movement without a word of explanation. She understood and replied: He should come!!! (I have this from both of them!)”
There are two literary works cited in the film that I caught. The first is Vita Sackville-West’s novel “Challenge.” Sackville-West (1892-1962) was a writer and garden designer.
According to the back cover of “Challenge“:
“Challenge” was Vita Sackville-West’s second novel. It was ready to go to print in 1920, but the author suddenly changed her mind for fear of the scandal it would cause. Vita’s love affair with Violet Trefusis had reached its peak and they decided to abandon everything – children and husbands included – to elope to France. They returned to their families eventually, but Challenge remains a testament to their love. The hero, Julian, may be a Byronic young Englishman, and Eve the woman he adores; it may be an adventure tale set on a Greek island. But really, this is a love story, written in the presence of the beloved and inspired by her. And, as its title implies, the novel is a challenge to the society that condemned Vita and her lover.
For those who love films, Sackville-West is also known as the inspiration for Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando,” which was made into a film.
The film “Tár,” also seems to reference an Emily Dickenson poem:
The Soul Selects Her Own Society #303
The Soul selects her own Society –
Then – shuts the Door –
To her divine Majority –
Present no more –
Unmoved – she notes the Chariots – pausing
At her low Gate –
Unmoved – an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat –
I’ve known her-from an ample nation
Choose One –
Then close the Valves of her attention –
The poem is an explanation of the poet’s decision to lead a solitary life.
Diverging from Cultural Reality
Those references are part of the cultural reality of the English-speaking and reading culture. Yet we need to discuss how “Tár” is tone deaf to the reality of women in the US. First, as far as US awards go, EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards) winners do include women, but they are actresses (Helen Hayes, Rita Moreno, Audrey Hepburn, Whoopie Goldberg, Jennifer Hudson and Viola Davis). The composers who are EGOT are all men: Richard Rodgers, Marvin Hamlisch, Jonathan Tunick, Robert Lopez, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Tim Rice (lyricist), John Legend and Alan Menken. Robert Lopez, who is part Filipino, is the youngest person to win an EGOT, completing it at 39.
Women are also underrepresented elsewhere. While some might consider a Mahler cycle a rite of passage amongst conductors, that would be a territory seemingly reserved for men because it is not a matter of a few female conductors at the top orchestras. According to the New York Times, in 10 September 2021, the top orchestras had no female conductors.
According to the New York Times:
In the history of American orchestras, only one woman has risen to lead a top-tier ensemble: Marin Alsop, whose tenure as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra ended last month. Her departure has ushered in an unsettling era for the country’s musical landscape. Among the 25 largest ensembles, there are now no women serving as music directors.
In the cinematic world of Tár, a woman, Tár, has risen to the Big Five in the US: New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra and Cleveland Orchestra. Mahler himself was the music director of the New York Phil (1909-1911) as was Leonard Bernstein (1958-1969). To date, no woman has been a musical director nor a concertmaster of the NY Phil. The current concertmaster is China-born American Frank Huang (2015). The Philadelphia Orchestra has never had a female music director.
Likewise, the Boston Symphony Orchestra has never had a woman director although they did have a Japanese conductor: Seiji Ozawa (1973-2002). The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has never had a female music director or titled conductor although it did have Marin Alsop, first as an artistic curator (2018-2019) and then as a chief conductor and curator for the Ravinia Festival. Chicago has also had female composers-in-residence (Shulamit Ran, Augusta Read Thomas, Anna Clyne, Elizabeth Ogonek, Miss Mazzoli and Jessie Montgomery). Seiji Ozawa also served as the music director and principal conductor for the Ravinia Festival. Cleveland Orchestra has never had a female music director.
The Berlin Philharmonic has never had a female principal conductor. What’s more interesting is the orchestra roster. In the First Violin section, there are two first concertmasters: Noah Bendix-Balgley and Daishin Kashimoto. Kashimoto was born in London, but raised in Japan, Germany and the US. He was at Julliard in 1986 for pre-college. The Tokyo-born Kotowa Machida is also in the First Violin section. In the Second Violin section, Yokohama-born Marlene Ito is one of two First Principal violinists.
