Audiences that are tempted into the theater to see Todd Field’s new film “Tar” — which is widely perceived as Oscar bait — starring actress Cate Blanchett may know little or nothing about Gustav Mahler, J.S. Bach, or Glenn Gould.
In 21st-century America, classical music has become a niche interest with little crossover appeal. Generations raised in an era when schools have discarded the idea that educated people are supposed to know at least a smidgeon about high culture will draw a blank when an endless list of musical figures, institutions, and terms are name-checked in a movie that revels in the inside baseball world of classical orchestras and the imperious maestros that rule over them.
But even if all of that passes over their heads, they will understand immediately what’s at stake when Blanchett’s character Lydia Tar must decide how to handle woke ideology run amok. Nor will they be surprised when that confrontation eventually produces incalculable consequences for the film’s protagonist.
In a key scene in the movie, Tar, someone that we are introduced to as a classical music superstar at the peak of fame and important enough to be the subject of a fawning on-stage interview by The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik (who plays himself), is teaching a conducting master class at the Juilliard School. There she faces the challenge of how to reach a student who describes himself as a “BIPOC pangender person” who believes the music of Bach deserves to be rejected because that 17th-century genius is a dead white male who is the product of a racist system and is also suspect because he fathered 20 children.
Tar is supposed to be savvy enough to have navigated her way through the art world to the point where she has gone from a working-class home on Staten Island to being the principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, a post that places her at the pinnacle of her profession.
As such, she ought to understand that calling out the arrogance and ignorance of such an impudent twit at a place like Julliard is a no-win proposition. Ours is, after all, a time when virtually every leading institution of the music world has been forced to bend the knee to identity politics by appointing cultural commissars who supervise personnel and programming decisions according to the woke catechism of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
But Blanchett’s creation is sufficiently full of herself because of her stature as an artist that she thinks the rules of this leftist orthodoxy don’t apply to her.
What follows is a brilliant takedown by Tar of the presumptions of wokeness. It ought to be required viewing for anyone who presumes to opine about the need to reject the classics in favor of the generally awful modernist compositions produced by members of favored minority groups that are nowadays routinely crammed down the ears of audiences who attend concerts by major American orchestras.
Tar’s oration beautifully captures the joy and the love of music that was at the core of Leonard Bernstein’s influential televised “Young People’s Concerts” broadcast in the 1950s and ’60s that helped inspire both the fictional Tar and a generation of young American musicians then and in subsequent decades.
That her words will be taken out of context and twisted to make her appear to be a racist later on as part of a frighteningly effective effort to cancel Tar is unsurprising. But what makes this movie especially interesting is that she is not an innocent victim. She is, instead, arguably guilty of other offenses that are worthy of cancellation.
Blanchett’s character describes herself at one point as a “U-Haul lesbian.” When not flying around the globe on private jets to be feted as a musician, author, and cultural guru, she is in a seemingly stable and loving relationship with her orchestra’s first violinist and concertmaster (played by German actress Nina Hoss) and the adoptive parent of a young girl. But she is also a serial sexual predator who uses a fellowship program for aspiring young female conductors to groom women who idolize her for sexual dalliances only then to discard them.
Blanchett’s performance unravels the complexity of a character who is a fiercely protective parent (in perhaps the film’s most chilling scene, she threatens a child who bullies her daughter at school in a way that seems to have been taken straight out of one of the Grimm brothers’ darkest fairy tales) and kind to an elderly and neglected retired colleague. But she is also utterly ruthless and callously insensitive to faithful subordinates and willing to use her position to advance the career of a young Russian female cellist (played by a real-life aspiring musician Sophie Knauer) whom she has marked as her next conquest.
Still, memories of a young woman that she may have abused and whose career she ruined, who then committed suicide, haunt her. Inevitably, her indiscretions and crimes begin to close in on her leading to a denouement that is no less tragic for being a fitting punishment to someone who has behaved as she has done.
Yet what makes “Tar” such an important film and one that is particularly emblematic of the culture wars of the 2020s is that it is not just a compelling story with a riveting, incandescent performance by the sublime Blanchett or even that it has outraged leftists who identify with the absurd position taken by that Juilliard student.
It also leaves audiences pondering whether the world would really be better off without getting to hear the interpretations of great music that someone like Tar could produce — the film takes place as she prepares to record a performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony — even though we also don’t want to give her a pass for bad behavior.
That “Tar” was going to be viciously criticized for championing, in the words of one piece in The New Yorker, “regressive ideas” and “regressive aesthetics” that the woke despise was always a given. Cancel culture exists and thrives because ideological zealots have assumed positions of power in various sectors of society and use them to enforce fealty by means of fear and intimidation.
The fact that some of the same voices have criticized the film for the sin of putting forward the transgressive notion that powerful women/non-heterosexuals can act just as abusively as white males should also have been expected.
If Lydia Tar is doomed to be taken down by a social media campaign and lawsuits and subjected to a humiliating comeuppance as much because of her admirable loyalty to art as her actual crimes, that is an irony that the filmmaker relishes. A society that enables sexual predators is one that has lost its moral compass. But it’s also possible to assert that a society that has no room for flawed people who are able to channel that flair for spreading the beauty of great music in the manner that Bernstein embodied is poorer for their loss.
Like some famous conductors, like James Levine and Charles Dutoit, whose careers were brought to an end by the #MeToo movement, Bernstein, who is frequently referenced in the film and then seen in videos of his concerts for children, had a problematic personal life and controversial stands (a party he hosted for the Black Panthers inspired Tom Wolfe’s famous “radical chic” essay) of his own. But he lived and died in an era when being a star brought with it indulgences that we no longer grant artists.
There should be zero tolerance for the kind of bad conduct in which Lydia Tar engages. But the means and the motives for punishing people like her are now tangled up with issues that go further than violating sexual harassment rules.
“Tar” gives us no definitive answer about how to judge the value of flawed people’s work. But that it is willing to ask such questions and challenge conventional wisdom about the intersection of ethics, politics, and aesthetics marks it as a uniquely morally serious work of art worthy of a broader audience than the ones who attend classical concerts.