December 2022 – January 2023

Arts & Letters

Orchestral manoeuvres: ‘Tár’ and ‘White Noise’

By Shane Danielsen
Todd Field’s drama asks to what extent we can separate a work from its maker, while Noah Baumbach tackles DeLillo’s best-known novel

At the heart of Todd Field’s Tár – one of the most ambitious films of the year – is an unanswered question, advanced in an early scene and then left to reverberate through the following two-and-a-quarter hours like the tolling of some distant bell. While teaching a class at Julliard in New York, renowned conductor Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) takes one of her students to task when they declare that, “as a BIPOC pan-gender person”, they don’t see any worth in the music of Johannes Sebastian Bach. (“Wasn’t he a misogynist?”)

Tár – slavishly devoted to the canon, a former disciple of “Lenny” Bernstein – proceeds to eviscerate them. The grievances of identity politics, she says, are blinding them to the intrinsic quality of the work. Great art creates its own autarchic space, independent of the virtues or failings of its creators; a performer must set their personal agenda aside and “sublimate and obliterate” themselves before it. The scene plays out over almost 10 minutes in a single, unbroken take, the student’s left leg jogging nervously on the spot throughout, and as it proceeds our discomfort mounts; what starts out as a defence of artistic freedom begins, after a while, to look a lot like bullying and humiliation.

Nevertheless, the question remains: to what extent can we separate a work from its maker? Do Lydia’s personal shortcomings entirely negate her achievement? Tár is many things: a look at the achievements of the MeToo movement, a report on the muddled state of “cancel culture” (about which Field appears decidedly equivocal), an inquiry into institutional power structures and the limits of personal responsibility. But at its heart it’s a psychological study of a monstre sacré, and the impenetrable psychology (or pathology) of a self-made icon. Those looking for easy answers, for clearly defined heroes and villains, will be disappointed. But this film’s fundamental ambivalence, both about its subject and her world, seems to me its greatest strength.

Tár is Field’s first film in 16 years, and only his third feature overall. His debut, 2001’s In the Bedroom was a revelation: patient, nuanced, wise in a fashion much American independent cinema aspires to but seldom achieves. His second, an adaptation of Tom Perrota’s novel Little Children (2006), was less successful. Both were nominated for Oscars; neither matches the achievement of this film at its best. Originally trained as an actor, Field appeared in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut as the pianist Nick Nightingale, and something of that director’s dispassionate, almost forensic approach informs this production as well.

Occasionally he over-eggs the pudding. It’s not enough that Lydia is a renowned kapellmeister, the first female chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic; she’s also a respected teacher, a well-regarded composer, a bestselling author (her memoir, inevitably, is titled Tár on Tár), a field scholar of Peruvian indigenous music, and an EGOT winner – that is, the recipient of an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony. If the aim was to make Gustavo Dudamel and Esa-Pekka Salonen look like slackers, well, mission accomplished. 

We know all of this thanks to the film’s protracted opening sequence, an onstage interview at the New Yorker Festival (conducted by real-life New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik), which is every bit as obsequious and interminable as, well, most onstage interviews at the New Yorker Festival. Lydia’s résumé is listed dutifully – so much so, that her young assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant) is seen lip-syncing along as Gopnik recites it. But the scene’s duration, like the confrontation with the student that follows it, sets both a tone (exacting, slightly distanced) and a tempo for the following 90 or so minutes, before it’s shattered, with undisguised relish, in the final act. Much like Mahler’s 5th that she dreams of recording, the film ends with a glorious, defiant flourish.

Lydia, meanwhile, would argue that she over-achieves so comprehensively because she has to, if she hopes to be taken as seriously as Dudamel and Salonen and all those other successful men, in this man’s, man’s world. She positions herself (with not-altogether convincing modesty) as part of a hidden history of female conductors, yet while onstage with Gopnik, she denies having ever experienced any gender-related discrimination – “not at all” – and later in the film we learn that she doesn’t know the date of International Women’s Day. It’s the first of the many contradictions and inconsistencies that will eventually bring her down.

A self-described “U-haul lesbian”, she lives with her wife Sharon (Nina Hoss), the philharmonic’s concertmaster, and their daughter Petra (Mila Bogojevic). Dropping the child at school one morning, she pauses to threaten another little girl who’s been tormenting Petra. If she does it again, Lydia warns the child, she’ll come back and “get” her. And, she adds, should the little girl tell anyone what she just said, no one will believe her: “Because I’m an adult and you’re just a child.” 

