Everyone is getting the 2022 movie Tár wrong, everyone. Except me and Martin Scorsese.
Which is okay, because if Scorsese, Todd Field and Lydia Tár inhabit the same artistic ecosphere as I do, I don’t feel so alone. In a world 99% made up of Maxes and Tony Tarrs, I don’t feel so much alone.
So John, lamplighter of my heart, in my ongoing quest to give you nice things, I’m going to list some elements—in sequence—in the movie you might find useful next time you cocktail chat with people…
In Part 1:
Playing to the New York Crowd
Kavanah and Teshuvah in the Kabala
That Fantastic Red Handbag
We All Know That Conductors Hate Sopranos
Lunch With Elliot
PLAYING TO THE NEW YORK CROWD
It’s Francesca texting Krista on the private flight from Berlin to NYC. It’s Krista who posits to F, you still love her then…
Francesca is a Yale School of Music grad, probably post-grad. No matter the impression she gives of powerless and invisibility, she is actually connected and quite probably brilliant—but these days ground down. I know the feeling. Hope you never, my love.
The song at the beginning is in Lydian mode. (But you got that, John.) When I was 11, I was captured by the Lydian mode in this popular jukebox tune, side B of NYC-based Left Banke’s hit single.
In the (mostly tech/assistance) credits, there are at least 2 real people who lent their names to characters in the story, Francesca Lentini and Sebastian Brix.
The New Yorker Festival in which Lydia is interviewed was held 7-9 October 2022. Been to a couple of these. They’re like Glyndebourne, only without the food.
Lydia’s hands are beautiful my love, but no more beautiful than yours.
The benefit concert for Zaatari would’ve been the 10th anniversary—ten freakin years!—of that crummy refugee camp.
Antonia Brico was a big deal in my Women’s Liberation group in the mid 70s. You know, women of achievement. Here’s a 2018 romantic biopic of Brico, entitled The Conductor. And here’s the 1974 documentary.
KAVANAH AND TESHUVAH IN THE KABALA
I first got interested in Jewish mystical thought when it kept popping up in Leonard Bernstein‘s writing. The more advanced ideas, I got into at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv. I had a crush on Neil Horowitz so I followed him to Israel, after having won a CUNY scholarship to go. We learned about Maimonides, the Kabala and how to read Hebrew. Then on the way home we did it in the washroom of the El Al.
Kavanah means intent, just like Lydia says. She expands on this, simply and forcefully, in the master class scene.
Teshuvah is another matter. Teshuvah is the more important, more complex idea and it arrives close to the end of the movie so I’ll explain it more fully at the right time. Teshuvah has to do with the inevitability of creation. So you want to stick around for that.
You know John, this stuff is taught at the yeshiva up in Bensham, a couple miles from your childhood neighborhood of Low Fell. I know about Gateshead Talmudical College because a stateless Jewish refugee (from Cuba, he escaped, they took away his citizenship) we knew in Quito, a brilliant scholar downstairs, applied to this school so I got to read all the brochures they sent him.
THAT FANTASTIC RED HANDBAG
This scene was so spot on I can’t believe a man wrote it. This is the first scene in the movie that made Scorsese start to sit up in his seat and believe again.
Field pulled out all his AFI grad stuff for this scene. Check out Whitney’s enormous rock as she flirts with Lydia. I’m engaged, but that’s no problem. They talk about Stravinsky. Lydia throws in a really, really esoteric Kabalistic reference that goes right past this pretty Smith alum.
Lydia points at Whitney’s handbag, which is luscious, and with a price tag of around US800-1200 I’d say. Now, this is where most women (and certain men) in the audience call out with awed recognition, You bitch! We know you’re angling for that bag! And you know that you’re gonna get it! Because you know that rich tramp is gonna call Bergdorf’s and have one sent to you “in token of our meeting” or other bullshit… But in the end, it’s just another cheap trophy you toss to Sharon…
And all the while Francesca is the background, texting.
WE ALL KNOW THAT CONDUCTORS HATE SOPRANOS
I grew up with the story in music school, probably false, that the legendary Otto Klemperer made Kirsten Flagstad cry in rehearsals, which I suppose was the beginning of my conviction that there exists a natural antipathy between vocal artists and orchestra conductors.
