BLOW UP THE CONVERSATION: Better living through surveillance and the nature of reality

Andrés Crump / August 23, 2020

This is One a Week where I talk about a film I love and, if you give it a chance, I think you might love it too.

CUT TO: An aerial view of Union Square in downtown San Francisco. There’s live music, dogs barking, dozens and dozens of conversations. It seems— for a moment— as if we’re free to let our eyes wander on a giant canvas; scan every patch and corner of a painting depicting an unremarkable weekday afternoon in a bustling city square. We hear an odd sound, like the call of a metallic bird. There’s a palpable unease in the air— a stark contrast to how lively everything appears to be on the surface. Like we’re about to witness a horrific act. Then we see a man on a rooftop aiming down at the square with what looks undeniably like a sniper rifle. Except it isn’t. It’s a microphone. And that strange glitchy noise we keep hearing are the scrambled fragments of a young couple’s titular conversation the mic is trying to record.

A spell of sorts is broken. We realize that sense of freedom we had to look around was simply a deception. One of the many in Francis Ford Coppola’s most subdued and perhaps therefore somewhat overlooked film: 1974’s The Conversation. Or maybe it was just slightly overshadowed by another one of Coppola’s films you might have heard of, you know, if you care at all about movies. You know… a little picture called— Jack! Just kidding, it’s Godfather Part II.

Admittedly, The Conversation is a much smaller story in terms of its scale and presentation. Godfather II, much like its predecessor, is of operatic proportions, with a large cast of well-developed characters, multiple timelines, an orchestral score, a plot that feels lifted from a Greek tragedy or Shakespeare at his bloodiest and updated into an epic modern complex melodrama. The Conversation, on the other hand, has less in common with Sophocles and the bard, and more with the French New Wave and Italian Surrealism of the 60s — particularly Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1967 masterpiece Blow-Up — all while being cloaked in the post-Watergate U.S. American socio-political paranoia of the 1970s, a time period which also gave us such excellent political thrillers as Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men and Brian De Palma’s high-octane, Blow Out. In the latter a sound engineer — played by a very serious John Travolta —believes to have recorded evidence of a political assassination. A very similar premise to both Blow-Up and The Conversation.

At the center of the film is Harry Caul, a sound surveillance expert for hire, played masterfully by the legendary Gene Hackman. It turns out, much like a movie director, he was the one orchestrating the recording of that young couple at the square all along, using multiple microphones and cameras from different angles. 

Harry is the best at his job. Or so we’re led to believe, even by his most zealous competitors. Yet there is evidence to the contrary. Perhaps he was once the best, but he’s been getting sloppy lately. For someone who trades in invading people’s privacy without being detected, his own solitary, private sphere is easily infiltrated by a birthday card left in his apartment by his landlord— despite a complicated system of locks on his front door. And later, despite insisting that his telephone number is unlisted, an impatient client is able to reach him. He seems somewhat oblivious to this, even accusing his partner’s work— as opposed to his— of not being recently up to par. 

Harry begins to fixate on the recording from the square. On the words and pieces of dialogue that are missing. The blank spaces that need filling up. He feels that there is perhaps something there that needs to be uncovered. A mystery that, if not solved, could put lives in danger. It is later revealed that a job Harry was involved in ended up in people being murdered, something which lies heavily on his guilt obsessed, devout catholic heart. Perhaps this serves as an explanation for his fixation. He works tirelessly, winding and rewinding multiple tapes, tweaking his self-made devices, until he finds what he’s looking for. He believes he has cause to suspect that his client’s intentions are indeed not entirely innocuous. But it all comes at a price: all that spooling and unspooling results in the unraveling of his own mind. 

His obsession and paranoia are, as far as we the viewers can tell, justified to some degree. There is, in fact, something fishy going on out there, just beyond his reach. Just as there is always something fishy going on out there, just beyond our reach.

But how much can Harry trust his own recording? The line between reality and fantasy becomes very tenuous. His last name, CAUL, is strangely symbolic. It is the word for that membrane that babies are sometimes born in and was believed in the Middle Ages that it protected sailors from drowning. But perhaps more telling is the very etymology of the word: from the Latin caput galeatum, literally, “helmeted head”. Any allusions to a tin-foil hat are only slightly far-fetched. 

 Hackman’s performance here is truly remarkable in how understated he is. So understated, in fact, that he was completely overlooked by the Academy Awards that year. Despite his abrasiveness and how he pushes away the few people who are sympathetic toward him, we still root for him. We believe he is motivated by morality, even if we the viewers have difficulty distinguishing what is real from what is imagined. What I find particularly brilliant is that, even though there are a handful of surprises along the way, our realization of Harry’s state of mind is not revealed with a cheap plot-twist meant to shock us at the end. He is more like a lobster that doesn’t sense the temperature of the water rising until it’s too late, despite the increasing amount of bubbles announcing the imminent boiling point.

Harry Caul is not an unreliable narrator, like, say, Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects or Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. He’s more of an unreliable focal character: someone through which we experience the events of the story, and therefore knows as much as we the viewers do. Even the shots in the film that seem objective— where it looks like Coppola is letting us spy on the spy— could arguably be projections of Harry’s head. He’s observing himself, observing other people. I’ve read some criticisms of the film that focus on how underdeveloped the other characters are and how there are instances where Coppola seems to cheat the audience by altering the intonation of certain recurring words throughout the film in order to convey a different meaning. If we consider that everything we see and hear is evidently being filtered through Harry’s deteriorating mind, those aspects of the film appear rather foundational to the narrative.

