2 min read

Nebulous characters vs. complex characters

Tár is compelling not because it has complex characters, but because it has nebulous characters.

Complex characters are those who are capable of both good and bad. They’re a mixture of impulses and actions that make moral judgements of them complex and challenging.

Nebulous characters are those where there is no notion of them doing good or bad, they are just doing stuff—all judgements of good and bad are left to the viewer. This is a very subtle distinction, but a powerful one.

I frequently come back to Ngakpa Chogyam’s metaphor of life as honey on a razor’s edge:

You lick the blade and “Oh! How very sweet it is!” Then there is the sharpness, and the blood.

There are many stances art can take on the experience of honey on a razor’s edge. Usually, the viewer is left to react to an explicit stance, rather being left to form their own.

Art can take the nihilistic stance that the razor is all that matters and the honey doesn’t exist. There is no point in honey if it’s only available on a blade.

There’s the eternalistic view that the honey is all that matters, and one should strive to outwit the blade. Maybe a hero can lick the honey without nicking themselves!

Then there’s the “complex character” stance: the blade and the honey both exist. The blade is bad, and the honey is good. The human experience is chasing the honey and bearing the blade with dignity.

The fourth response is the nebulous response: the blade and the honey are one experience. We don’t split the blade and the honey into two separate experiences that we navigate the gap between. Things just happen. Honey is just on the razor’s edge.

People react differently to this. The New York Times review of Tár takes this stance as the film’s biggest drawback:

It’s so committed to its noncommittal stance that it sacrifices a dramatic ending for a ragged, wandering, superfluous denouement.

To find the ending “ragged, wandering, and superfluous” misses the core of the film for me. To resolve the story into the blade winning, the honey winning, or even to acknowledge a character’s experience as falling into one or the other, would remove the perspective the film fought so hard to nail.

In an interview, director Todd Field talks about this fight:

That’s what we were after: that this thing could change on you depending on when and how you saw it and what state of mind you were in, potentially. But it also it made it extremely challenging to know when we were finished. Really, the bar for that was if we started leaning one way or the other with her, and felt as if we were pointing in any manner, we had failed.

In some ways it’s the film version of an abstract painting. Rather than imbuing the painting with any solid meaning, the painter leaves the viewer with the variables of experience. Abstract chunks of paint that the viewer then needs to piece together into a reaction.

The magic of this kind of art happens when we can resist the allure of resolution. When we can pull back a level, and simply experience honey on the razors edge.