Dahlia Krutkovich (JC fellow): When I finished my stint in the UK and moved back to the US in September, I needed something light to carry around while schlepping through Brooklyn to buy used furniture from strangers. So I started reading Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star, which I found while unpacking the books I had left at my parents’ house. Like many people who encounter Lispector in the wilderness, I immediately became a devotee. And after reading a few of her novels, I splurged on Too Much of Life, the new unabridged collection of her newspaper columns that ran between 1967 and 1976.
At times diaristic but never pointedly confessional, these crônicas—a Brazilian genre of brief, digressive prose pieces—take a variety of forms: flash fiction, irritated accounts of boring parties, odes to and jeremiads against the apparatuses of modern life (the telephone, the typewriter), and a host of intellectual and spiritual meditations. As I’ve made my way through the first 250 pages, I’ve been struck by the intimacy and humor of many of these dispatches. To my mind, these qualities of her weekly work are less as an intentional, aesthetic effect than a function of Lispector’s personality. Like in her novels, her style across columns is spare and crystalline, but unlike her longer work, the crônicas don’t build towards a poetics to unlock or an emotional landscape to parse. They feel like an author inviting you into the banal mental and intellectual labor of writing: trying out ideas, working through a query, getting tired of yourself, and going to bed.
Lispector is also writing from the vaunted vantage point of self-proclaimed middle age. Even in the more seemingly frivolous columns, she feels like an auntie drawing you in to tell you something important, because the lesson has come at a personal cost: the cost of thinking. It is breathtaking when those moments of confidence coincide with what appears to be a germ of an idea for a novel (I would argue you can see the beginning of The Hour of the Star in her serialized retelling of an issue with a hired maid and a clairvoyant cook).
My high school art history teacher once pointed out the snow on the branches of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Hunters in the Snow as, on some level, evidence of the joy of painting. Bruegel enjoyed his vocation to such an extent that he delighted in the work and challenge of such a detail. In his epilogue to Too Much of Life, Lispector’s son Paulo writes that it’s not clear whether his mother kept the column just to have a steady income, but her writing does reveal she relished the joy of extra thinking.
Ari Brostoff (senior editor): A few years ago I saw a video installation called Manifesto, created by the German artist Julian Rosefeldt, in which Cate Blanchett, dressed as a variety of characters (sanitation worker, CEO, etc.), delivers excerpts from manifestos by strongly opinionated people from the choreographer Yvonne Rainer to Karl Marx. It was then—even more than while watching Elizabeth or Carol, other notable films in which the actress, as the queen of England or a bored lesbian, allows us to enjoy the pressure of her iron grip—that I discovered the strength of my desire to be talked at by Cate Blanchett for two to three hours at a stretch. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, I really loved Tár.
The biggest question that has been asked about Tár, which has provoked considerable dissonance among friends and critics, is whether it’s a reactionary jeremiad against “cancel culture” (see this review by Richard Brody) or is navigating the current culture wars in a more subtle way (see this one by Zadie Smith). The question largely circles around a single early scene in which Lydia Tár, the fictitious world-famous conductor and impresario portrayed by Blanchett, blows up at Max, a student in her master class who is trying (though not very hard) to cancel Bach. Tár has arrived to teach the class shortly after a public appearance at the New Yorker Festival with critic Adam Gopnik, who fawns over her; the conductor’s preferred mode of communication, we quickly learn, is holding forth. Onstage at the festival, she talks at Gopnik and at her rapt audience; now, teaching the class, she begins to talk at her students. The scenes are twinned, her speech flowing almost unbroken from the former into the latter, between sycophant and challenger, like Blanchett moving between manifestos in Manifesto. All of this works beautifully, except for one problem: Max. He describes himself woodenly as “BIPOC” (c’mon) and “agender” (really?) and is not just disdainful of Bach’s misogyny but seems strikingly unfamiliar (he’s a Juilliard student!) with the composer’s work. Tár calls him “a robot”; he is, essentially, a prop. Meanwhile, Blanchett is striding about, going off on an unhinged rant that, when it later surfaces on the internet, helps to take her down. Her lines are brilliantly written; his are generated by algorithm. The scene is totally maddening. And then—it is over, never to meaningfully return.
