The late Dennis Grunes reviews the Station Agent. He thinks Tom McCarthy did Patricia Clarkson’s character dirty. In retrospect, I think he has a point. His view is tendentious but seems more insightful than mine.
Peter Dinklage, who’s probably best known for playing Tyrion Lannister from the HBO miniseries Game of Thrones, first came to wide attention in 2003 for a brief, 3-minute scene in Will Ferrell’s Christmas movie Elf. It is a hilarious meeting of opposites. The 6’3″ Ferrell is a childlike innocent who grew up in Santa’s workshop at the North Pole. The 4’5″ Dinklage is an aggressive, Type-A frat boy who brags about his material possessions and sexual conquests as if he were just another follower of Andrew Tate. After Ferrell speaks to Dinklage as if he sincerely believes he’s an elf who had escaped from the North Pole, and Dinklage violent assaults him, as guilty as we may feel about our ingrained bias against people with dwarfism, it’s difficult to keep a straight face.
That same year, Dinklage played the lead in a small, low-budget movie called The Station Agent. Set in sparsely populated West Milford, New Jersey and starring Patricia Clarkson, Michelle Williams, and Bobby Cannavale, the critically acclaimed film further explores the dilemma of being a 5’10” man in a 4’5″ body. Dinklage plays Finbar McBride, an employee at a small hobby shop in Hoboken New Jersey specializing in model trains. When Henry Styles, his long-time friend and employer played by Paul Benjamin, one of the street corner Greek chorus from Do the Right Thing, dies of a heart attack, Finbar, or “Fin” as he refers to himself, suddenly finds himself without a job. For reasons unmentioned, Styles does not leave Fin the hobby store, but he does leave him a small piece of property, including an old train depot, and an old passenger car, 44 miles away in the unincorporated Newfoundland area of West Milford in Northern Passaic County.
To call West Milford, New Jersey “rural” would be a bit of a stretch. It’s an affluent suburban area just south of the New York State border, and about 20 minutes north of Morristown and the cluttered retail strip in East Hanover on Route 10. Nevertheless, it’s about as different from Hoboken and Hudson County as you can possibly get. Tall trees, quiet roads, lonely mountain lakes, the whole area has an idyllic feel, the kind of place where, in the Spring, you just want to go outside and ride a bike or walk. That’s precisely what Fin does. When we see him talking towards the Hoboken rail terminal, we assume he’s just going to get on the PATH and take a NJ Transit Bus from the Port Authority. Instead he drops down onto the tracks and walks, all 44 miles to West Milford. That Fin would have certainly run into murderous traffic along the way and surely would have been shooed off of NJ Transit property by the police is besides the point. The world of The Station Agent is a quiet little cul-de-sac off the main road of early 21st Century America.
While the tracks in front of the old railway depot in Newfoundland are still active, it’s a low volume freight line, and no longer carries passengers from New York City to the (still extant) Idylease Inn, a luxurious resort yet still open to the middle-class of the metropolitan area. Moving into the depot, for Fin, is to commune with ghosts, the ghosts of vacationers from the early 20th Century, but most of all with the ghost of the station agent, who in 1900 would have been a combination ticket seller, general store manager, and even barber. Above all the station agent would have been an outsider and an observer, a man looking at the world passing by and wondering when if ever he would become a part of it.
Idylease around 1910
Idylease (A frequent stop on my cycling route) today.
Once ensconced in the depot, Fin almost immediately makes a friend. At first it seems an “unlikely” friendship. Joe, played by Bobby Cannavale of Boardwalk Empire, is a tall handsome Cuban American who surely has no trouble meeting women or making friends. Indeed, it seems a little strange, almost creepy. Why exactly does this strapping young Latin hunk want to be friends so badly with a dwarf? Does he have some kind of fetish? But then we realize that Joe, who runs a hotdog stand out in the middle of nowhere and can’t possibly be turning a profit, has also communed with the ghost of the station master at the old depot. He’s a customer service agent without any customers.
People can make connections, the movie seems to argue, without speaking. They feel one another’s souls. There’s a reason Joe’s spirit reaches out to Fin’s. His father is dying. If Fin has recently lost his spiritual father, then Joe is constantly worried about losing his real father. He suddenly realizes why he has driven his father’s hotdog truck out to the middle of nowhere and set up shop. Fin is wary and mistrustful. But Joe breaks down his defenses. “Be friends with me bro,” he seems to say. “I may be a foot and a half taller than you but inside we’re just two lonely guys who have lost our dads.”
Indeed, it quickly becomes clear why Fin rarely talks about his old boss Henry Styles, even though Henry protected him from customers who would mock him for being a dwarf. The entire plot revolves, not only around the station agent’s ghost, but around Harry’s ghost. People are drawn to Fin, not because they’re curious about his being a dwarf, but because they sense his loss and want to share their own. Olivia Harris, played by Patricia Clarkson, who has recently been separated from her husband over their shared grief at a lost child, almost runs into Fin, not once but twice when she spills coffee into her lap in her SUV. Eventually, Joe, Olivia and Fin are drawn together almost by the force of gravity.
Olivia also offers Fin and unexpected opportunity for redemption. Early in the movie, she is the pursuer. She barges into Fin’s life whether he likes it or not. But as the film progresses, she becomes more and more consumed with anguish over the loss of her child and the separation from her husband, and withdraws into a suicidal depression, trying to push both Fin and Joe out of her life. Suddenly, Fin is no longer trapped in the shell, which is not only an accident of a physical handicap but which is partly of his own making. He finds he cares about a person who is pushing him away. He has to find a way to break through her defenses so they can once again be friends. A subplot with Michelle Williams, always an appealing actress, feels a bit forced but further hammers in the point that Fin is a 5’10” man living in a dwarf’s body. After her abusive boyfriend shoves Fin to the ground after Fin tries to protect her, and he’s angry that he doesn’t have the size or strength to win the fight, she tries to seduce him. But it’s not what he wants. “People don’t understand,” he says. “I’m just a boring, ordinary person.” Fin doesn’t want sexual conquest. He pursues Olivia because he cares about her, not because he wants her as a lover. He and Joe end up almost like brothers. But he doesn’t want to get even with an abusive asshole by fucking his girlfriend. He’s not that kind of person.
We don’t learn anything about Fin’s past, other than that he’s a man in his 30s who loves trains and recently worked in a hobby store. But he appears to be an educated man from middle-class family, a socially isolated underachiever not because of poverty but because of dwarfism. Throughout the movie, Fin has been pursued by another Joe, Cleo, a young black girl still in junior high school, who barges into his life out of pure innocent curiosity. This is where we realizes how different Peter Dinklage’s character is from the arrogant jerk he played in Elf. He’s not offended by Cleo’s innocence. He’s redeemed by it. Finally agreeing to be a guest lecturer in front of her class and give a talk about trains, he seems to get over his anxiety over speaking in front of crowds. A boy makes a cheap crack about his height, but it’s no big deal. The other kids are so fascinated by his knowledge of trains they want him to come back and give a talk about blimps. Fin knows nothing about blimps, but upon meeting with Olivia and Joe the next day he starts peppering them with questions. Perhaps Fin is a grade school teacher waiting to come out of his shell, a popular little man who can speak to kids on their own level without condescending to them, the station agent finally come home from the past to find that maybe he has a future after all.
In the past year I opened a used media store, which has, through various twists and turns, brought me back to this website. I probably boiled some of these down into some of the 300 Memos To Myself, so forgive me if I repeat myself. You can check that one out here: https://writerswithoutmoney.com/2023/04/05/300-memos-to-myself/
In running a second hand store a person is given insight and direct field research into two subjects that tend to be poorly understood by literary critics-why do people buy books (or records, or tapes, or whatever), why do people get rid of books (or records, etc.)? What is their relationship to these things?
A lot of the turnaround of my business, as is the case with my father’s business, revolves around death. People own stuff, people die, and one of the first things to be resolved upon their death is what to do with their stuff. Frequently they come to me.
The first step in many large book purchases is hearing when the owner of the books died. You rarely hear how they died, and it’s probably better that way. The caller shortly or, more often, at length memorializes the deceased and more specifically, their relationship to the books. Usually a hobby is the organizing locus of the collection. Some collections are less collections and more accumulations. If you go to the house to pick up the collection, you’re often the person to disassemble the living space of the dead person. If they’re older, the books are staged in a living space the dead person presumably occupied for some time. You see their interests, sometimes their fantasies, whether they went to college, what they did for work, books reflecting difficulties they had with their children or marriage or parents or health, books given to them by family and close acquaintances they may or may not have read.
I first reflected on the mess of an estate as a naturally emerging self-portraiture early in my book hunting, not too many months after I met Stan. I had a bicycle then and I would ride on it during the day picking up books off the street. I’d walk around at night as well. Blocks and blocks of almost mirrored windows and stoops. One of those nights I stumbled on a water damaged box with some paperbacks. On top were three or four books about how to parent a teenager-the titles were things like “How To Talk To Your Teenager” and “Mom You’re Such A Bitch, Why Can’t I Borrow The Car?”. The latter had either an actual or imitation Roz Chast drawing on the cover. At the bottom, more water damaged than the other books by some margin, was an orange book called “The Bereaved Parent”. I left them there, but the image of it remained with me. The sky was a deep blue slightly illuminated by street lamps. It all felt like how my dreams look.
Ever since then, when I encounter a large collection where I need to make an offer quickly, I rely on a sort of calculus of what other books are likely to be in the lot. Did this person read a lot of introductory books or did they delve deeply into one or two subjects? How did this person handle their objects? Did they see these things as important or disposable? How obsessive was their relationship to packaging? The most valuable collections often aren’t the product of healthy minds.
Does an object carry a certain energy when you’re aware of its former lodgings? An old roommate and I would often riff on the idea of a Pixar musical called either “House Of Unwanted Objects” or “Land Of Fraught Objects”. It would take place in a pawn shop, and each of the glass case items would sing an introductory song about how they ended up in the pawn shop. Some would be bought, others recycled or disposed of.
Much later I bought a tub of books from a house abandoned by an infamous art dealer/suspected murderer. They aren’t anywhere close to the full collection. They’re mostly large art books. One on Giacommetti, one on folk art, one a collection of homoerotic ostensibly artistic nudes. What did they tell me about this man?
The dealer I bought the books from told me they’d found bizarre things in the house-small baggies of crystal meth, a bust by Renoir, old police reports, photos from family holidays. The pictures looked incredibly mundane-for such a frightful character, all the photo showed was man in a sweater reclined near a Christmas tree.
Why did I want to look for furtive clues of the sinister things I knew in the banal things set in front of me?
It passes time I guess?
NOTICE: This is jukebox week. Put what you want me to write about in the comments and I’ll write articles about the first three subjects you suggest. This should be a fun experiment.
In the opening of Darren Aronofsky’s new film The Whale, we find ourselves on a wooded, rural highway somewhere in North America. It’s quiet, idyllic, peaceful, without much traffic. A bus pulls up, stop, lets off a passenger on the side of the road, and pulls away. We do not see what he looks like. The camera does not pull in further, and in retrospect, it is an odd scene to begin a movie set almost entirely indoors. Indeed, with one very big exception, the Whale is not so much a cinematic adaptation of Samuel D. Hunter’s award winning 2013 drama so much a stage version of the play put to film.
In the next scene, we meet the very big exception, Charlie a lecturer at an online university in the process of teaching a lower level English course. While The Whale takes place in 2016 — there is running coverage of Donald Trump’s victory in the Republican Party primaries — the class feels more like 2020. Charlie’s students look bored, impatient, like they would rather be somewhere else. They are young, but don’t have the quality of youth. What’s more, almost as if he were wearing a mask, they can’t see Charlie’s face. “When is the professor finally going to get his webcam fixed?” one student remarks sarcastically. Charlies students will have to wait until the end of the movie to find out what their professor looks like. We get to see him in the very next scene.
Francoise Truffaut once remarked that it is impossible to make a genuinely antiwar movie since the cinematic aesthetic almost always throws a veil of glamour over the blood, gore, death and destruction. The same pitfall apply to addiction and self-destruction. If what does not kill you makes you stronger, what does kill you can also make you cool. Cigarettes cause cancer. They’re also inherently cinematic. While heroin addiction isn’t quite as cool as it was in the 1990s, it also killed Kurt Cobain and informed the aesthetic of neo-psychedelic groups like Mazzy Star and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Even alcoholism, as anybody who’s ever watched Humphry Bogart in Casablanca declare his nationality to be that of a “drunkard,” is more than just a way of killing yourself. It can also be a way of turning yourself into a romantic hero.
One form of self-destruction that’s almost impossible to make beautiful, however, is morbid obesity, which is exactly what we see when Charlie’s class ends. Brendan Fraser, who won an Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of Charlie, the tall, rugged hunk from The Mummy, is now a balding middle-aged man wearing the fat suit that probably cost half the film’s budget. Charlie is not only fat. He’s quite literally killing himself by overdosing on food, a long, slow arduous process that has left him weighing at least 600 pounds, and has jacked up his blood pressure to 233/167. It’s immediately obvious why he doesn’t want his students to know what he looks like since he almost embodies the idea of the “corruption of the flesh,” of sin, or moral turpitude. Aronofsky takes the idea of Charlie’s depravity so far over the top it becomes almost funny. Masturbating to gay porn, he groans with pleasure until he clutches his chest and starts to groan in pain. Is Charlie having an orgasm or is he having a heart attack? No, he’s having a heart attack while he’s having an orgasm, sex, death, depravity, and self-destruction all wrapped up in a 600 pound, sweating, wheezing mound of flesh. Then we hear a knock on the door, and Thomas, a young man, barely into his 20s, the same young man who had gotten off the bus in the opening scene, walks into Charlie’s apartment.
“Do you have a few minutes to talk about Jesus?” he says, gasping in horror at the mountainous spectacle in front of him.
Quickly realizing that Charlie needs a doctor more than he needs a religious lesson, Thomas asks to borrow Charlie’s phone to call an ambulance — oddly for a member of Generation Z Thomas does not have a working cell phone — but Thomas’s first impulse was actually correct. Charlie, who is too far gone to save himself physically, is more interested in “the word” than in the flesh. He does in fact want to talk about books, just not the “good book.” Handing Thomas a typed single page he begs him to read. Baffled, Thomas hesitates, but Charlie insists, and when Thomas finally begins, we realizes it’s a crudely written book report on Moby Dick, the other whale of the title, an essay we later learn was written by someone long estranged but dear to Charlie’s heart, words he wants to have going through his mind as he dies. For Charlie, the beautiful, ornately poetic language of the King James Bible, would only take him further away from himself, from his family, from what he wants to remember in death. What Charlie values above all is not beauty, but authenticity. For Charlie, as he tells his students, a few words written sincerely from the heart are more valuable than the Song of Solomon.
The Whale has been criticized for casting a height weight proportional actor in a fat suit instead of a genuinely obese man, but I personally think Brenden Fraser is perfect for the role. Orson Welles and Marlon Brando in their later years were grotesquely fat, and either could have played a self-destructive English teacher, but both men also had a commanding presence, a force, an authenticity that would overwhelmed Charlie’s inner torment and made it impossible for us to understand the reason he has decided to commit suicide by overdosing on food. Brendan Fraser, on the other hand, with his thick lips, male pattern baldness, his almost stereotypical middle-aged ugliness, has a soft, weak, confused quality about him that at first glance would make him the kind of man no woman, or man, could love, the kind of man who would die a virgin, but it is not so. Charlie in fact used to be a respectable, educated, middle-class man, but it all came at the cost of denying himself, of denying his own homosexuality and emotional complexity. When, well into middle-age, he finally meets the love of his life, he gives up everything he has, his family, his job, his health, and finally his life, all to be true to the self he had been denying so long.
Indeed, Aronofsky has played a clever trick on us all. With the help of Brendan Fraser, he has taken the ugliest possible object anybody can imagine and made it beautiful. Thomas is a sincere young man who, unlike Charlie’s friend and caretaker Liz, depicted by the actress Hong Chau in a complex, nuanced, and compassionate performance, doesn’t quite understand that Charlie doesn’t want to be saved. He wants to be damned on his own terms. Like one of Dante’s beautiful sinners in the upper circles of hell, like Francesca Di Rimini, who was murdered while in the act of adultery and thus damned, he wants to cling to his beloved object for all of eternity, even if that eternity is full of misery. If the double grief of a lost bliss is to recall its happy hour in pain, Charlie wants to feel his grief forever.
People like it when you take the time to learn their first name and use it when speaking to them.
- If the artist was popular at the time of an album’s release, the first pressing is probably the most common one.
- Only deal with what you know, but also try to know more every day.
- The easiest way to save money is to listen to what other people aren’t listening to. Per Robert Frost: “The good things are hidden so the wrong ones can’t find them.”
- If you’re selling online and the buyer has an issue with an item, never give partial refunds, always ask for returns.
- If all other sellers you meet think an entire genre is categorically not valuable, that is the genre you should research.
- The most costly part of haggling is emotional stress.
- The more expensive the restaurant is, the less food they serve you. This is because most of their clientele does not do physical labor during the day.
- Something being rare doesn’t inherently mean something is valuable.
- Something being valuable doesn’t inherently mean something is rare.
- Don’t ask “is this valuable?”, ask “(why) would someone want this?”
- Usually the people who argue the most vehemently over a few dollars are the ones who can most afford to spend those few dollars.
- A speculator’s market is ultimately only propped up by people who actually want to own the item. Pure speculation always ends in a market collapse.
- All sealed items are prints.
- The market logic of most media collectibles overlaps with that of prints.
- In my line of work, every original is also a copy.
- Prices people ask online are just things that haven’t sold yet. Sales records are the only things that matter in appraisal.
- Reselling is one of the few jobs where you are genuinely paid to learn new things every day.
- If you’re having a problem with a piece of electronics, somebody else has probably had the same problem and complained about it on the internet.
- Collecting things yourself is the only way to actually understand the intricacies of resale.
- There are always more objects.
- Looking for one thing and only one thing, particularly if it’s rare, is a recipe for disappointment. The joy of this discipline is the endless novelty.
- Most highly collectible objects were considered garbage at some point.
- Brick and mortar is about the sense of community. The internet cannot replicate that.
- The best way to always get your money’s worth with a book is to read it and enjoy it.
- Every signed object is a rabbit’s foot.
- This is the study of peoples’ relationships to objects as much or more than it is the study of the objects themselves.
- Your family will have to deal with anything you’ve hoarded when you die.
- Beware of cultural necrophilia. Believing that people aren’t making good art anymore just betrays that you aren’t looking very hard. More importantly, it makes you sound old.
- All broken electronics have many useful components that can be reused in other repairs.
- The desire for recordings of human culture is a pursuit laced with superstitions. It is very easy to be possessed by the dead.
- The contents of a book or record are usually easily available. The container they came in gives their cultural context.
- Being picky is not inherently the same as being discerning.
- If you think a thing looks cool, somebody else probably also thinks it looks cool.
- Much of the desire for cultural objects comes from a sense of rootlessness; a desire for a tangible sense of history in ones surroundings.
- Any book you aren’t reading, any record you aren’t listening to, any game you aren’t playing, is decor.
- The best book ever written on retail is In Search Of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. Every object is someone’s madeliene cookie. Touch and smell trigger memory.
- A desire for the past should not be a solution for a perceived poverty of the present.
- The search for a pristine copy of an object disregards why one should seek a physical object in the first place; don’t become the sort of vampire who can only suck the blood of virgins.
- Taking care of objects is important, but so is taking care of ones’ body -regardless, someday we’re all going to die.
- Nostalgia is only one reason to engage the past.
- The culture of endless disposability and the culture of hoarding are two sides of the same coin.
- All right answers are situational. The desire for absolutes is the desire to stop thinking.
- In a capitalist system, people value objects by what other people have paid for them. I sold things on consignment once for a real estate broker; when I explained the most valuable book in his dead father’s house was an academic text on 16th century Italian peasants, he took it with him to read on a plane. He got nothing from it.
- Any great work of art is a moving target.
- Most of the world’s greatest works have been reproduced to the point of having little monetary value. This is a good thing.
- The best way to appreciate what is good in a field one doesn’t understand is to consume something in that field that is bad.
- If God created the universe, all media objects are graven images.
- Every retail store is also a museum. A grocery store is a museum of the present.
- There is no better negotiating tool than genuine enthusiasm.
- Most people coming in to sell things fall into three broad categories: somebody died, somebody got married, somebody really loves going to yard sales.
- A compulsive behavior is only a bad thing if approached thoughtlessly.
- The object only changes when you do.
- I am a benign conspiracist-I believe it is all connected.
- CRT televisions are hazardous waste unless used. Give them a home.
- Love is a relationship to a thing in motion; anything else is taxidermy.
- The artist’s intent is only as important as the intent of the audience.
- Be gentle with those looking to learn, be ruthless with those looking to speculate.
- Something old isn’t something valuable if the people who wanted it are all dead.
- Peel slowly and see.
- Save some for later.
- You will only find what you are looking for. Anything else will find you.
- Everything happens for a reason, but not every reason is a good reason.
- The way a person tells a story tells you how they assess their surroundings.
- Most broken video game consoles can be fixed by cleaning the cartridge slot with isopropyl alcohol and a toothbrush.
- All the dead people who wrote books and recorded music were once living people with problems.
- Once you get the message, hang up.
- Are you more afraid of death or madness?
- The voices in your head telling you to do things aren’t you.
- The most difficult part of repairing something most of the time is putting it back together afterwards.
- Many things very popular in their time are nearly forgotten now. The canons we receive are what the generation after thought was important.
- Talk back to the television.
- Anything truly original will arrive without an audience to comprehend it.
- Meaning is only one use of language.
- There are more rare things than common things. There are just more copies of the common things.
- The most important archaeology is that of the present.
- Realism is just another aesthetic.
- The most dangerous propaganda tries to present itself as having no politics.
- Distinctions between high and low culture are primarily distinctions between the economic classes of their consumers.
- Most audio cassettes can be repaired by gluing the felt pad back in carefully.
- Art is not a discrete category.
- You are the only person living your life. Use that.
- Streaming is a nightmare for archivists.
- Are you building a collection or a youtube set?
- Use what’s there.
- Do the thing and stop whining.
- All small time crooks think they’re master criminals. Getting away with something gives them what they actually want: validation. That’s why they’ll tell you all about it.
- The amount of water you get from the river is dependent on the size of the bowl you bring.
- “The more you complain, the longer God lets you live.”-Russian proverb
- Second hand retail is very dependent on weather.
- Know what day of the week it is.
- A person’s collection is a record of their life and interests.
- Self-help books are rarely helpful.
- It’s a thin line that separates the dump and the antique store.
- A hipster is someone who isn’t actually enjoying this stuff.
- College is mostly useful as a way of delaying employment.
- The most valuable thing you can steal is time.
- When I worked in a bookstore, the owner was about to go on a vacation. I asked him if he was excited about it. He looked at his shoulder and said “If I had actually achieved zen in my own life, I wouldn’t need vacations.”
- Reselling is as much about supply and demand as anything else. Don’t overemphasize the importance of the supply.
- If the buyer doesn’t know why they want to buy the item, you need to know why they want to buy the item.
- Don’t just research prices.
- Fidelity isn’t the only measure of a playback device.
- The most useful tools in repairing electronics are a 72 in 1 hobbyist screwdriver set, isopropyl alcohol, and a used toothbrush.
- Most keyboards can be cleaned by prying off the keys with a flat head screwdriver and soaking them in soapy water.
- Read the manual.
- An NES will take nearly any barrel plug power supply 9 volts or over.
- “If your guidance counselor was so great at picking jobs, why did they become a guidance counselor?”-Matt Groening, School Is Hell
- In a comic book one can’t just show or tell, one must show and tell. What’s being told however doesn’t have to be the same as what is being shown.
- Art is about evoking feelings in a controlled setting so those feelings can be taken apart and put back together again.
- Haggling is something people only do to small businesses. Be careful not to punch down.
- Don’t ask me “What’s the best you can do on this?” I come in every day and do my best. That’s why I look so tired.
- One must eventually put their trust in strangers; this is what’s referred to as community.
- Know when to stop negotiating.
- You pay for everything eventually; be careful what you pay for it with.
- Your confidantes are as often as not determined by your sleep patterns.
- Your time is worth something, if only because you are going to die someday.
- There are many more certainties in life than death and taxes.
- Life is inherently repetitive, your readings of these repetitions determine everything.
- “I’m practicing how to say it right the first time”-Robert Ashley, Perfect Lives
- Meet your heroes in order to realize they are also just people who show up every day.
- We are all beholden to idols and graven images; their quantity is the only natural check and balance.
- Rough edges are what distinguish an accomplishment from an exercise.
- Consider the quantity and pace of production as much as other elements in evaluating a piece.
- Industrial society has produced far too many objects. Don’t buy new ones.
- If your true love is money, kill yourself.
- Don’t be too stupid. Don’t be too smart.
- What a practical joke pokes fun at is the idea that we perceive reality directly.
- Old ways of thinking fade away when the old people thinking them die.
- The value of your excitement in a moment is in that moment.
- Don’t talk like you’re being interviewed by The History Channel unless you’re being interviewed by The History Channel.
- I’m not the reason your adult children don’t return your phone calls.
- Be careful when challenging the state monopoly on violence. A collapsed monopoly of violence is a free market of violence.
- Not all aspirations are legitimate.
- Have you ever met a black libertarian?
- Power and money naturally tend towards accumulation.
- The difference between the Kanye West who thought George Bush hated black people and the Kanye West who wants to go deth con 3 on the jews is roughly $500 million dollars.
- Racists want to be racist until it substantially disadvantages them. Their comfort and safety is our peril.
- No death cult has ever called itself a death cult.
- Don’t produce industrial objects without a clear idea where to put them.
- If you build it they will come. But who are they?
- Any system of psychological analysis that doesn’t confront the death urge is worthless or worse.
- Appeasement begins at home.
- Fantasies in US culture revolve around three primary themes- committing extralegal violence, owning people by conforming them to the dimensions of fantasy objects, and unambiguously becoming an adult.
- Money is translated into unlike objects, unlike objects are then translated back into money or waste.
- If you find crackly sounds physically painful why are you collecting records?
- Curate your complaints.
- Libertarianism is mostly a movement about defending the right to not pay people fair prices for labor.
- Being transgressive isn’t enough.
- Loving the things you loved as a child isn’t inherently a good thing.
- Victim status implies a certain social capital; choose your poor wisely.
- If the existence of god can’t be determined either way, both the theists and the atheists are making empty assertions.
- Don’t put much stock in individual incidents.
- Are you making a conclusion based on an experience because it’s a logical conclusion to make or because you were looking for an excuse to make that conclusion?
- Are you grasping your experiences tightly or loosely?
- Are you practicing religion or tribalism?
- The most valuable part of Marx’s ideas is his rejection of nature, not as a concept but as an inherent good.
- It is very often a good thing that people don’t achieve their goals.
- Don’t confuse a person talking to themselves with a person talking to you.
- The difficult part isn’t killing the king but installing a better successor.
- All experiences are ephemeral, time only goes forwards.
- Don’t privilege your childhood in your memories if you can help it.
- There are far worse qualities a person can embody than insignificance.
- Think in terms of actions.
- Act thoughtfully.
- Free will is a thing you earn, not a thing you’re given.
- The nicest car in the world without brakes or steering is just a more expensive way to crash into a tree.
- I once asked a therapist why so many intelligent and successful people were miserable. He responded “The crazy is like a goldfish; it grows to the size of the container it’s in.”
- A moment doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be specific.
- A story that doesn’t go anywhere, or a story that doesn’t need to go anywhere?
- Home is a set of repetitions.
- Nothing has to be this way.
- A sense of history is a sense of impermanence.
- Life is repetitive; appreciate small variations.
- Folklore lasts longer than whatever happened.
- Most folksy phrases about adulthood revolve around themes of disappointment.
- Try to seem more wise than old.
- Many of life’s most important decisions can only be resolved by gambling.
- How far back do you stand in order to see what is important?
- Have a holy book.
- Knowledge is like clothing; try knowing things until you find the ones that fit.
- Don’t fetishize minimalism, don’t fetishize efficiency.
- A beginning, middle and end may as well be chosen by way of magical chairs.
- Don’t strive to be original, strive to be better.
- Don’t commodify banality.
- The syntax and phrasing and spelling are the message.
- Be polytheistic in your influences.
- Don’t read this in order.
- “The purpose of art is to plow the soul, to harrow it, to make it possible it might turn to good.”-Andrei Tarkovsky
- Relating to a piece of art isn’t an inherent good.
- The value of philosophy is not the soundness of points but the shape of thoughts.
- Your front sign is a billboard telling people who need to get rid of things quickly what you’re looking for.
- Shorthand is a means of highlighting the most important bits.
- A friend with weed is a friend indeed.
- 420 is the most largely embraced act of collective civil disobedience.
- All Holocaust films are either Purim stories or Passover stories. In the story of Purim an outsider is lobbied to save the Jews from mass extermination. In the story of Passover God intervenes to not only save the Jews from enslavement.
- Use index cards to take notes for books you find challenging.
- Every event and object has a historical context.
- Talk back to the television.
- Greatest hits compilations are usually worth less than original albums.
- A good idea had under the influence should still seem like a good idea when no longer under the influence.
- The more specific the subject of a book, the more likely it is to be worth something.
- Items with many varying versions-think any Beatles album etc.-take longer to research.
- Pitch a big tent.
- Know the history of the area.
- Pick and choose the holidays that mean something to you.
- Das Kapital has important lessons in how economics work useful to adherents of any school of economics.
- Have a broader frame of reference than nostalgia.
- The way to have a lot of successful friends is to help your friends be successful.
- Consider multiple readings, not just the one the author intended.
- Criticism is the act of creatively describing objects.
- This is all mandatory.
- In good circumstances, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do, within limits.
- Read books about the history of books.
- If you put the creamer in before the coffee you don’t need to stir the coffee and it’s easier to eye the amount.
- According to William James, extreme versions of things give a magnified view of a tendency in the normal version of the thing.
- Stop selling once you’ve sold it.
- Take breaks.
- The most widely read material before the internet was usually placed next to toilets or inside doctors’ offices.
- Mistakes and distortions are the colorings that create the character of an illustration.
- Act like you’re supposed to be here.
- Does anyone care?
- Fortune favors the bold is something I saw on a Flaming Carrot comic book once.
- What makes something iconic? What objects best channel that iconography?
- Older markets are more predictable markets in terms of reselling. This is a major advantage of working with books.
- How long has a subject held public retail attention? When do major trends settle down?
- If an item is very expensive online, put in what you’re willing to pay in every current auction for a while. If it’s a mass produced object, you will probably win one of them. An initial high bid also scares off other bidders.
- Don’t just curate, diversify.
- If you stack two pairs of identical box speakers with the top one upside down, they’ll sound much better than they will as a normal pair.
- Buying large collections is the easiest way to grow inventory value, not just because of the bulk pricing but because a large record collection means the owner didn’t have time to use everything to the point it’s worn.
- Signatures don’t always add a substantial amount of value to an object.
- The strangeness of wear can add to the appeal of an item.
- The world is very big. It may even be bigger than our problems.
- Be wary of any ideology that is enslaved to axioms.
- Per Richard Feynman, you don’t truly understand a subject until you can explain it to a stranger in under 5 minutes.
- If you can see the road, don’t turn on your brights. You will blind the driver in the opposite lane.
- Find what you love but don’t let it kill you until you’re ready to go.
- When assessing a hobby or activity as a potential career, put equal weight on your enjoyment of it and your ability to do it for many consecutive hours.
- The heavy trade of “graded” comic books and video games in impenetrable plastic slabs is one of the ultimate affirmations that Marx was correct in his narrative of capitalism as the gradual transformation of a society concerned with the use-value of objects into a society entranced by the exchange values of objects to the exclusion of any other considerations. Money buys objects as a means to reproducing itself.
- A man is given a small book that contains the place and time he is going to die. He sends it out to get it graded and slabbed. It only gets an 8.5.
- Tell people what you’re looking for. They might know where it is.
- If you’re good at one thing and not another, get somebody who’s good at the other thing to do the other thing.
- Every new project also serves as advertising for all your old projects.
- Resale is akin to an ongoing game of poker. Be the house.
- God is an answering machine.
- Whatever it takes.
- When making plans, remember the initial goal.
- Get it done, put it out there.
- Invest in yourself but also monitor your investment.
- The artist reaches maturity when their influences start to look human to them.
- “I’ll talk to strangers if I want to because I’m a stranger too.”
- Your early work will probably suck. If it doesn’t, you may not have long to live.
- A market of pure speculation is a market that will collapse sooner than later.
- Trust your taste over the amount of money someone else paid for a thing.
- If someone is arguing with you in bad faith, be ruthless.
- Image Comics has offered every creator who has worked for them the same rights deal the founders got and they’re doing just fine.
- “If the audience knew what they wanted, they wouldn’t be the audience.”
- Try to recognize magic when you see it.
- Faking it is part of figuring out how to make it.
- Beautiful things are often sad.
- It’s easiest to say things when you mean them.
- Have a posse.
- Choose the things you put up in your home based on the things you want to think about while looking at them.
- Be yourself but don’t just be one of them.
- Love is giving someone the power to hurt you because you are convinced they won’t
- Caring about things is frequently scary.
- Love is like a pair of glasses. It’s always right in front of your eyes.
- Love is a fine tuned and unique dynamic.
- Do you feel, deep down, like this is where you are supposed to be?
- If you want people to show up somewhere, make it somewhere where they’d want to show up.
- The deepest connections are founded in a dynamic. Those are the people you can not see for a long time and then pick up where you left off.
- If you wanted to do it badly enough, you’d be doing it.
- If the revolution isn’t compelling, we lose.
- The distance of memory is not linear.
- For W., who taught me how to write like this without knowing it.
- Sadness is when you have emotions that can’t reach a point of action.
- “Knowledge before you wisdom or understanding is fucked.” – AZ
- I did a gig with Professor Irwin Corey when he was 96. I asked him if he had any advice for living. He replied “Any money you owe when you die is profit,” and then fell asleep.
- You might not ever get over something but you still have to keep moving.
- “I never sleep because sleep is the cousin of death.”
- Figure out what you’re good at and do that.
- “It took eternity to get to my destination.”*
- The thing that actually anticipated memes was the New Yorker cartoon caption contest.
- Are you prepared for when the moment happens?
- Did you change over time or did you adjust?
- Is it enough? It has to be enough.
- Consider the mobility of your employment.
- A person’s voice is the part of their presentation they have the most control over.
- Blow up but don’t go pop.
- Speech doesn’t need to be anything other than sound.
- Sometimes love doesn’t have to be fully reciprocated.
- What is aging?
- What is an adult?
- What is love?
- Baby don’t hurt me.
- Why not get excited about things?
- What makes you accept the authority of another person?
- Which thing is the treasure map?
- Where am I supposed to be?
- Where did I put my keys?
- Stick a fork in it.
11: Dionne Warwick – Just Being Myself (1973)
The usually tasteful lounge pop and Bacharach interpretations of Warwick take a left turn here. There’s no Bacharach on here, all the songs come from Motown geniuses Holland/Dozier/Holland. There’s a crack soul band behind her. And she proves she could belt on the same level as the Martha Reeves’s and Diana Ross’s of the world. While she’d shown her soul chops earlier on the aptly titled Soulful (1969) (check out the incredible version of “You’re All I Need to Get By” on that one) this is her with the benefit of experience, at the top of her game. This album has unfortunately been sampled more than it’s been listened to. Or maybe that’s fortunate since you can come to it fresh. It’s uneven like any other Warwick album, but “You’re Gonna Need Me”, “I Think You Need Love” and the title track are slow burn gold.
12: Mellow Candle – Swaddling Songs (1972)
Don’t hear much about this one much. Unlike much UK folk rock of the time, they could do the rock just as well as the folk. The harmony arrangements are inventive and psychedelic. Mellow Candle can be mellow in a moody way at times. The overall vibe is very witchy. Cover almost has a Moebius feel. Songs are all the length they need to be. I go back to this one a lot. Not available on a lot of streaming services, there’s a decent playlist of the whole album on the Youtube. Good luck finding a physical copy of this.
13 – Digable Planets – Blowout Comb (1994)
Even with the absurd number of hip hop gems that dropped in 1994 this album stands out. The production is not the DJ Premier/Pete Rock style soul samples that dominated the east coast at that time. The closest thing is maybe De La Soul – Buhloone Mindstate but approached with the ambitious scope of prog rock. The rapping is distinctive and concerned with subjects that weren’t very common at the time. Doodlebug might be my favorite female MC of all time (sorry Lauryn Hill). Both MCs are outspoken Marxists but it never seems confrontational. The grooves are infectious and complex enough to seem closer to actual jazz than just your run of the mill rap that happened to be sampling jazz records.
15: De La Soul – Buhloone Mindstate (1993)
Prince Paul’s masterpiece and unfortunately his last album with the group. The Native Tongues collective was falling apart and that weariness shows through here in places though it wouldn’t fully spill out into the rhymes until De La’s next album Stakes Is High. “Ego Trippin Pt. 2” is a vicious takedown of the gangstas of excess that were ascendant at the time (and the music video is hilarious). “I Am I Be” has the epic pop feel of a “Good Vibrations” but with much better lyrics. This is the last hurrah of their vision for hippie rap. Depending on the day of the week, I would consider either this or Stakes Is High to be the group’s greatest statement. There aren’t a lot of guest spots but Shortie No Mass contributes a few excellent verses and I wish we’d heard more from her after this besides her excellent single “Like This/U Like My Style”.
16: Sandy Bull – Demolition Derby (1972)
Takes the acoustic guitar improvisation style pioneered by Basho, Fahey, and a younger Sandy Bull and puts a handlebar mustache on it. This is some spaced out swamp rock. Bull isn’t a loose player but knows where to leave space. More relaxed and funky than most solo guitar records of this era. Altered enough, you might even start dancing. Patti Smith likes it. I like it. You should like it too.
17: Robert Ashley – Perfect Lives (1980)
I wrote a 15 page paper on this in college and probably could have gone longer. I’ll try to keep this short. Ashley combines opera, television, boogie woogie, metaphysics and John Cage into an epic statement laying out an idiosyncratic but wise view of the world. What is the place of sound? What is the difference between tourettes and speaking in tongues? What is the self and how does it change over the plane of time? Was “Blue” Gene Tyranny the greatest improvisational piano player of all time? All this and more on the next episode of Perfect Lives.
18: Mike O’Neill & Devon Sproule – Colours (2013)
Really nice low key indie pop. Excellent vocal harmonies and song writing with hooks galore. The vibe is more middle-aged but in a good way. Sproule’s voice is in top form here. “Walking In the Folly” should have been a huge hit. While both have had solo careers, I would definitely get excited for a sequel. Many lyrical quotables. The Madvillain of indie pop.
Check out “You Can’t Help It” and “Talk To You” first.
19: The Innocence Mission – Glow (1995)
One of the high points of 90s soft rock. Karen Peris takes lyrical influence from Emily Dickinson, a pretty unusual influence in the music world. The production and guitar tones are on point. “Bright As Yellow” makes rather delicate sounds seem enormous. “Happy, The End” is a menacing side A closer with a great instrumental coda. Catchy melodies everywhere that feel earned. One of few albums I own multiple copies of.
20. The Bats – Daddy’s Highway (1987)
Jangly melodic pop with harmonies from New Zealand. This one has some very subtley odd production-sort of like fellow NZers The Clean, they figure out how to make acoustic guitars come across as being punk. The songwriting is top notch. The sound is firmly planted in the 80s jangle scene but it holds up.
Long time no see everybody. Life’s been busy but I can finally get back to my true calling in life: having very strong opinions about records. So here are some of those.
1. Mayo Thompson – Corky’s Debt To His Father (1970)
Most people, if they know of Mayo Thompson at all, know him from his work with The Red Krayola. But the crown jewel of his very unusual career was released under his own name. This is a hard one to describe; Thompson’s voice is very unpolished. The band is loose but in a good way. There are some vibes shared with the early Grateful Dead but Thompson is, for lack of a better word, much hornier. The melodies worm their way into your brain, the lyrics give a lot to chew on, and the band can rock the $&#@ out when they want to-see “Nice Brisk Blues” and “Worried Worried” towards the album’s conclusion. There is not a weak song on here and no one else has ever quite made another LP like it, including Mayo Thompson. Essential but also criminally underrated due to its initial mail-order-only distribution.
2. Big Star – Radio City (1974)
The best rock guitar production ever put down on reel to reel tape, bar none. This is what The Beatles probably wanted the guitars on Rubber Soul to sound like, but didn’t quite achieve. Alex Chilton’s masterpiece. He captures what rock n roll is really about-youthful exuberance, heartbreak and the paranoia implied in those. He does a Beatles knock off better than anything The Beatles ever recorded in “She’s A Mover”. He tosses off a Rolling Stones knock off better than anything the Stones ever recorded in “Mod Lang” and even has the chutzpah to make the first line “I can’t be satisfied.” Opener “O My Soul” never fails to put a smile on my face. Jody Stephens’ drumming throughout is just ever so slightly off, giving the record the dynamism of a soul or funk crew while still being pure rock n roll through and through. If this record had been distributed properly…
3. Mobb Deep – The Infamous (1995)
Is this the hardest rap album ever made? It’s definitely up there. I think back to what I was doing when I was 19 and then hear Prodigy and Havoc rap and it’s clear we lived in very different worlds. But when this album plays, this alien world becomes horrifyingly vivid, because they could also write a lot better than I could when I was 19. The fallout of Ronald Reagan flooding the black community with crack cocaine in order to fund the Nicaraguan Contras (RIP Gary Webb) is the order of the day here. Death is obsessed over; sex and dating is mostly portrayed as a way to get yourself murdered by rival gangs (“Trife Life”). Havoc’s production matches the nightmarish stories told to a t. There are so many classic tracks on here that if I tried to highlight standouts I would just type out the tracklist, but I have to point out that the immortal “Shook Ones Pt. II” is a strong contender for best rap song ever recorded.
And on top of all that it’ll probably scare your parents, which is always fun.
4. John Fahey – Days Have Gone By (1967)
It’s weird to think this was released within months of Sgt. Pepper and VU and Nico; it seems as removed from either as you could get. Most of this record, as was the case with most of Fahey’s albums, is just the man and his guitar, playing it like a piano and merging disparate elements of delta blues and 20th century classical music into something wholly his own. While later “American primitive” style pickers may have been more technically proficient, none of them had Fahey’s singular ability to convey concrete feelings through what is inherently a pretty abstract medium. Leo Kottke is playing the guitar at me, John Fahey is telling me stories. Some of these stories are sad, some of them are angry, some are nostalgic, but they’re all beautiful. One of very few 60s “folk revival” albums that could hold its own with the 78s that inspired it. Of course America chose Peter, Paul and Mary.
5. Pere Ubu – The Modern Dance (1978)
While London and NYC got all the attention when punk rock exploded in the late 1970s, a lot of the best stuff was coming from places like Cleveland, Ohio. London sounded angry, NYC often sounded pretentious, but Cleveland, at least here, comes out unhinged. And god bless em for it. Starting with more than 15 seconds of just ear piercing feedback, the band goes into one of the best garage rock songs ever (“Non-Alignment Pact”) and never loses steam for the next 40 minutes. Elements of Ascension era Coltrane, Bowie’s glam period, Captain Beefheart, and Sam the Sham walk through a hall of funhouse mirrors. Dave Thomas screams like a man possessed. They can play their instruments when they want to but it’s just as fun when they don’t want to. And any shoutout to Alfred Jarry is a good one.
“My baby says if the devil comes, shoot him with a gun”
6: Karen Dalton – In My Own Time (1971)
Karen Dalton was maybe the best English language vocal interpreter of songs of the 20th century, but was so forgotten people can’t even agree on the exact time she died. She takes a number of famous songs here and makes them her own to the point they don’t even seem like the same song. Percy Sledge sings “When A Man Loves A Woman” and it’s a great record. Karen Dalton sings “When A Man Loves A Woman” and she seems to be channeling whatever version of unrequited love exists in Plato’s world of forms. She conveys heartbreak so effectively I have to schedule when I listen to this LP to be sure I don’t act weird afterwards. It’s not melodramatic but rather weary and resigned. It is still capable of a certain sweetness. Life isn’t fair, and she’s come to some sort of zen peace with that fact. While her banjo playing is also quite distinctive, I think the more full production and arrangements on display here highlight her vocals better than on her first (and only other) album. I recommend both highly though.
7. Sly and the Family Stone – There’s A Riot Goin On (1971)
The birth of hard funk coinciding with the beginning of the end of the US postwar boom and whatever genuine optimism fueled the hippie movement. While The Family Stone is credited, most of this album was recorded by Sly alone in his addicted seclusion. And Sly isolating himself mirrors the shift in perspective here. The original Family Stone was supposed to be a utopian multi-racial view of what America could be. But by the time of their greatest statement, it reflected what America really was-excessive, isolated, paranoid, nostalgic in ways that weren’t helpful. Stone seems to possess precognition of his later complete descent into full time addict and manages to articulate with a painful clarity one last time before completely losing his way. References to this are everywhere starting with the opening track “Luv n Haight”: “Feels so good, don’t wanna move”. The grooves are reflective of this but still dancey in their own scruffy way. The best English language LP of the 1970s.
8. Randy Newman – 12 Songs (1970)
While many know Randy Newman now as the guy who wrote the Toy Story theme song or as a Family Guy joke, his first 4 albums are some of the most twisted statements to come from the California singer-songwriter movement. 12 Songs, his 2nd LP, is the best of the bunch by a narrow margin. Newman, usually a tasteful arbiter of string arrangements, decides to stick to a 3 piece band here with excellent results. It also doesn’t hurt that either this or Good Old Boys constituted the best batch of songs he ever clumped on a single LP (more on that album later in the series.) His melodies are simple but infectious, his lyrics are equal parts funny, scary, and profound. He plays the piano and sings like if Fats Domino were perpetually drunk. Contains my favorite verse in a song…ever?
“I say please don’t talk to strangers baby,
But she always do,
She say I’ll talk to strangers if I want,
Cuz I’m a stranger too”
What’s not to love on a record with lines like “Let’s burn down the cornfield and I’ll make love to you while it burns”?
9. Camp Lo – Uptown Saturday Night (1997)
Recorded concurrently with Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt and featuring production primarily from Reasonable Doubt mastermind Ski, this is an entirely different beast. I’m not going to pretend Reasonable Doubt is a bad album, it’s probably the best album length thing Jay-Z ever did. But USN is an album I feel much closer to. Sonny Cheeba and Geechi Suede rap in dense opaque thickets of frequently outdated slang and cultural references to rival Thomas Pynchon. The fact that two rappers so similar to each other but so removed from anything else at the time found each other boggles the mind. The production is uniformly excellent but interestingly not very similar to Reasonable Doubt. It’s not gangsta, it’s not underground, it’s not Native Tongues, it’s not pop, it just…is. The first four tracks are a murderers row of bangers and if you want to introduce yourself to the singular pleasures of Camp Lo, you can’t really go wrong with any of them.
10. The Exploding Hearts – Guitar Romantic (2003)
Primarily known now for most of their members dying in a van accident shortly after the release of their only album, The Exploding Hearts deserved much more than they got. This is the best album of the entire early 00s garage rock revival. It’s youthful, bratty, pulsing with energy and hooks. The lead guitar is deceptively simple but catchy and hits that goldilocks sweet spot-not too much, not too little. There is no pretense here, just a few young guys possessed by the geist of rock n roll. I never got to see them live but they give that vibe that once you saw them you probably were convinced they were the greatest rock n roll band in the world for at least 24 hours. There are no bad songs on here but my personal favorites are Modern Kicks, Thorns In Roses, and Still Crazy.
Lydia Tár, a renowned classical musician and music director played by Cate Blanchett, has a lot on her plate. She’s not only the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, an august post formerly held by luminaries like Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan, she’s also an “EGOT,” a person who’s won Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Awards. In other words, she’s written as much music as she’s conducted, and if that weren’t enough, she runs a school in New York City dedicated to “grooming” (choice of words no accident) young women to go onto be music directors themselves, and teaches a class at Julliard. My reaction hearing about Lydia Tár’s resume was similar to my reaction to hearing that Wilt Chamberlain slept with 20,000 women. “There isn’t enough time in the day.” But there’s where I’m wrong. In the long interview that opens the movie, with real life New Yorker critic Adam Gopnik, who plays himself straight but comes off like a clownish parody of a New York intellectual, Lydia Tár explains that her job as a conductor basically makes her a time lord. “The music can’t start without me. The music can’t stop without me,” she says. Lydia Tár has enough time because she commands time.
What Lydia Tár doesn’t command is the younger generation. In her class at Julliard, Cate Blanchett, in all of her flamboyant Aryan majesty, plays Lydia Tár playing Lydia Tár, an act that has brought her to the pinnacle of the artistic world. But this time the audience, her Generation Z students, aren’t buying it. We watch the transformation of a literal goddess, the privileged receptacle of the entirety of western tradition, transformed into just another out of touch old Boomer. When Max, one of her students, a tall good looking young man with a nervous leg played by newcomer Zethphan D. Smith-Gneist, tells her that “as a pangender BIPOC” he can’t perform Bach, Bach being a white, Protestant German male who oppressed both his wives by siring 20 children, she responds with a discourse on the importance of individual genius that we all agree with, but simultaneously see as a performance with a bit of a missed note. Max may be an absolute fool, but he’s also young, and the younger generation, who regenerate society with sex, idealism and passion, have decided that race and gender are more important than individual genius. They have pushed Lydia Tár and her beloved western tradition to the edge of the cliff, where she’s desperately hanging on for dear life
The rest of the movie shows them stomping on her fingers. As far as hostile young people go, Max is the least of Lydia Tár’s problems. Much more pressing is Francesca Lentini, a woman in her late 20s who we’re told is one of Tár’s designated successors at the Berlin Philharmonic, but who at the moment just seems liker her lackey and personal assistant. Francesca, played by Noémie Merlant from Portrait of a Lady on Fire, on the surface seems severe and competent, the kind of summer intern you’d actually hire permanently after she graduates, but surfaces can be deceiving. Francesca is also in constant touch, by smart phone of course, with another young woman named Krista, one of Tár’s former students who Tár may or may not have had an affair with, who may or may not have been an obsessed stalker, but who Lydia Tár has destroyed, blacklisted in the world of classical music and prevented from holding any job above the director of a local church orchestra or community theater. After Krista commits suicide, and Tár responds with astonishing callousness, Francesca’s passive aggressive resentment at long last explodes into out and out rage, and she begins plotting with Krista’s parents for Tár’s downfall.
Lydia Tár’s destruction has both a social and an artistic component. On the outside, we see her smeared in a highly edited TikTok video that “goes viral,” sued by Krista’s parents, and ultimately dismissed as director of the Berlin Philharmonic in favor of Eliot Kaplan, a billionaire investor who’s finally managed to buy his way to artistic success. But it’s Lydia Tár’s that is the soul of the movie. Tár’s confrontation with Max at Julliard was revealing. For Max, Bach was a “misogynist” because he sired a lot of children. For Lydia, a lesbian who will never have her own biological children, but like many gay men and women, has substituted art for procreation, that’s what made Bach worth studying, his ability generate life, to regenerate himself in his children, and ultimately his wife’s herculean ability to survive the rigors of 18th Century childbirth (Bach’s second wife, with whom he had 12 children, outlived him by a decade). Max, who’s chosen identity politics over life, can be dismissed. But it’s Olga, another young person, a talented Russian cellist played by real life cellist Sophie Kauer, who ultimately drives Lydia Tár over the edge.
In the artistic world, being “sexy” will get you a long way. In fact, it’s pretty much the entire point of artistic creation. What Millennials and members of Generation Z don’t quite understand, and why, with some exceptions, they’re boring, passive consumers of superhero movies and bad Star Wars reboots, “robots” as Lydia accurately points out, is that if you don’t want to fuck what’s up on screen, you’re not really experiencing “art.” You’re consuming a product. Olga, unlike Max, has real talent. In fact, she’s massively talented, and the only time the movie really comes alive is when she’s on screen. There’s no contradiction between Lydia Tár’s wanting to fuck Olga and wanting to promote her in the world of classical music. Lydia recognizes talent when she sees it and wants to do what she’s done all of her life, bring art and beauty to the rest of the world. But even within the framework of her own assumptions and ideology, the world has moved on from Lydia Tár. Olga will kiss the old lady’s ass as much she has to to get the spot in the Berlin Philharmonic but she’s most decidedly not under Tár’s spell. In fact, Tár no longer has a spell. She’s lost the ability to bewitch, to command an audience, or even to enjoy music.
Indeed, Lydia Tár’s keen sense of hearing, which has propelled her into the artistic stratosphere, is now her oppressor. Cut off from the world of youth, sex, beauty, creativity, she no longer hears symphonies and string quartets. She hears screams, stray out of place metronomes, unexplained groans from the next apartment, a frail elderly woman in the care of her Boomer daughter dying very loudly. Things fall apart. Mere aural anarchy has been unleashed upon Lydia Tár’s existence. Young people, who she has both exploited and promoted her over the years, have rejected her. Frail elderly people, who once exploited and promoted Lydia Tár, aren’t giving up the ghost without making a long, ugly moan. In the end, Lydia Tár finds herself expelled from the west itself, from the European elite that once accepted her, into an Asian exile, out of which which she may, or may not regenerate herself.