First theme. Second theme. Development. Recapitulation. Field harnesses the sonata form to tell this story, finding a contrapuntal elegance in his refinement and reconciliation of its various strands. What’s especially fascinating, though, is how much he omits and elides, and how much of this narrative takes place offscreen. Fittingly, for a film about consequences, we’re often left to contemplate the effects of actions, rather than shown the acts themselves.

For while Lydia talks eloquently about music as a force for positive change, her own hands are far from clean. Her “Accordian” program, devised to promote young women into conductor roles throughout the world, looks a lot less public-spirited when one of her protégés commits suicide after weeks of being ghosted by her former mentor (and, it’s implied, her lover). Lydia hastens to contain the fallout – deleting emails, slandering the dead girl to anyone who’ll listen – only to be distracted once again by desire, in the form of a pretty young female cellist, Olga, whom she promotes from obscurity to featured soloist, infuriating the orchestra’s rank-and-file in the process. 

Yet the gamble pays off: the newcomer is a demonstrably better player than even the orchestra’s first chair. But the girl, a Russian (played by real-life cellist Sophie Kauer), is also depicted as a kind of savant sauvage: sullen, borderline inarticulate, a slovenly eater. At every turn, Field seems determined to muddle our sympathies and subvert our expectations, not least through unexpected flashes of humour. The film’s coda, in particular, manages to be wildly unpredictable and bitterly hilarious. A joke no less funny for being cruel. 

Twelve months ago, in an end-of-year wrap for this magazine’s website, I wondered in passing whether Cate Blanchett would ever bother to act again. To see her effectively doing panto in things like Nightmare Alley and Don’t Look Up – striking poses and declaring her lines like Lady Bracknell – felt faintly insulting, both to her audience and her own ability. But Tár rebukes any charge of complacency. For much of the first third I felt she was overly mannered – a suspicion not helped by Field’s dialogue, which is impeccably written but can feel faintly stagey when spoken aloud. Yet this, I came to realise, was precisely what the character required. Lydia’s public persona is a perpetual performance, a disguise in plain sight – like the bespoke suits she wears, her polished erudition. But as the drama unfolds and her composure begins to fissure, shifts become apparent in both dialogue and delivery. Scenes get shorter; the tone becomes more naturalistic. Blanchett reveals more and more of her character’s precarious self-loathing, and Hoss – no less gifted an actor – matches her beat for beat.

A film that features Adam Gopnik as himself, which tosses around terms such as allegro con rubato and ritardando adagio without explanation, which makes a knowing joke about Smith graduates and abbreviates the Deutsche Grammophon record label to a knowing “DG”, is one unusually confident of reaching its target audience, and uninterested in making concessions to those beyond it. Billed as an awards-season hit, Tár is in fact a chilly, cerebral pleasure – easy to admire, but as difficult to love as its subject. Much like Mahler – or indeed, classical music in general – it may not be to your taste. Until that sudden, shocking, epiphanous moment that it is.

“I was a figure in the margins,” said the author Don DeLillo, back in 2010, “and that’s where I belonged … Things changed for me in the 1980s and 1990s, but I’ve always preferred to be somewhere in the corner of a room, observing.” Hence, I guess, his curious omission from our movie screens. Amid the eager plunder of Great American Writers to adapt, why has this master (a better writer, I think, than Roth or Bellow) been so overlooked? Wither the Don DeLillo Extended Universe?

Admittedly, one or two attempts have been made – David Cronenberg released Cosmopolis in 2012, starring a badly miscast Robert Pattinson. And Benoît Jacquot essayed a French-language version of The Body Artist four years later. (It’s not great.) But these are minor works. For decades, his big books, the major, canonical texts, remained untouched, perhaps because the task of translating them into movies seemed so difficult.

The most obvious issue: how to render the peculiar music of his dialogue? DeLillo’s creations tend to the garrulous. They ruminate, equivocate, talk past each other; they seldom listen, and even more rarely converse in any conventional sense. What’s more, every character sounds exactly alike: the same cadences and rhythms, the same staccato locutions. It’s determinedly anti-naturalistic; the closest filmic equivalent is the mannered deadpan of Yorgos Lanthimos. (Come to think of it, Lanthimos doing The Names would be fantastic.) Either way, these people don’t seem convincingly real, and as such present a considerable challenge for actors to inhabit.

The second, and greater problem: there’s little in the way of actual plot in these books. Incidents, yes – though often even these are reported rather than witnessed. And an almost palpable sense of history-in-motion. But an actual, linear, point-to-point narrative? Not so much. DeLillo’s are novels of ideas, and hence tend to be both interior and static, two qualities conspicuously ill-suited to cinema – which is ironic, since it’s one of his primary influences. He’s spoken often about the importance of film montage to his storytelling, and three of his books – AmericanaRunning Dog and Underworld – hinge on either the discovery or suppression of movie footage.