In the Viola Section, Osaka-born Naoko Shimizu is (with Amihair Grosz) the First Principal Viola. Seoul Kyoungmin Park is also in the viola section. The two First Principal Cello and the two Principal Cellos are all men.
Diversity Isn’t Just Presence
Why I feel it is important to point out the prominence of people of East Asian descent in the Berlin Philharmonic is because in the film “Tár,” East Asian faces are background players in the Western world. You see them in the Julliard octet: Wenteng Chang, Songha Choi, Rucheng Fan and Qu Yunrui.
You’ll see a full orchestra of API faces at the end, when Tár is keeping a low profile and has a score sent from Osaka (Japan) to the Philippines where she’s conducting for what seems to be a cosplay fan concert for Monster Hunter.
Sisters and brothers of the Fifth Fleet, it’s time. I’ll keep my farewell brief — never was much with words. Once you board this ship, there’s no turning back. The next ground your feet will touch will be that of the New World.
Monster Hunter (モンスターハンター) is a Japanese media franchise that began as a PlayStation 2 game. This series of fantasy-themed action role-playing video games is published by Capcom, something that is referenced at the beginning of the film, when credits appear to roll before the screen goes black and then picks up the action of the story. Monster Hunter is the role that the players take, trying to protect the village from the roaming monsters. There are ruins of a past advanced civilization and the technology is pre-industrial with steam power. Or at least, that’s how I understand it.
Yet before that punchline of cosplayers at a concert, Tár will also visit a high-end brothel/massage parlor with a numbered selection of female human products. API women as prostitutes seems to be a trope. We didn’t see Tár visiting a similar establishment in the US or Germany. Nor do we see Tár engaging in flirtation with API before this.
The film does mention male conductors who have been accused of sexual harassment: Charles Dutoit and James Levine. Their victims were women.
Assaults in dressing rooms. Groping during lessons. Classical musicians reveal a profession rife with harassment.
- Classical Music Has a ‘God Status’ Problem: The #MeToo movement has done little to challenge power dynamics in conservatories. Young musicians want to know why.
Conductor James Levine settles lawsuit over sexual misconduct allegations (1 August 2019)
Putting Conductors In Their Place: Sexual Harassment and the Death of the “Maestro Myth”
While the problem of sexual harassment of women by conductors does exist, the real problem is one of male conductors targeting women. That makes one wonder why the director/writer of the film “Tár” chose to make the conductor a woman. He’s obviously not writing what he knows and there is one person who knows and she has objected to this portrayal: Marin Alsop and Cate Blanchett’s Lydia Tár are, according to Entertainment.com, “Leonard Bernstein prodigies, married to fellow orchestral musicians, and lead prominent orchestras.” Alsop has not been accused of sexual misconduct.
Alsop told Entertainment.com:
I first read about it in late August and I was shocked that that was the first I was hearing of it, so many superficial aspects of TÁR seemed to align with my own personal life. But once I saw it I was no longer concerned, I was offended: I was offended as a woman, I was offended as a conductor, I was offended as a lesbian.
Field has chosen to mention Alsop through Blanchett’s Tár during Tár’s interview with New Yorker writer Adam Gopnick. Tár says:
As to the question of gender bias, I have nothing to complain about, nor, for that matter, should Nathalie Stutzmann, Laurence Equilbey, Marin Alsop, or JoAnn Falletta. There were so many incredible women who came before us, women who did the real lifting.
Is a man, Field, daring to tell women how they should feel about gender bias? Alsop responded to the film “Tár”:
“To have an opportunity to portray a woman in that role and to make her an abuser — for me that was heartbreaking,” Alsop said. “I think all women and all feminists should be bothered by that kind of depiction because it’s not really about women conductors, is it? It’s about women as leaders in our society. People ask, ‘Can we trust them? Can they function in that role?’ It’s the same questions whether it’s about a CEO or an NBA coach or the head of a police department.”
