It's Not Really About Cancel Culture
Monday Notes
It's Not Really About Cancel Culture
Tar is a movie that gets you thinking—about music, about language, and about meaning itself.
Published on: Feb 13, 2023  |  

A few weeks back, I finally got around to watching Tar, the Cate Blanchett film everyone seems to be talking about. It’s definitely one of the best films I’ve seen in quite some time—layered, complex, ambiguous, in all the best senses of those terms. Yes, it tackles “cancel culture,” but not in any way that should leave anyone particularly satisfied. Similarly, though there is a fair bit going on about power dynamics and exploitation in the movie, it’s not really about that either.

What is it about, then? Honestly, I need to watch the film a second time to say anything more definitive on it. It’s a film that bears rewatching. But what it did leave me with is a sense of familiarity, albeit an odd one. I think it faithfully captured the rarified atmosphere of the professional high culture circuit, complete with all of its ruthless backbiting and jealousy, as well as its devotion to artistic perfection.

It’s not a world that I have ever directly inhabited, but it is a world that half of my family has been in contact with. My grandmother on my mother’s side, who passed away before I was born, was a famous contralto. Her brother was also active in the Zagreb opera scene, and her son, my recently deceased uncle, was a conductor. Especially through my uncle’s life, and his friends, I would get glimpses into this often high-strung world.

Being adjacent to this world left me with a complex set of feelings about music. We always had classical music playing in the house when I was growing up, but it wasn’t until much later in life that I warmed to it (despite my grandmother’s legacy). We had a piano in the house and my mother would frequently play it. I took piano lessons, but they never stuck. I ended up playing drums in a punk band after college instead.

My good friend Doug Robertson, the brainy guitarist in the band, was a music lover with broad tastes. Though our songs were simple fare, in no small part because I was completely untrained in my instrument, Doug always talked about songwriting as a musicologist might. Scales, keys, modes—these were all terms I had encountered tangentially in my life up until then, but hadn’t really paid much mind to. He introduced me to the bizarre brilliance of the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. I became not only transfixed by Gould’s inimitable approach to performing and interpreting music, but also to his hypnotizing staged interviews and TV appearances, where he held forth on his expansive vision and critiques. (Check out this clip of Gould calling Mozart a hack, complete with what appears to be a sketch of Gould playing his own mentor defending Mozart. Yes, watch it. You’ve probably never seen anything like it.)

It was with halting steps like these that I eased into enjoying classical music on my own terms. I had been put off by the ritual of audiences emptily rhapsodizing over the beauty of an aria or a sonata without any hint of what, exactly, was so beautiful. I had tuned out music critics who wrote self-referential reviews that merely turned on an appreciation of everything that had come before—that this conductor’s run at the Met put him in league with another famous conductor whose name I might recognize from old Deutsche Grammophon record sleeves in my parents’ collection. Whatever youthful resistance I had to the world I had only dimly glimpsed through family trips to the opera started to melt away as I came to appreciate that this world, too, had its exciting iconoclasts, uttering unspeakable things (as Gould did in his riff on Mozart).

And it wasn’t just the empty goring of sacred cows that excited me. I started to appreciate the craft, as distinct from the “art” that everyone was gushing over. And it became clearer to me that one could come to understand that craft beyond mere emotionalism, to engage with the music beyond rapture. As an untrained listener, I could say more than “I prefer Haydn to Mozart” and leave it at that. I could actually come to grapple with why it is that I feel that way. I could engage with the art beyond merely appreciating it.

And that’s what jumped out to me in Tar, beyond the atmosphere of this rarified world that half of my family had been immersed in. There are many parts of the film that convey the protagonist’s own passion for, and obsession with, music that do not merely boil down to a caricature of an “artist” being carried away by inspiration and passion. The film unlocks several doors “in” to the rarified world of high culture, for those that choose to open them.

This past weekend, I took a peek behind just one of these doors. What follows, I hope, will pique your interest as well.

Most viewers seem to have latched on to the epic intellectual dressing down that Cate Blanchett’s character, Lydia Tar, administers to a hapless woke Julliard student who is insistent on rejecting various musical greats on account of them being straight white (and dead) men. But I was captivated by the opening interview between Tar and the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, about the roots of her own musical convictions.

