The brilliant film Tar, directed by Todd Field and starring Cate Blanchet, is now receiving its share of accolades during the traditional awards month which takes place every year, particularly Blanchet’s performance as the brilliant but manipulative symphony orchestra conductor Lydia Tar. However, there are some critics who are ostracizing the film for being a representation of a lesbian woman in a position of power who is acting badly, as if due to our present cultural ethos, one does not have the right to criticize someone for their behavior in certain professions if they happen to be gay.
The movie is a tense, brilliant depiction of a powerful woman wandering within a shadowy hall of mirrors of her own making due to her past insensitive behavior toward others, including members of her own orchestra. What is so important about the film is that it allows us all to look inside the contemporary world of cancel culture so that we might more completely come to terms with its inner dynamics. That is, if one allows oneself to become fully immersed in the film, one is almost able to experience oneself rapidly disintegrating as one’s life and career go suddenly off the rails in a manner similar to Tar’s. As a result, it is an extremely personal, inside look at the forces inherent in a culture determined to destroy anyone whose behavior they find offensive.
Of course there is the issue of Tar behaving manipulatively with others in a sometimes cruel way in order to get what she wants. When she decides that there will be a cello concerto by Elgar played at an upcoming concert, she arranges for a young cellist with whom she is infatuated to be given the performance over a more experienced long-time member of the orchestra. When a former member of the orchestra whom Tar had unsuccessfully pursued romantically begs for recommendations so she can be employed at another orchestra, Tar refuses to help. And she mercilessly bullies a young violin student at the college where she teaches for not agreeing with her about the value of the music of Bach.
Yet at the same time it seems hard to hate Tar because of the intense passion she brings to the music for which she is responsible; this being something that is almost inevitably part of a talented person who our present day cancel culture criticizes for their past indiscretions. Often what seems troubling about these situations is that a person’s past bad behavior is inevitably conflated with whatever talents they might bring to contemporary culture, as if the first inevitably diminishes the second. That is, one can think of any number of musicians, actors, writers and directors who have had their particular talents disparaged simply because of the previous difficult behavior of which they are accused.
If there is indeed an indirect message among others in Tar about the terrifying retribution inherent within contemporary cancel culture. as one is able to experience firsthand in Todd Field’s film, it may well be that the punishment for some high-profile person wh0 has acted badly is in danger of now becoming implicit in the world of their particular art or talent. Yes, of course, if one has somehow damaged other people, there should most definitely be a consequence for that, possibly even a legal one. However, that particular consequence should not necessarily extend into the particular art or talent which they have given to the world. For if somebody’s particular artistic creation can be somehow diminished by their bad behavior, then all artistic expressions are at risk of becoming entirely subjective.
Lydia Tar’s punishment in the film is a psychological one as she experiences the laudatory world which she has always known begin to collapse around her due to her insensitive behavior. However, does that mean that she’s not the same great conductor with the same love of classical music? Of course not. In fact, there is a dramatic scene toward the end of the film in which she watches with tears in her eyes Leonard Bernstein, one of her favorite conductors, lead a discussion with young people about the meaning and beauty of classical music. You can punish someone for their bad behavior, which we all have a certain right to do, but you can’t ever take away the right they have to love their art.