Similar questions about the nature of reality and perception are raised in Antonioni’s Blow-Up, which Coppola himself has mentioned as an obvious influence on his film. In it, a hip, sought-after fashion photographer in London’s swinging 60s, somewhat fed-up with his job and the scene, wanders aimlessly around city and into a park on a windy day. He witnesses — through the lens of his camera — what he believes could possibly be a murder attempt. Or is it actually a murder after all? He blows-up the pictures in his studio, trying to find evidence for what he thinks he saw. But the closer he zooms into the picture, the more distorted the image becomes—both literally and figuratively. 

The similarities end there though, as David Hemmings’ memorable performance as the photographer is brimming with restless overconfidence and manic, childlike cool; quite the contrast to Hackman’s reclusive anti-social worrywart. Antonioni is ultimately more concerned with a stylistic, less plot-driven approach, where certain technical aspects are intentionally loose and a lot is left open to interpretation. 

Coppola uses every aspect of filmmaking with great precision and aplomb to place us in the fragile mind of his central character. Walter Murch’s editing and sound design in particular are extremely effective in blurring the lines between what is remembered and what is imagined. Words recorded on tape conjure up fragments of scenes when played back over and over again, giving us the impression of an anxious mind unable to let go of the past.

The cinematography, set-design and camera work often manage to trap Harry like a mouse in both open and confined spaces; we feel the oppression in locations that are both strange to him, as well as those that are supposedly familiar.

David Shire’s score is a beautiful, somber reflection of how the main character’s isolation grows into paranoia and possible delusion. It starts with a solitary piano melody that goes up and down like a spiral staircase. By the end of the movie, it’s morphed into a menacing electronic soundscape.

Yet the tie between these two films is undeniable. Even the pesky mime in the square at the beginning of the film feels like a subtle nod to the mimes in the final scene of Antonioni’s movie. One film ends with an aerial shot of its protagonist; the other one begins following its main character from above.  Its as if Coppola is taking the relay baton from Antonioni.

Blow Up is based on the short story Las babas del diablo [roughly translated: The Devil’s Drivel] by Argentinian writer Julio Cortazar, which starts with its protagonist, translator and hobby-photographer Roberto Michel, sitting in front of his typewriter, lamenting the impossibility of writing what he recently experienced without having to change the laws of syntax and grammar to be able to contain all perspectives and versions of reality at once. 

“It’ll never be known how this has to be told, in the first person or in the second, using the first person plural or continually inventing modes that will serve for nothing. If one might say: I will see the moon rose, or: we hurt me at the back of my eyes, and especially: you the blond woman was the clouds that race before my your his our yours their faces. What the hell.”

He believes he witnessed something sinister in a Parisian park, but all he has to go by is his own memory and some very ambiguous photographs. In Cortazar’s short story, the simple act of recalling and attempting to retell what the protagonist experienced provides yet another layer of distortion through which reality can be reimagined or lost.

Just as the typewriter in Cortazar’s story and the camera Antonioni’s film can be seen as metaphors for the unreliability of memory, so too can the microphone in The Conversation be seen as a conduit for distorting reality.

A lot has been said about the parallels between The Conversation and our current concerns with the surveillance state, data protection and the struggle to safeguard our privacy and remain anonymous. At its core, however, I think the film deals with an even more profoundly philosophical question which seems more relevant than ever: that of our relationship to reality, both assisted and encumbered by technology.

What is reality and what is fantasy when we revisit a memory ensnared by technology? Our contemporary media has never been better equipped to enhance just as well as it is able to obfuscate— to fill in the blanks with what we’d wish were true, or just as likely, what we fear could become our truth.

Science has shown just how unreliable human memory is, so we lay our trust on modern devices to keep a trustworthy record of our experiences; of what we consider factual. But aren’t these technologies simply further metaphors for how foggy and biased our perception can be? I’ve often been guilty of reacting indignantly to an image that allegedly relates to a specific current event, only to later find out that said image was actually plucked out of context from a completely different time and place. It is indeed necessary to zoom out instead of zooming in if you want the full picture. And what about deepfakes? They still seem like pretty harmless, sophisticated audiovisual jokes, but it’s only a matter of time until these spoofs become indistinguishable from the real thing for even the savviest of digital natives.

To Harry’s credit, he does try to become an active participant in preventing what could be a tragic outcome. However, his role as the quiet, inconspicuous observer with his ear on the other side of the wall condemns him to a kind of paralysis. He gets close enough to attain a vague understanding of what he thinks is going on. But is he then able to take that additional transgressive step to do what his faith tells him and— perhaps more importantly— he himself knows is right? And if he doesn’t, are we ones to judge? Are we not guilty of the same, sitting in front of our screens, scrolling up and down, feeling self-righteous about the injustices in the world, but not doing anything about them beyond clicking “LIKE” or perhaps — if we’re feeling truly courageous— clicking “COMMENT” or “SHARE”?

In the end, the only thing we can be truly certain of is that mixing paranoia, isolation and a dependence on selective media to provide supposedly reliable information results in a very dangerous cocktail for Harry Caul’s conspiratorial mind. He seems stuck in his own personal echo chamber with very little hope of stumbling into a way out. At least in Blow-Up we get the sense that the photographer is able to choose between accepting the elusive conventional reality and embracing the freedom of absurdity— perhaps a simplified version of Albert Camus’ dichotomy in The Myth of Sisyphus: Even though life is essentially absurd, we keep trying to find meaning. And yet, only by acknowledging and smiling in the face of utter futility can we truly be liberated. 

So how much of a choice do we have?

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