So when Francesca texts Krista a shot of Lydia’s digs at the Carlyle, dubbed the “Placido Domingo Suite” and K quips, she thinks she is being ironic, you wonder in passing what the deal is between conductor Lydia and tenor Domingo.
But that remark is actually meant to alert us to the recentness of Francesca’s and Krista’s relationship with Lydia. Later in the movie Lydia makes a disparaging remark about the excellent mezzo Samantha Hankey—who rode to prominence quickly in 2018 after winning prizes at Gyndebourne and Placido Domingo’s own star-making Operalia (which he also conducts, by the way)—that clarifies this.
Mostly Norman Lebrecht-type stuff but we get a few necessary pieces of information, for example the Accordion Fellowship doesn’t simply place fellows in residencies, it fosters (funds?) entrepreneurship. This will figure in the Krista part of the story.
Elliot is a banker/lawyer/amateur conductor with biiiig pretensions. Lydia doesn’t notice his predatory tendencies because he’s gotten her fat and complacent.
Lydia brings up Max Bruch to affirm her place in Elliot’s society.
That bit about Turing Machine (a math rock group) doing Chopin’s Piano Concerto #1 in Japan, conducted by (who we later see is a dodderer) Sebastian Brix rubato has to have gotten a laugh from somebody in the audience.
One last one! This is the first time in the movie an Asian is clearly and lengthily shown in the background. Well dressed, middle-aged Chinese lady. You think I don’t notice these things, do you? Gwilo mooks.
I’ve been saying for years that I long to get into your head, John. Now here’s a movie that shows me the inner workings of a fellow creator so consider the pressure off. I still want to sleep with you though.
Reminder: These crib notes are all meant for you and you alone, my love. Fold them up and put them in your wallet till you need them!
Olive is a composition student as well as conducting. Max is not.
Max is doomed from the start. He chose as his jury piece a composition by the last master class teacher. Because he was inspired? wanted to play it safe/go with the trend? didn’t know any better/has a limited scope? Have these limitations on his scope been imposed by a racist society? These questions except the last go through Lydia’s brain like Mr Spock processing info bytes.
Lydia hates the modern atonals, John Cage et al. Pleads for the younglings to invest emotionally in the classics.
Man, I can’t wait to get to Olive Kerr. In fact, it’s either her girlfriend in the top row up there who’s shooting this or someone in Max’s support/political group, whatever the fuck that is.
Okay, here’s the Olive Kerr thing: one, consider the audience arrangement, John. And I’m really asking because I don’t know if you’ve ever given a master class. Because Lydia really, really pays attention to who’s sitting in front. Mostly it’s girls, and girls of a particular type she finds attractive. Fresh, bright, round faced. And she’s got aural instincts! And she’s a composition student!
Without breaking her stride, she subtly shifts her talk toward connecting, in subtle but undeniable ways, with Olive. Some people find this creepy. Some people are gwilo morons. I talk about this subtlety in the “The God Drug Tribe” so stay tuned.
When Lydia decides she’s given up on Max, which is early but not too, it’s then she goes all out lesbo commando. I mean, superhot in a Waldorf teacher kind of way!? Manages to bait Max and enchant Olive in the same breath! I know, I know the kid was humiliated but he sooo had it coming.
One more! This is the second time Asians are shown in a clear and lengthy shot. And in a strangely apt position. Field uses Asians like David Mamet uses Asians in The Spanish Prisoner, and that’s okay.
RULES OF THE GAME
All that talk about composer-muse Alma Mahler leaving Gustav Mahler for architect-and-founder-of-the-Bauhaus-movement Gropius and there goes Lydia back to her Bauhaus apartment in Berlin.
Oh, and remember the character who’s at the center of Renoir’s 1939 movie, The Rules of the Game? Octave the failed conductor. Played by the director himself.
Metoprolol! breathes the woman who was hospitalized twice for congestive heart failure, the first time at Hospital Eugenio Espejo, Quito.
Who Killed Cock Robin? sings Petra loudly. It was the sparrow with his bow and arrow, don’t you know? Klezmer. Sheesh.
