While most moviegoers will sate themselves on Dwayne Johnson, George Clooney, and Julia Roberts this weekend, a batch of challenging films guaranteed not to appeal to every taste arrive in cinemas, hopefully not too overshadowed by dark super-villainy and movie-star chemistry.
The most hotly anticipated of the group is TÁR, the third feature, and first in sixteen years, from Todd Field, who grew up in Portland. It stars Cate Blanchett in a sure-to-be-nominated star turn as Lydia Tár, a classical conductor who has achieved celebrity status in a historically male-dominated field. The film opens by delivering her curriculum vitae in the context of an onstage interview with Adam Gopnik (playing himself) during The New Yorker Festival. We’re informed that her current project is a pandemic-delayed live recording of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with the New York Philharmonic, the only one of his nine she has yet to conquer.
Lydia Tár is a formidable intellect, speaking without hesitation and using her hands while she converses as one would expect a conductor might. Also in the vein of the stereotypical maestro (she disdains the use of the gendered “maestra”), she’s an intimidating presence and a non-sufferer of fools, as demonstrated in another early scene where she dresses down a non-white, pan-gendered student who dismisses Bach as just another dead white male. That particular exchange will come back to haunt her, as will several other things she says or does.
TÁR has been described as a critique of “cancel culture,” but I don’t think that’s entirely accurate. A simplistic reading of the film might be that Field is showing how someone not of the cis-het-male persuasion can be just as easily caught up in the winds of politically correct public shaming. But the way the character is written and embodied demands a more probing examination of just who this brilliant, monstrous, desperate woman is.
Surrounding Blanchett’s magisterial work—it almost goes without saying that she nails the technical aspects of conducting and playing–are a group of less heralded but quite impressive performers. Nina Hoss, so memorable in Christian Petzold’s dramas Barbara and Phoenix, plays Tár’s wife, co-parent to their young daughter Petra, and the orchestra’s first violinist. Noémie Merlant (Portrait of a Girl on Fire) is Tár’s long-suffering assistant, and cellist Sophie Kauer makes an impressive acting debut as a young Russian player who makes an impression on the generally unimpressible conductor.
To watch a two-and-a-half-hour film set deeply in the world of modern classic music makes certain demands on an audience. Famous names are tossed off with regularity and familiarity, and your humble philistine got maybe half of them. (I know who Jacqueline du Pre was, and I did hear about “Jimmy” Levine’s troubles at the Met…) TÁR is spare in its settings—concrete Berlin apartments and elegant concert halls—and can be elliptical in its storytelling. Conducting is all about controlling the flow of time, Lydia Tár says at one point, and editor Monika Willi seems to take that as a cue, coming in and out of scenes in a way that challenges the viewer to keep up but never veers into obscurity.
The score is obviously crucial, and Field recruited Oscar winner Hildur Guðnadóttir (Joker) to fill in what isn’t covered by Mahler and Elgar. It feels important that these key jobs, as well as all the major acting roles, are filled by women. Lydia is a lesbian who dresses in masculine fashion, and who succumbs to some of the same flaws and temptations that have recently, finally, started to erode some of the more troubling visages from our cultural Mount Rushmores.
But, coming back to that classroom confrontation, the eternal question of art vs. artist. If Bach or Mahler or Roman Polanski or Roseanne Barr or Martin Heidegger were terrible people, does that mean their work should be consigned to ignominy along with them?
It’s a famously impossible riddle to solve, other than to say that every case is different. And the way Field tries to explore, if not solve, it forms the final and most challenging act of TÁR. The final twenty minutes or so take a sharp left turn that culminates in either the beginning of our main character’s redemption or her final condemnation. To each their own. (Opens Friday, Oct. 21 at Cinema 21 and Regal Bridgeport Village.)
