Friday, December 14, 2012

The Conversation -- privacy and paranoia

Director: Francis Ford Coppola, 1974 (R)

Everyone has heard of The Godfather trilogy and Apocalypse Now. These movies stand as towers in Francis Ford Coppola’s canon. But in the same year that he won the Oscar for Best Picture with The Godfather Part 2, he was also nominated for best picture for The Conversation (for which he also wrote the script). This little know film is a subtle thriller, a quiet tour-de-force that focuses on the singular character of Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), and his slow devolution from paranoia into madness. Surely Solomon’s words from the book of Ecclesiastes could apply here: “At the beginning their words are folly; at the end they are wicked madness” (Ecc. 10:13).

The film opens with an amazing extended zoom that begins high over a crowded square in San Francisco. Slowly the camera moves in until we can see characters in the square, especially a mime and a gray man in a transparent raincoat. The man is Caul, a foremost electronics surveillance expert, and he is tracking a young couple wondering in circles. With three different microphones trying to capture their conversation, Caul is directing his team, including Stan (John Cazale, The Deer Hunter) his partner.

As he later plays with the dials of his reel-to-reel equipment in his empty warehouse of an office, he begins to pick up on the conversation. And as he does, Harry begins to suspect this couple is going to be murdered. Struggling with this job, he wants to give the tapes over to “the director”, the person who hired him for this gig. But instead, he meets the director’s assistant, Martin Stett (Harrison Ford), a man oozing menace. Harry is a quandary: he doesn’t know what to do.

Coppola has said that Caul is a chilling and pathetic character, And Hackman pulls of a near impossible feat: making an unlikable and intensely private man interesting. At one point, Caul declares, “I don’t have anything personal, nothing of value.” His apartment is devoid of personal paraphernalia, except his saxophone and statuettes (especially of Mother Mary). He has multiple locks, to keep people out. He distrusts Stan, keeping him in the dark about his electronics inventions. He has a mistress (Teri Garr), who doesn’t even know where he lives or what he does. He is pathologically afraid of letting anyone close, and he pays a price: loneliness.

Relationships require self-revelation. If we hide behind a wall of privacy, we push others away. Privacy is appropriate in its place, but we were made for relationships. We crave love. We are commanded to love others (Jn. 13:34). The Scriptures abound with commands to live with one another: forgiving (Eph. 4:32), serving (Gal. 5:13), encouraging (1 Thess. 5:11). However, when we retire into our prison of our privacy, we eliminate the possibility of being known. And by the end of the film, we still don’t really know Caul.

We do find out that Caul is a devout Catholic, driven as much by his guilt and shame as by his faith. He was involved in an earlier incident that led to murder, but he denied any responsibility. Now, he is haunted by those decisions and cannot determine a course of action. What does he know? Is there a clear murder plot? Or is it a misunderstanding? Worse yet, is it misinformation?

The Conversation carries a haunting jazz piano score that adds to the drama. There is little action in the current sense, although a clear moment of horror occurs that is reminiscent of Psycho. While Caul listens in from an adjoining room, he once more denies any responsibility in a set of actions redolent of a child: he turns on the TV to drown out any noise (and there are cartoons playing), he throws all the bedclothes in the corner, and then curls up in a fetal position in the bed.

As the film progresses, Caul’s privacy turns into voyeuristic paranoia. The only time he reveals anything about himself is in a dream to the young woman about to be killed. But when the tables are turned at the end, he loses both his faith and his mind. When he smashes his Mary figurine, he is metaphorically casting aside his trust in God. The final scene shows him once more playing his saxophone alone in a sea of devastation, a broken man.

This third act and final scene reminds us that when we give up on God we are giving up on everything. We may not descend into literal madness, but without God we will eventually descend into Hades (Rev. 20:13-13). 

Copyright ©2012, Martin Baggs

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