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The Conversation

The Sickness of the Times


Dilys Powell in her review of The Conversation for The Sunday Times said: “If you don’t share my conviction that the difficult films of today are not the intellectual foreigners, not the Antonionis and the middle-period Pasolinis but the thriller and the crime story I urge you…to see The Conversation.”  “If, she adds, “you accept it is a thriller or a crime story. It thrills all right. But is there a crime? Even of that one is not always so sure.”

What Powell proposes is that seventies American cinema offered the epistemological complexity of the best European films, and if we find ourselves begging to differ, this isn’t really to claim that New Hollywood film is inferior to its European counterpart, more that its purpose is still narratively focused no matter how dispersed; that it gives us an answer no matter how troubling. The conclusions to Antonioni’s Blow-Up and Pasolini’s Theorem for example, cannot be summed up the way the endings to The Conversation, The Parallax View, Chinatown and McCabe and Mrs Miller can be. Simply describing them will bring out the difference: In Blow- Up a photographer throws back an invisible tennis ball to some mime artists and then seems to hear the ball as mime artists continue playing.  In Theorem the head of a family leaves the men’s toilets at a railway station and walks naked into a curious desert landscape. In the American films a man feels guilty over a murder he believes he’s responsible for, and paranoid that people have bugged his apartment; a man gets killed looking for the culprits involved in various assassinations, a detective fully realizes the corruption and rot at the heart of Los Angeles, a bumbling turn-of-the-century frontiersman gets killed as he tries to interrupt the plans of big business. In all four the films end troublingly but with an ambiguity that functions quite differently from the European masterpieces. Generally the American films are interested in turning the moral solution of the classic Hollywood story into ethical irresolution as questions of America’s long history of corruption and manipulation are exposed. All four of the films are interested in shadowy figures behind the scenes, and what counts is that the hero can do very little about this corruption and manipulation. The epistemological problem of narrative intrigue gives way to the ethical problem of the country’s textured rot. If, then, in many American films of the period the epistemological problem gives way to the ethical; in numerous films of the sixties and seventies in Europe, the story tends to be much weaker and the ontological problem – the problem concerning the nature of being – much more prominent. If many American films are asking for a better society, many European films – Antonioni’s films, Resnais’, Godard’s, Wenders’ Herzog’s – are asking for a better being: a rather more abstract request.

Such a generalization could usefully be unpicked, and if we’re going to attempt to do so it is of course with the emphasis on American film and in this instance Coppola’s The Conversation. It is a work that could be placed halfway between Antonioni’s Blow-Up, with its interest in a photograph that the central character tries to make sense of, and the rather more recent The Lives of Others, an account of Stasi eavesdropping techniques: a European movie that could easily be a calling card for a career in Hollywood as the director works with moral arcs, suspense devices and a redemptive ending. Coppola’s film however, no matter if it lacks the layers of ambiguity evident in Antonioni’s, was very far from a calling card; closer in fact to a ticket out of the mainstream. The Conversation first came to Coppola’s mind back in 1967, but it wasn’t until The Godfather was a big success that he was given the opportunity to make his cherished project, a work that was seen by Paramount (who produced both The Godfather and The Conversation) as a small venture the director had literally earned the right to make. Coppola was dismissive of his huge success and, like many a seventies filmmaker, wondered whether pleasing the public was in some way antithetical to pleasing himself. After all, Coppola had basically gone bankrupt  with Zoetrope, a production company set up in the late sixties to allow artists like himself creative freedom, but without much expectation of financial reward. As one of the filmmakers Carroll Ballard says in Coppola, by Peter Cowie, “The problem was that the conditions under which Francis wanted everyone to work were more than Spartan – they were practically non-earning.”

There is a sense watching The Conversation that the sound studio central character and surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) works out of could be the very mini-studio that Coppola so often admired, but that he wanted to interrogate the idea of technical expertise contained by a denial of the ethical issues that can come out of the work – rather like a filmmaker interested in the pyrotechnics of his story, but refusing to confront the violence, misogyny or suspect sexual politics that the story contains. Everybody acknowledges Caul is the best in the business, but they also know that his brilliance at the job led to the death of three people back in 1968 in a Welfare Fund incident. It wasn’t an instance of professional incompetence but the very opposite, a bugging job that no on else could have pulled off. Harry knew how to do it, and people died in relation to the information he had recorded.