Enter Noah Baumbach, a fellow New Yorker, the son of a novelist (one of DeLillo’s peers, in fact), and a man not exactly lacking in self-belief. After a somewhat erratic career, he seemed to hit his stride with two films for Netflix: The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) in 2017, and Marriage Story two years later. The first, to me, was rather better than the second – sharper and richer – but the latter earned him six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and presumably carte blanche from his sponsors and Netflix to make whatever the hell he wanted next. And so Baumbach chose the most famous of DeLillo’s novels, the biggest trophy on the shelf.

White Noise is not my favourite DeLillo – that would be Mao II – but it might be the one I most admire, a novel so precisely attuned to its culture and moment that it seemed not only to reflect contemporary events, but to inform the reality they inhabited. The effect was akin to Kafka; once you’d read the novel, you saw examples of it everywhere. The paranoia, the feeling of itchy, unspecified dread. The sweet, sickly rot of unchecked consumerism. It was also uncannily prescient. Rachel Kushner said recently that DeLillo “reads the future in the weave of the present”, and certainly the book’s vision of environmental catastrophe (and human complicity) has only gained in relevance since its publication 37 years ago.

Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) is a middle-aged academic, a professor of “Hitler Studies” (a discipline he invented, despite barely being able to speak German) at the whimsically named College-on-the-Hill, somewhere in the Upper Midwest. He’s politically liberal, temperamentally morose, a fretful observer of American excess. He lives with his wife Babette, a woman with “important hair”, and the couple share the task of raising a gaggle of children from each of their previous four marriages. They’re both preoccupied by death – specifically, with the question of which of them will die first – and this obsession finds an outlet when a chemical leak from a nearby rail crash releases a black, probably poisonous cloud (“the airborne toxic event”) over their community. 

The couple respond in very different ways: Jack by undergoing simulated evacuations and contemplating his likely extinction (interior, see?), and Babette by commencing an affair with a mysterious man, Mr Gray, in order to access his stash of an experimental drug designed to erase the fear of dying. Upon learning of his wife’s infidelity, Jack decides to murder Mr Gray.

Yet this brief synopsis does scant justice to the novel, which is both discursive and capacious, taking in academic life, the morality of spectatorship, the redemptive power of violence and (by implication) the rise of neoliberalism. A less ambitious adaptation might have cherry-picked one or two strands of narrative – snapshots from the Gladneys’ marriage, the airborne toxic event – isolated a single theme and constructed a film around them: a kind of reduction (in the culinary sense) of a notoriously diffuse text. Baumbach wants it all. 

The result is a film of rapidly alternating pleasures and frustrations, an overstuffed State of the Nation movie whose tone oscillates wildly between melancholy and a frenzied, directionless energy. Its first act is pure ventriloquism, channelling DeLillo’s prose more or less directly via voiceover; the rest is hectic, crowded and occasionally exhausting, and finds Baumbach operating in a far looser, more playful register than ever before. He devises various set-pieces – desperate chases, narrow escapes and tense confrontations (complete with some surprisingly impressive CGI) – as if to drive home the unlikely movie-ness of these characters’ predicament, a detail that, in a neat metafictional twist, utterly eludes them. Because it’s only 1985, and they haven’t yet seen the films he’s referencing.

Adam Driver is a powerful screen presence; there’s something thrillingly unpredictable about him, an almost feral intensity. But here he’s required to be fearful, muffled, a man crushed by the weight of personal anxiety and professional disillusion. It’s a big mistake, since (as we saw in Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson) it nullifies precisely the qualities that make him most compelling.

There’s also another problem with this casting, and it extends to his co-star, Greta Gerwig, who plays Babette with a pin-perm straight out of Kath & Kim. Both actors are at least a decade too young for their roles. In the book, Gladney is in his mid fifties and Babette not much younger; each has four divorces behind them. You just don’t see that in Driver and Gerwig: time has not yet marked them.

Still, the production design is immaculate, a neon and pastel-hued evocation of ’80s aesthetics. And, like Tár, it ends remarkably strongly, with a dance sequence in a suburban supermarket set to a fantastic new track by LCD Soundsystem, “New Body Rhumba”. An ecstasy of consumption that underlines one of DeLillo’s central theses: that rampant consumerism is simply an attempt to insulate oneself from the inevitability of death. For a few moments they’re united in shared abandon, “fragile creatures surrounded by a world of hostile facts”.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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