The casting of the film is a different matter. Why the placement of API faces is problematic is because they are major players in the Berlin orchestral music scene where the film is centered, yet in the film, there is no major character of East Asian descent in the fictional cinematic Berlin Philharmonic. At Julliard, the East Asian Americans in the octet serve as a background for the confrontation with Max (Zethphan Smith-Gneist), a self-described “BIPOC pan gender.” Smith-Gneist doesn’t look East Asian. I would guess that people are assuming Max is Black or African American. Because there are no major Black or African American coupled with the sidelining and Whitewashing in the Berlin Philharmonic, the casting choices emphasize the otherness of both people of Black or Sub-Saharan African descent and East Asian descent. API faces don’t emerge as major parts of an orchestra until the main character is in the Philippines. At which point, the conclusion seems to be that now Tár has been “othered.”
If EGOT Robert Lopez or Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa and API orchestra musicians in the major orchestras were more prominent within the script, then this interpretation would change. Likewise increasing the presence of Black or African Americans would do the same for the character of Max. Diversity isn’t just presence; it is also placement and prominence.
If director/writer Todd Field is so oblivious to the presence of diversity in reality and the consequences of the casting choices of this film, then one has to wonder if Field is also oblivious to the actual reality for women conductors generally and women lesbian conductors specifically at the high levels of the classical music world. He isn’t likely to be writing about what he knows.
Moreover, focusing the problem of sexual harassment and transactional sexual contact between conductors and musicians or aspiring conductors, posits that it is power that leads to such abuse instead of a male-dominated system. These would seem to distract from what has actually been portrayed by the media in covering the allegations against Dutoit and Levine. In essence, because Tár is a lesbian, she becomes a male substitute. Her swagger can thus be seen as mimicking the men that went before her. So then are men and lesbians the problem? Would this scenario work as well if Tár were not a lesbian and would we ever be able to see men as victims of sexual harassment as with the 1994 “Disclosure” or the victim of politically motivated accusations as in the 1992 David Mamet two-person play and subsequent 1994 film of the same name, “Oleanna”? Mamet objected to the idea of a male teacher being set up by a male student and considering the current circumstances of conductors, one wonders why Todd Field didn’t attempt this scenario. A male conductor hitting on male musicians would seem more feasible than the scenario that he formulated.
To me “Oleanna” seems like a fearful male reaction to the real problem of sexual harassment while Michael Crichton’s novel that became a film turned the attention away from women to men. “Tár” seems to be a deflection and proposes that it is not men, or rape culture or a patriarchal system that is at fault for sexual harassment, but the problem of power itself. Power corrupts and in the case of Lydia Tár, a woman in power could be much worse than a man. After all, she formed a charitable institute to further female conductors ambitions but used it for her own predatory practices.
Blanchett as Tár has the male swagger down and yet also the self-righteousness of a minority who has been historically oppressed. She casually tosses her literary knowledge like loose change and then cashes in her musical logic. Yet there are moments when we understand that her valuation is under threat. The currency of her genius and her gender and even her gender preference can’t buy out her guilt. Her conscience haunts her yet she clings fiercely to her interpretation of Mahler as a foundation for sanity. But she has already sold her soul and selected her own society.
Blanchett’s performance is worth the price of admission, but she is ultimately selling Todd Field’s lie. I’m not buying it. While the faux biopic marketing is audacious and clever, go into the movie fully aware that Field is selling a science fiction alternative reality for both women and diversity.
“Tár” had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival and had its US premiere at the Telluride Film Festival the same month.
NB: I know that there are more EGOT winners, but I did not include Barbra Streisand (Special Tony Award), Liza Minnelli (Grammy Legend Award), James Earl Jones (Honorary Oscar), Harry Belafonte (Jean Hershel Humanitarian Award) and Quincy Jones (Jean Hershel Humanitarian Award) because these people received non-competitive or special awards. Streisand was the first woman to be honored as a composer when she won her second Oscar for writing the love theme for the 1976 film, “A Star is Born.” Streisand was nominated twice for a Tony as Best Actress in a Musical for “Funny Girl” in 1964 and for “I Can Get It for You Wholesale” in 1962.