In the interview, Tar pays lip service to Leonard Bernstein, the legendary conductor and composer, whose philosophy she says influenced her own approach. There’s reason to think that Tar is herself just playing to the (probably overwhelmingly Jewish) Upper West Side audience in the room for that interview by invoking the theological concepts of “teshuvah” and “kavanah,” (which she presumably picked up from Bernstein). But Tar’s approach and philosophy itself—whether it is consistent and genuine or mere opportunistic dressing for her ambition—is of less interest. Her invoking Bernstein as a philosopher caught my attention.

I was vaguely aware of the fact that educating the public was one of Bernstein's many preoccupations. I knew that earlier in his career, he had recorded a series of children’s shows at Carnegie Hall in which he attempted to introduce a younger generation to the wonders of classical music. But I was not aware that he had gone much further than that. In 1973, it turns out, Bernstein found himself at Harvard delivering a series of six lectures titled “The Unanswered Question”. The question in question is posed by the composer Charles Ives, whose work of the same name was first performed in 1908. Bernstein sums up the question as “Whither music?”—where is our musical tradition heading to?

The core of Bernstein’s preoccupation, and presumably Charles Ives’, is the idea that tonal music, which reached its peak in the golden age of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, was being superseded by—or worse, was maybe even degenerating into—what he calls “chromatic goulash”—untethered experimentation that avoids writing music in any particular key. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether you find Bernstein’s worries compelling. Many did not at the time. And if you’re immediately suspicious of Bernstein’s musical conservatism, here’s a good introduction to, and defense of, the legacy of twelve tone music by the New York Times’ music critic Anthony Tomassini. But even if you are not won over, you have to admire the vast intellectual ambition of Bernstein.

A few weeks ago, writing about George Kennan, I was struck by the role Freud played in the popular consciousness in the middle of the twentieth century. Every educated person seems to have internalized that Freud had hit upon something that would unlock an important level of self-understanding for humanity. Similarly, in 1973, Bernstein freely uses the linguistic theories of Noam Chomsky as a jumping off point for his lectures. Bernstein’s goal is to attempt to prove that one can derive something like a universal language of music that is innate to the human species.

I confess that in working through his Chomskian parallels, Bernstein frequently lost me. He lost me not because Chomsky’s linguistic project is wrong or wrong-headed, or because the material is particularly difficult to understand as expressed. It’s the audacity of the endeavor itself. You can partially write off my reaction due to my particular allergy to the very notion of humanistic universals. But there’s something else at play, something more “cultural,” for lack of a better word. I suspect that no one would even attempt to actually derive something so far-reaching in today’s culture. We have become too jaded, too preoccupied with the study of difference to imagine a different way. The lectures point to just how confident a certain strand of American humanistic liberalism was mid-century. Building on the work of giants like Freud and Chomsky, one could conceivably imagine coming up with a broader theory of everything. Amazing.

Of course Bernstein was criticized at the time both for the way he made use of Chomsky, and for the speculative leaps he made to music and musicology in order to argue his case. But none of that detracts from the real value that Bernstein’s attempt yields. The first two lectures build up to two successive in-depth expositions as to what exactly Mozart was up to in his 40th symphony. You don’t have to buy into Bernstein’s theoretical superstructure to have your experience of listening to this classic completely and irreversibly transformed. There may not be anything like a universal language of music, but in his lectures Bernstein has certainly taught you the rudiments of a language—a means of understanding music beyond mere ecstatic appreciation.

Maybe that’s the key to Tar as well. Maybe by focusing on questions of cancel culture and predation—the topics of the day that shape its outer narrative contours—we’re ignoring something more important about it.

Maybe it’s a film about understanding—about how we have lost an ability to properly ask, and attempt to answer, the big questions. Tar may be a manipulator, or even a monster, but she is authentically struggling with something much larger than what proves to be her undoing. Maybe, as James Sutton said to me, the film is best understood as an elegy for a period, a time when a certain kind of broad-minded intellectual (like Bernstein) could dare to struggle with truly big things—and an acknowledgment of the sad fact that such breathtaking intellectual ambition is rendered impossible by the narrow preoccupations of today.

Or, like I said, maybe I need to see the film again. Maybe, like a great work of music, it needs to be experienced several times. Maybe repeated watching will ultimately reveal its language—a language that lets us engage with it on a level that is more than just impressionistic.