The book is Vita Sackville-West’s novel, Challenge. It was Lydia’s gift to Krista, who has returned it.
The love affair between Virginia Woolf and Vita is the kind of story that helps define you, if you’re a high-minded yet passionate lesbian who needs to have those two facets of your personality merge in a single narrative. Challenge is Vita’s love letter to Virginia, and a challenge. It’s about a dynamic artist-hero named Julian who claims a beautiful artist-heroine named Eve to be by his side as together they scale the Parnassus of Art. It’s filled with prose like this:
[T]he poet, the creator, the woman, the mystic, the man skirting the fringes of death—were they kin with one another and free of some realm unknown, towards which all, consciously or unconsciously, were journeying? Where the extremes of passion (he did not mean only the passion of love), of exaltation, of danger, of courage and vision—where all these extremes met—was it there, the great crossways where the moral ended, and the divine began? Was it for Eve supremely, and to a certain extent for all women and artists—the visionaries, the lovely, the graceful, the irresponsible, the useless!—was it reserved for them to show the beginning of the road?
Vita cast herself as Julian and Virginia as Eve. Lydia went through some cost and effort to find this 1923 first edition to give to Krista. Lydia cast herself as Julian. Remember that when you see that dream sequence late in the movie, that’s a memory of when things went waaay the wrong way and the deepest part of Lydia’s wasn’t just challenged, it was threatened. Drawing the curtain here.
Jacqueline du Pré (1945-1987) and Olga Metkina (2002?-????)
John Mauceri and the You-Don’t-Belong-Here Blues
THE GOD DRUG TRIBE
Shipibo-Conibo, of course. But first I want to tell you about my first musicology professor, Dr Johannes Riedel (1913-1993). What do he, I, and the tribe all have common? Ecuador.
When Dr Reidel was about 25 or so and in school in Berlin, he found out he was about to be deported back to his native Poland, which would’ve been bad for him of course, but for his young wife Judith as well, who surely would’ve ended up in Auschwitz. So to save his wife from being murdered in the ovens, he took a job in a faraway Catholic high school on the coast of Ecuador, teaching choir while studying the region’s Hispanic-based music in preparation for his longed-for-in-the-distance postgraduate work, hopefully in a free country.
When I met Dr Reidel I was 14, in a citywide high-school student arts program run by the city of Minneapolis, they were that rich in those days. The Minnesota Opera. The Minnesota Orchestra. Skrowaczewski, man! In college, my dorm (F only) was right across the common from Northrop Auditorium, so I ushered every week to get into the concerts free. Skrowaczewski brought us Karol Szymanowski’s Song of the Night.
But back to the Shipibo-Conibo. More than once while Mister Grumble and I were hanging out in the Mariscal we’d run into hippie backpackers who’d ask us if we knew where the tribe with the god-drug—ayahuasca—could be found. When we told them they’d have go down south, way south, most of them balked and opted just to score crappy weed from the local dealers, which ironically all came down from Mexico anyway.
So—ayahuasca+the Shipobo-Conibo is a known thing among the heads among us, one of whom is, at it turns out, Lydia Tár herself.
LYDIA IS A HEAD—AND A HEALER. Pay close attention to how she treats Sharon’s dickey heart. I know all about this.
Pay attention too to her particular awareness of the energies of those people surrounding her, especially the ones she’s attracted to.
This is not a topic fit for the gwilo robots in our “civilized” places and Lydia is smart enough to know she’d be derided and condemned if she talked about it. So let me talk about it because I’m nobody so this won’t get back to me.
Ayahuasca is a psilocybin that comes in liquid form. Under close supervision by a shaman (that guy in the photo and in her dreams), you drink it from a bowl and it makes you throw up all the bad stuff in your body/spirit. Then when you’re nice and clean the channels are open and you are confronted with not only your true self, but the Divine.
This confrontation can break lesser minds but Lydia has a great, strong mind. I can understand her desire to share her experience with those she considered her equals, going up the Ucayali with Francesca and Krista. I’m sorry it didn’t work out for her. Some rivers you have to travel alone.