ALSO THIS WEEK:
South Korean auteur Park Chan-Wook has been overshadowed to a degree by his Oscar-winning countryman Bong Joon-Ho (Parasite) in recent years, but he’s back in fine form with Decision to Leave. This compelling, novelistic thriller takes various tropes familiar from everything from Vertigo to Basic Instinct and weaves them into something new.
Busan detective Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) and his younger partner are assigned to the seemingly straightforward case of an immigration officer who fell to his death while rock climbing. But suspicions start to swirl around the man’s young, beautiful widow, Seo-rae (Tang Wei), an illegal Chinese immigrant who was granted Korean citizenship due to her grandfather’s military service decades ago.
Hae-jun, who only sees his wife on weekends and suffers from insomnia, and Seo-Rae, who works at a nursing home and shows signs of physical abuse, find themselves drawn to one another in typical (for the movies, at least) fashion. But what starts off as a formulaic femme fatale saga gets more complicated as it goes along, eventually skipping a year of time around its middle before bringing its star-crossed lovers back into contact for a second act that mixes clever procedural goings-on with an operatic, tragic sense of inevitability. Park’s direction is precise and always intentional, from his obsession with eyes and lenses to the way the language differences between Hae-jun and Seo-Rae complicate and enhance their relationship. Never boring, even at well over two hours, it’s also, for what it’s worth, far less racy than Park’s last film, 2016’s The Handmaiden. (Opens Friday, Oct. 21, at Cinema 21 and the Hollywood Theatre.)
Closer to home, the experimental, Portland-based trio YACHT (Young Americans Challenging High Technology) have been pushing the boundaries of pop music for years, and their efforts to go even further are chronicled in the documentary The Computer Accent, which comes to PAM CUT this week. The film, directed by Sebastian Pardo & Riel Roch-Decter, follows the making of YACHT’s 2019 album “Chain Tripping,” which was created using artificial intelligence to compose all of the melodies and lyrics.
In doing so, The Computer Accent serves as a primer on the history and current status of artificial intelligence, as the group meets with everyone from Google engineers to analog firebrand Eric Isaacson of Mississippi Records to get their take on the project. It’s actually one of the better short descriptions I’ve seen of how things like Google’s Deep Dream Generator and other AI art programs work. The film also chronicles the history of YACHT and its members, including the unfortunate promotional episode involving a faux-leaked sex tape in 2016 (which members Claire Evans and Jona Bechtolt now unequivocally disavow).
Well-made and genuinely informational (even if one isn’t into the final result), The Computer Effect’s screening will be followed by a performance by YACHT of the entire Chain Tripping album. (Tuesday, Oct. 25, at 7 p.m.)
Swedish filmmaker Ruben Ostlund has specialized in tales about the blurring (at least) of social norms, whether in the context of a married couple (Force Majeure) or the world of modern art (The Square). Now, in a logical extension of that concern, he turns a luxury yacht into a vomit-covered hell on the high seas in Triangle of Sadness.
Divided into three parts, the movie first probes the fissures in the relationship between male model Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Instagram influencer Yaya (Charlbi Dean, a South African actress who tragically died from a sudden illness in August). Next the action moves to a pleasure cruise for the ultra-wealthy, where Carl and Yaya join such paragons of capitalism as an Eastern European arms dealer and a woman who complains that the (motorized) boat’s sails are dirty.
Eventually, the eccentric, Marxist captain (Woody Harrelson) emerges from his cabin, just in time for rough seas and bad seafood to create what was surely intended as one of cinema’s great pukefests. As the spoiled rich folks get their comeuppance by sliding across the tilting decks on streams of bodily fluids, you can’t help but think they’ve had enough.
But no; events conspire, in Triangle’s third section, to deposit a collection of passengers and crew on a deserted island, where the tables are turned even further. And Gilligan thought he had it rough. I like a good misanthropic exploration of humanity’s innate will to dominate as much as the next guy, but when I start feeling sorry for the guy who got rich selling land mines, I’m ready for a lifeboat of my own. (Opens Friday, Oct. 24, at Living Room Theaters.)