At first Coppola thought he was going to make a film about privacy, and then discovered he was making a film about responsibility, but if the film is so interesting it is in the combination of the two. Harry’s awareness of the violation of his privacy combines with his full realisation of responsibility. In one scene where Harry and other surveillance people party at his studio, one of the buggers talk of Harry’s years working in New York, and how he’d escaped to the West Coast after the Welfare Fund deaths. Other people seem to know far more about Harry than Harry believed they knew, and it appears to leave him wondering how violating an invasion of privacy happens to be even without the sophisticated equipment Harry utilises: the other surveillance expert is offering nothing more than gossip. Not long before, though, Harry tells his assistant he isn’t interested in the content of his work but only the form. He says had Stan concentrated more on how to record a conversation, and less time listening to it, the work would have been better. When Stan (John Cazale) asks a few a questions about the client, Harry says it isn’t their business. Stan reckons it is human nature, curiosity, and Harry responds in a fluster saying he knows nothing about curiosity or human nature – it is basically not his purpose to know about such things. There is denial in the response, and  Harry seems to be a man insulating himself from the wider world as though caught between the need for privacy and refusing to admit culpability, as we find out shortly afterwards in the scene where the fellow surveillance expert brings up the incident years before.

Coppola films Harry’s crisis in such a way that one can understand why Powell reckons the film could almost be an act of subjectivity; that at a certain stage the film dissolves into the point of view of Harry Caul. But, just as we’ve said the film is a balancing act between enquiring into the problem of privacy and the problem of responsibility, so the film also works between the issue of Harry’s point of view and a world we can take to be objective. It is one of the film’s ironies that a man who is interested in the objectivity of his profession, ends up having actual nightmares about the deadly permutations that can result from his work. It is also perhaps why Harry so hopelessly interprets the tapes. He believes a young woman is going to be killed by what he assumes is her aging husband; it turns out the husband has been killed by the young wife. Harry has spent years mastering the subtleties of sound equipment, but too little time we can assume interpreting information.

If we wish to draw analogies between Coppola and Caul, this isn’t to bring out the parallels between the artistic filmmaker and the retiring technician; more to ask questions about the nature of interpretive investigation. Caul believes his work has no interpretive function; and his fascination with the tapes is a preoccupation that he would not see as part of his professional purpose but working against it. What interests Coppola here it would seem is the nature of someone’s ‘amateur’, undeveloped subjectivity aligned to professional brilliance, and watches as Caul falls apart. The filmmaker on the other hand has the chance to test his instincts, to elaborate his view of the world, and if Coppola has always vacillated between the big-budget film and the personal project, the studio production and the independent work (The Godfather to The Conversation; Apocalypse Now to Rumblefish), is it because he has wondered what approach would best fulfil those instincts? Interestingly, when talking of Caul, Coppola supposedly said “I could never feel anything for the character…” and Coppola’s approach to the editing of the film would superficially be antithetical to Caul’s. “Listen”, he said to his editor and masterful sound man Walter Murch, “I’m going to go straight from shooting The Conversation to pre-production work on Godfather II…You take the mix, do what you think right, and then show me when you think it’s ready to be shown.” (Coppola) Coppola supposedly nevertheless spent as much time as possible in the editing suite with Murch, but there is a relaxed sense of trust here that is surely poles apart from Caul’s.

