By Richard Haridy
May 12, 2014
Apart from mythological epics like Troy or Beowolf, it’s rare to see poems adapted to film. Tar is unusual, not just because it’s based on the work of contemporary Pulitzer Prize-winning poet C.K. Williams but also in how it was developed. Completed by twelve student filmmakers, Tar is virtually the graduation project from a class run at NYU by the renaissance man himself, James Franco.
Starring Franco and whatever other Hollywood friends he could reign in at the time (Jessica Chastain, Mila Kunis, Zach Braff), the feature is essentially a series of non-linear vignettes presenting moments from Williams’ life accompanied by recitations of his poems in contemplative voice over.
Tar has an admirable degree of coherence considering how many individual cooks were involved, but seeing how generic and derivative the final result is leaves one feeling like they’re viewing a work of imitation and contrivance, as if each director picked the “house style” rather than asserted any singular voice. In many ways, that stylistic cohesion is an achievement in and of itself. It still doesn’t make for a satisfying viewing experience.
The cloudy lyricism and non-linear plot sadly infuriates rather than compels. There is no cumulative heft to Tar, just a series of ethereal sketches building to nothing. The repetitive rhythms occasionally give way to moments where the movie pulls out of its wistful longueurs into something more immediate. A sequence following Williams as he takes LSD is impressively textured, yet the voice-over sucks us out of the moment. The prose promises something more substantial than the reductive imagery delivered here.
It almost feels like an ironic experiment designed to illustrate the impossibility of translating this medium to the screen. A more critical viewer could go so far as saying Tar accidentally trivialises the work of the artist it’s trying to celebrate. All the “indie” signifiers are blindingly present: tinkering piano score, magic hour photography, whispered narration. The most pertinent take away from Tar is simply how influential the Terrence Malick aesthetic has become. A fascinating failure, it works better as a class experiment than as a watchable piece of cinema.
Tar will be available from Quickflix on May 14, 2014.