Friday, June 14, 2013

The NSA Scandal and Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation"

News recently revealed that the National Security Agency may be listening to our cellphones, viewing our text messages and compiling information from our social media sites reminded me of one of the best movies of the 1970s, Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation." Made between the first two Godfather pictures, it captures the paranoia of seventies-era cinema but still has lasting resonance in the age of the Internet.

The movie opens at 1 p.m. on Dec. 2, 1973, which happens to be the birthday of the movie's main character, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman). Caul, of course, sounds like "call," but the word caul can mean a membrane, a tight-fitting cap, or a spider's web. All of these apply to Harry, for he is a wire-tapper, a professional eavesdropper. As the movie reveals, he is by turns moody, tense, quiet, suspicious, private and restless.

As the film begins, our first image is of Union Square in San Francisco, where a lunch-time crowd is gathered. There are street musicians, mimes, and people who work in the various office buildings around the block who have gathered to eat their lunches and enjoy the atmosphere. We hear music, but we also hear electronic sounds and the effect is disquieting as the camera slow focuses down into the action. In a moment, our eyes are drawn to a mime (Robert Shields), who then begins to "shadow" Harry Caul. We understand, as an audience, that we are looking at these things at a great distance.

Our next image appears threatening - a man in a high-place sitting behind what looks like a rifle, aiming down, looking through the sights. It turns out this is a "shot-gun microphone," looking for the face of a subject to isolate. Soon, the camera begins following a young couple, played by Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams. They are walking in the square, talking, chatting pleasantly perhaps, but we don't know anything about them. Soon, it becomes apparent that the two are the subject of Harry's interest.

"The Conversation" was written in the mid-1960s, but had the artistic luck of appearing on the American scene simultaneously with the Watergate Scandal, when operatives of President Richard Nixon attempted to bug the Democratic National Committee's office. Later, it was revealed that Nixon had bugged the Oval Office, and the tapes of conversations there ultimately proved his downfall. Coppola was inspired by Michaelangelo Antonioni's "Blow-Up," and he used several techniques to tell his story of the day-to-day work of eavesdropping.

One is repetition. Over the course of the movie, we hear and see the conversation between Forrest and Williams several times, but occasionally words are obscured. As Harry uses his technology to bring out the words of the conversation, we begin to wonder what the association between this man and woman is. Who are they? Why has Harry been hired to listen? Why do they seem on edge, and who are they afraid of? As Harry's assistant Stan (John Cazale) says, it's just human curiosity to wonder. And by hearing the conversation many times, we begin not only to have the same questions, but to give each word new meanings and new possibilities.

Coppola's other technique is more subtle. At several moments in the picture, the camera becomes part of the act of surveillance. When Harry enters his apartment, the camera remains flat and dead, and Harry even walks out of frame while talking on the phone. The camera then moves mechanically over and we see him sitting on the sofa. At the film's beginning, the camera very slowly comes in, moving down into the square to look for a subject. This is Coppola mimicking the action of security cameras, which occasionally catch action and sometimes don't. It also underlines a recurring theme in the movie - even those paid to watch us are themselves watched.

Harry leads a very controlled life. He has a girlfriend (Terri Garr), though he keeps her in an apartment and won't even answer her most basic questions about his life, leading her to cut him off. She is surprised to learn it is his birthday, and when he gets into bed with her, he is fully-clothed, including his transparent raincoat. His assistant Stan becomes so frustrated he leaves to work for another bugger. And Harry is adamant that he does not care about the subjects of the contracts he fulfills, or the clients who hire him. There are hints at his humanity - Harry sits alone in his apartment, playing his saxophone to jazz records at night. He goes to confession, and seems troubled when he or someone else "takes the Lord's name in vain." Why? Because there is both comfort and fear in the idea that God is watching your every move.

We begin to learn that Harry has been asked to bug this couple's conversation by the nameless Director of a corporation (Robert Duvall), and his assistant (Harrison Ford) attempts to get the tapes Harry made. But Harry insists he hand over the tapes personally, beginning the film's heightening of tension. The assistant's manner inspires Harry to go back over the conversation and isolate one portion of it. Suddenly he becomes curious about this moment.

It should be noted that most of the conversations we engage in during our lives aren't even worth remembering, let alone recording. One of the reasons millions of Americans are outraged at the idea that their own government may be spying on them is that many of us want desperately to believe in our own importance. The notion of the NSA bugging our phones, watching our Facebook statuses, looking at our tweets, trolling our Instagram pictures, invests us with an importance, and those who resist are suddenly transformed into Sons of Liberty. Otherwise, who else would care about the pictures we snap of our lunches? But there is also the paradox of the age of social media - that we are growing more alone even as we share our lives with our closest friends and people we have never personally met.

Harry Caul evokes this in his loneliness, because in the middle of unlocking the secrets of this one conversation we see him suddenly connect with people he has never met. This couple is afraid of a man. They care about each other. They plan on meeting at a certain hotel on a certain date and time in a specific room. They feel for each other. The turning point of the film comes when Harry, after several attempts to isolate the words, hears Forrest say to Williams on the recording, "He'd kill us if he had the chance." Now Harry is afraid to turn the tapes over, afraid of what the information will inspire in someone else.

Why? Because we later find out that Harry feels responsible for the deaths of three people based on one of his previous bugging jobs. One of the reasons Harry works on the West Coast, we come to understand, is that he bugged a conversation back East so well that someone in organized crime suspected another of informing, which inspired an act of retribution. Harry's manner when this is revealed shows that it haunts him, even as he gratefully and modestly shrinks from a colleague's designation as "the best there is." In a dream, we hear him admit, "I'm not afraid of death. I am afraid of murder." Not his own, but another person's.

The movie leaves several impressions. It is the nature of bugging that we don't know the whole picture. We make suppositions based on what we hear and see. Because of this, we begin to construct a rough plot in our heads about the principals in this story. We think Cindy Williams is Robert Duvall's wife or lover. We think she is having an affair with Frederic Forrest's character, whom we discover at least lurking in the hallways of the nameless corporation. We think that Harry has developed some kind of romantic attachment to Cindy Williams through the tapes and photographs. These questions are never fully answered for us. But like Harry, we think at this moment in the movie that the fear the two feel because of Robert Duvall is genuine and justified.

But when Harry has his one encounter with Robert Duvall, he walks in to discover Duvall and Harrison Ford listening to the tapes. "You want it to be true!" the Director shouts. "No, I don't. I just want you to know what you need to know." Harry asks the question, "What will you do to her?" He receives no answer.

The second half of "The Conversation" is interesting in that for a movie on the surface about eavesdropping, there is very little dialogue for the audience to seize on. In a film about the science of listening, we instead are treated to visuals, and we realize that our assumptions about the couple, their conversation and what has been going on have been just as wrong as Harry's. In listening at a distance, it becomes easier to misconstrue what someone means, or just specifically how someone means it. Which brings in the other reason for public outrage at the idea of widespread surveillance - the possibility that our lives could be upended by a mistake. A joke, a misconstrued phrase, the lack of a shared past, and strangers may see us revealed as something we aren't, or worse, as what we truly are but cannot admit to ourselves. As Coppola himself observed, "The sins a man performs are not the same as the ones he thinks he has performed."

"The Conversation" functions as a thriller and a character study, and Hackman's controlled and sympathetic performance makes it stick in our minds. He did the job so well that he was asked to reprise the performance, more or less, for Tony Scott's 1998 action thriller "Enemy of the State," starring Will Smith. But that movie dealt with surveillance in the modern age, when computers have replaced human beings listening and watching. Automated systems, we think, listen without prejudice, or perhaps, only the prejudices we give them. "The Conversation" at least gives us the possibility that we haven't lost our humanity if we can still care about the people we are shadowing. It also reminds us of how mistaken we can be, at a great distance.

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 
Read a piece I did for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
Read another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 

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