Sunday, September 07, 2008

The Conversation - a film for our times

Last night I watched Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation again for about the third or fourth time. I love the film's stunning, open-ended conclusion and its foreboding atmosphere of secretive paranoia.

Replete with an understated but stellar cast -- Gene Hackman, John Cazale (was there a movie he was in that wasn't an Oscar contender?), Harrison Ford, Terri Garr, Robert Duvall! -- The Conversation was made during the height of Coppola's emergence as a major director, in between The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II.

Several aspects of The Conversation resonate keenly with me in the current context. Although the analog equipment of Harry Caul (Gene Hackman)'s trade as a wire-tapping expert seems primitive and quaint by today's standards, their application by Caul presages the modern dalliance with surveillance technologies and the panopticon state. Caul's techniques were state of the art in the Watergate era - to what level have they advanced 35 years later? And to what degree do they infiltrate our lives?

In the information age, bits are easy to track, easy to process via computation. What would have been a gargantuan task of data collection, collation and analysis can be automated and accelerated. Google, that colossus of information retrieval, actively amasses a plethora of profile data so it can target relevant advertising at you. It does this as a public corporation. It really does not take much imagination to blithely wonder whether other players with different motives and different analysis endpoints are doing something ... different ... with the rainbow of data extant about you on the net.

Harry Caul is a hacker. He builds all of his own equipment. He is lonely and socially isolated from his peers and community. And yet the film cleverly draws us into his world, lets us see and hear what he does. Lets us watch him as if he were the surveillance target, allowing us to witness his humanity. Lets us experience the same revelation of horror that he does. His descent into madness is gradual at first but progresses exponentially, leaving us with a shattered view of personal privacy at the film's denouement (Though denouement is technically not the right word here, in the sense that a resolution of his essential dilemma fails to occur after the climax).

The elements of audio repetition in the film are used extremely effectively by the famous sound designer, Walter Murch. Fragments of the eponymous conversation are replayed again and again as Caul struggles to decipher and interpret the meaning behind the dialogue of the couple he has been tracking. Meanwhile the wandering piano score by David Shire is expertly woven into the texture of the scenes.

While The Conversation might prove to be too slow-paced for someone adapted to the au courant frenetic editing style, it continues to strike a relevant note and is definitely one of my favorite films. The unsatisfying nature of the ending is what makes this film Art.

ps. and nevermind Enemy of the State! That was like watching a feeble counterfeit.