The truth is that Tár is ultimately uninterested in politics, much as Manifesto is far more invested in Blanchett’s power to convince than it is about the particular contents of any one manifesto. Tár is about a long-haired butch who pairs luxurious baggy sweaters with baseball caps, whose daughter calls her “Lydia,” who has conned the world into thinking she’s the second coming of Leonard Bernstein though she has not a grain of populism in her frightened elitist soul, and who succumbs to a very familiar—one might say classical—form of hubris: believing she can treat young women as playthings without facing consequences.
I would have watched it for four more hours—this instant cult classic that would have been a truly great movie if it had taken its antihero’s adversaries just a little more seriously, instead of wanting to save its pitch-perfect condemnation for itself.
David Klion (newsletter editor): As a new dad, my reading time is limited and I’ve been bouncing between a few different books without making adequate headway in any of them. Movies have been a better bet, and fortunately for me, as a card-carrying member of the Writers Guild of America, East, I now get sent DVDs and streaming logins for every movie up for awards this year. Here are the last three I watched, in descending order of how much I liked them:
Tár: Apparently I’m not the only JC staffer recommending Tár this week, but it’s just that great. A lot of the online discourse around Todd Field’s masterpiece focuses on the interminable public discourses around “cancel culture” that you’re probably as sick of as I am. The film is certainly informed by those debates, but it’s first and foremost a work of art, not a shallow polemic—and like all great art, one takes what one wishes from it. Whether you think “wokeness” has gone too far or not far enough is beside the point; either way, you’re going to be engrossed in Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of the fictional (but wholly believable) conductor Lydia Tár—a creative genius, a fraud, a striver, a predator, and a singularly compelling figure whose subjectivity shapes every scene, as the movie vacillates between horror and farce.
The Fabelmans: Steven Spielberg’s latest, a semi-autobiographical family drama co-written with Tony Kushner, didn’t have to be as good as it is. It could have easily been a cliched coming-of-age saga combined with an indulgent celebration of the magic of cinema, full of little winks at the Spielberg canon, and no doubt that’s all some will see in it. But The Fabelmans is more subtle than that, positing filmmaking less as an escape from a crumbling home life than as a lens into that very dysfunction and a means for distorting and manipulating an unpleasant reality. Spielberg is critical of his younger self and empathetic for both of his late parents (Michelle Williams and Paul Dano are both terrific, if not the least bit convincing as Jews), and there are sublime moments, including a confrontation with two high school bullies that serves as an allegory for how Jews have used Hollywood as a means to negotiate relations with a sometimes-hostile America.
Glass Onion: It’s fine, I guess, and no doubt far more commercially successful than the first two. Everyone is a broad caricature and the mystery isn’t all that mysterious, but we do get to see a lot of actors having fun, and Edward Norton’s scathing portrayal of (essentially) Elon Musk could hardly be more timely. You could do worse.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): I’ve always accepted the rule that whoever invokes Hitler when discussing their opponent automatically loses. And yet, as I read Confidence Man, the engrossing and terrifying new volume on Trump by journalist Maggie Haberman—who has covered him extensively over the past few years, risking great damage to her soul—I realized the similarities between the two men are unmistakable.
I am not a fool, and am not likening even Trump’s worst actions to those of Hitler. He’s a racist, to be sure, and despite surrounding himself with Jews, he is full of antisemitic prejudices. (Haberman even tells us that Trump kept a volume of Hitler’s speeches by his bedside, that he regretted not having German generals running the US military, and that he said Hitler did good things.) But it is in Trump’s work and political methods that he most resembles Hitler. The constant lying is an obvious trait shared by the two men, as is the certainty that a lie repeated often and loudly enough will be accepted as truth. The constant dysfunction and chaos that marked all of Trump’s operations, the pitting of one underling against another, the lack of clarity around orders and designs—all of this was typical of Hitler. Those under Hitler were said to be “working toward the Führer,” anticipating and acting in accordance with what they thought he intended. And so it is with Trump: Life working for him was a daily, non-lethal Night of the Long Knives, with no one safe from his ire.
In my review of the first volume of Volker Ullrich’s biography of Hitler for Jewish Currents, I wrote of how, on top of all his murderousness, Hitler was also a chiseler. Trump is famously tax averse, and Hitler, in his first years as Chancellor, likewise failed to pay his taxes; it was ultimately necessary for a law to be passed exempting him from them. Had Trump known of this, we can be certain the Republican legislature would have obliged. Trump’s greed in licensing his name was anticipated by Hitler as well: Stamps in Nazi Germany bore his image, and he received royalties on each one sold. Should Trump return, be prepared for something similar. As Confidence Man demonstrates, nothing is outside the realm of possibility.