Caul is a control freak who seems to have found no outlet for his subjectivity, and so it makes sense by the end of the film that he can trust no one because he’s never appeared to trust himself. He has an instinct for protecting his own privacy and exposing the lives of others, but by conclusion his own life is thoroughly exposed and his instincts no more developed. We’re proposing then that Caul is the opposite of the artist; he’s far from a creative individual whose purpose is to expose oneself  incrementally, and to gain sustenance from that exploration. In Contemporary Cinema, John Orr talks of characters in film who are surrogates for the director, and his comment that “this ontological condition, objectified subjectivity, is identified isolation” is perhaps especially true of Harry here. Coppola himself though seems to have been more interested in subjectivity objectified, a personality using film as an outlet for self-expression. This is undeniably the case when we think of one of Coppola’s most famous and fascinating comments on Apocalypse Now: where in the documentary of the film’s making, Hearts of Darkness, he compares the film to the Vietnam War: “it was crazy…we had access to too much money and too much equipment and little by little we went mad.” Apocalypse Now was the filming of that madness. Clearly Coppola can understand loss of control better than control, and we need only read, say,  Cowie’s book on the director, or Eleanor Coppola’s Notes on the Making of Apocalypse Now, to know how often Coppola would get himself into financial difficulties taking creative risks. Caul is someone, though, in Gene Hackman’s words, who was “upright, right-wing eccentric, secretive…”

Here is a character for whom instincts can hardly develop and so it figures that he would completely misinterpret the information on the tapes – he refuses to share his assumptions with anybody, and clarifying a sound track technically is not the same as making sense of it interpretively. Central to The Conversation is not only a broader sense of mistrust that of course incorporated Watergate (referred to in a scene where Hackman watches the hearings on television), but also in the immediately human sense. Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf was a key influence, and Cowie quotes Hesse’s narrator saying of Harry Haller “for he was not a sociable man, indeed he was unsociable to a degree I had never before experienced in anybody.”  Coppola says he didn’t understand Caul, but the director’s difficulty in comprehending the character is not quite the same thing as Caul’s failure to understand himself and the situation he is in. If Orr is right that The Conversation is one of many modern films that can be read as an indirect account of directorial preoccupation, that after 8 ½ and Le Mepris, “the form now works best not when film films filming, but when it films other forms of representing”,  then we could say the reason why a filmmaker might suggest a double vision very different from his own – that Caul’s has little in common with Coppola’s  –  is so that he can test his instincts still farther. He can find them by searching the outer reaches of his own aesthetic instinct through characters contrary to his values and perspective on the world.

Earlier we reckoned that American cinema of the seventies was less radically questioning than the European cinema of the sixties and into the next decade, and so finally what the film is about is an everyman falling apart as he faces his own lack of privacy and the weight of responsibility. The film, unlike Blow-Up, The Spider’s Stratagem or Persona, does not call into question the nature of the private, the notion of responsibility, it takes them as a given to question how a man can end up alone in his apartment, taking the flat apart, determined to find out who might be bugging him. He is a man without instincts in a culture that pays well for eavesdropping on others. Certainly Murch’s complex soundtrack doesn’t shy away from a subjective dimension – and there are scenes in a hotel room where Harry’s feelings and thoughts are expressed in a manner not unlike Polanski’s use of the subjective in Repulsion and The Tenant.

But this is a perspective that does no more – and no less – than try and understand how a Harry Caul is highly probable in a society that prides itself on technological advances (well illustrated here in the surveillance convention), and too little on emotional and psychological development. The Conversation might be named after the discussion between the two characters that Harry tapes, but if they cannot talk to each other because of fear they might be recorded, Harry’s inability to communicate goes even further. The Conversation captures a world where listening doesn’t come from allowing another to speak, but from making sure the other cannot know that you are listening. A society based on the proliferation of such solitary and surreptitious listening makes an everyman like Harry Caul turn into a suspicious recluse like Harry Haller. Hesse might finally be closer to the European art cinema we’ve invoked, but for Coppola’s purposes he can function equally well as a barometer of the social times. “Haller’s sickness of the soul…” Hesse’s narrator says, “is not the eccentricity of the single individual, but the sickness of the times themselves.” Coppola may have planned the project years before, but in the wake of Watergate its time had come. Much of seventies cinema seemed to want to counter the sickness of its particular time. In Harry Caul, Coppola found a figure with whom he may have felt he had nothing in common, but the film’s significance rests partly on the degree to which Harry is a common man, while Coppola tried to be an uncommon one by commenting on the times rather than simply being a product of them. This might not be as radical as Antonioni or Pasolini, but it is hardly a negligible aesthetic attempt as the film asks what value is objective skill when extricated from the insights of subjective feeling.


©Tony McKibbin