Tar--the James Franco-produced project featuring twelve of his NYU grad students'* collected and re-edited short films based on poems found in C.K. Williams titular collection--is an interesting filmic experience. Functioning largely as an elegiac meditation on innocence, both a fond remembrance and a lamentation on the loss of it, Tar is enriched with a lyrical, image-driven presentation of ideas and themes.
*It only seems right to give them their due. In credited order: Edna Luise Biesold, Sarah-Violet Bliss, Gabrielle Demeestere, Alexis Gambis, Brooke Goldfinch, Shripriya Mahesh, Pamela Romanowsky, Bruce Thierry Cheung, Tine Thomasen, Virginia Urreiztieta, and Omar Zúñiga Hidalgo are all writers and directors; Shruti Ganguly is an additional screenwriter.
Much like the film that obviously inspired its look and feel--Franco said as much in the introductory presentation--The Tree of Life, Tar is not a film featuring a traditional, linear, three-act structure. For someone who loved The Tree of Life, this is a style of filmmaking that is at least in part appealing. Now there is an element of feeling a bit reductive, and while it is impossible to not be entirely enamored with Jessica Chastain, it is a bit on the nose to cast her as the identical character that she was in the film that so heavily influenced it. There is not anyone better suited to play the part, so one cannot fault the filmmakers responsible for the scenes of Williams's adolescence for jumping at the chance to let Chastain ply her trade. It does, however, make it feel as though they are shouting the influence from the rooftops.
Largely, though, this is a series of connected short films by grad students from a storied program with a star-studded cast including Franco, Chastain, Mila Kunis, Zach Braff, Bruce Campbell, and Henry Hopper. The near-final product--Franco stated that this was not quite finished, though one has to imagine that it is close to done--works for the most part. Tar is evocative, serving the image and C.K. Williams's words well. It is ultimately 75 minutes culled from roughly three hours worth of short films, feeling mostly like a film with a cohesive vision and having averted the potential trap of clashing styles by establishing a visual style beforehand and employing just two cinematographers to better align the shorts to be better able to synthesize a cohesive film from the shorts. As a film, it is captivating if occasionally disjointed. Tar is much better than one would expect for when faced with the prospect of undertaking the viewing of more than an hour of student films. It certainly has its merits, and coming out of the film, there was an interest in seeing how the separate shorts played themselves out on their own merits, leaving me interested in an eventual DVD/Bluray release. Then again, this is coming from someone who minored in film studies while majoring in English lit.
James Franco also fielded questions immediately following the screening, first from the Alamo Drafthouse's moderator and film programmer, Sam Prime, and then from the crowd. Most of the questions pertained to the film we had just seen, and it was interesting to hear how the experience was for the actors (who were getting back to a purer form (read: non-commercial) of filmmaking with these burgeoning directors) and for the directors (who were actually getting to work with accomplished actors for the first time). I didn't take notes because I'm not "that guy," but he seemed to really love having taught the class, and Tar looks to be the first of many of these projects, the next one being done through the UCLA MFA film program, if I remember correctly.