Thursday, March 2, 2023

Art vs. Craft

 My friend Benoit Lelieve recently posted a review of the movie Tar on his Dead End Follies blog. My response was that he and I would have to agree to disagree on this one. He loved it; I thought it was three hours of my life I’ll never get back, though it seemed longer.


I’ve read enough of Benoit’s work to know that if we disagree I should probably take another look to see what I might have missed. Fair warning: what follows is less a review of Tar than of my thought processes and sensibilities.


The film is the story of the internationally-renowned conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic and the tribulations of a career dedicated to producing art at the highest level. We’ll talk more about that later.


I didn’t hate everything about Tar. An early scene shows Lydia Tar (Cate Blanchett) running a master class for young composers and explaining the facts of life to a student who can’t be bothered with Bach, basically because Bach had too many kids. She explains that he will severely limit himself as a musician to ignore such a giant of the art, and also tells him why. She does it in an inexcusably harsh and belittling manner, but her sentiments are spot on.


I also liked the ending, where she [spoiler redacted].


The production values and acting are outstanding. There was also a good line where she describes herself as a “U-Haul lesbian.” I laughed out loud at the reference to Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony, as I have some inside knowledge of what happened there.


That covers what I liked.


What didn’t I like? Pretty much all the characters, especially Tar, who is a narcissistic bitch who not only thinks the world revolves around her, but that this is her due because of her genius. She treats everyone, including her daughter, hideously, often just because she can get away with it.


Those around her don’t come off much better, as they’re either duplicitous, toadies, or objects of sympathy. There’s no one to like in this movie, and few to even empathize with for more than a minute or two.


Why does this bother me so much? A lot has to do with my upbringing. I was raised working class. Had an aptitude for music and earned both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, my Master’s from New England Conservatory. I was good, but not good enough to play at that level. To use a baseball analogy, I was a solid AA player. I did some things very well, but there were holes in my swing that prevented me from making The Show. I learned much about art, but through the prism of working-class craftsmen.



While not all craft is art, there can be no art without craft. The greatest musicians still routinely practice their scales and other fundamentals. Artists work on their brush technique. Dancers hit the gym to keep their bodies tuned. Art results from the mastering of craft combined with a divine spark one either has or does not, which allows the craft to reach a level that transcends its origins. Spend enough time with artists of the highest order and you’ll see this is true.


What breaks my balls about Tar is the multiple layers of pretentiousness it includes. Lydia presents herself as a servant of art, but the primary thing we see her do artistically is to have the opening trumpet solo of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony played offstage. No one wrote more detailed instructions in their scores than Mahler. If he wanted the trumpet off stage, he would have said so. He did say so in the First Symphony, where the trumpets play three fanfares off-stage before joining the rest of the orchestra. The only purpose moving the trumpet off-stage will serve is to generate critical buzz regarding Tar’s “brilliance.” (There are also logistical issues I’ll not go into here.)


The film suffers from much the same pretentiousness. In some ways it reminded me of The Power of the Dog, where a good story was crushed beneath the weight of its too obvious efforts to be “artistic,” or, worse, “important.”


I am not immune to art. While I abhor melodrama that tries to manipulate my emotions, I am moved by many books, movies, and music. The art must be organic, springing naturally and without effort from the mastering of the craft, something that rests transparently on the spirit that gives it rise. (Props to Kierkegaard via David Milch for teaching me that.) A presumed artist can no more force art into a project than he or she can decide to be taller. Lifts can be added to their shoes, but close examination reveals the artifice.


Just as melodrama tries to manipulate your feelings, Tar beats you over the head with its “art” rather than trusting the audience to decide whether it is, isn’t, or just the auteur engaging in three hours of cinematic masturbation.

No comments: