Francis Ford Coppola is a director whose ego can come through in his films, think Apocalypse Now (1979) for example. However, The Conversation (1974) is a very different beast, and is a creation on a much smaller and intimate scale than Coppola’s aforementioned Vietnam epic.
The film essentially concerns surveillance. The opening shot starts from a voyeuristic high angle over a crowded square at lunchtime. The shot is very long, and moves in extremely slowly, so slowly that you barely even realise that it is moving. The effect is that the viewer focuses on the people mingling about, trying to ascertain exactly what we should be looking for. Gene Hackman plays Harry Caul a surveillance expert who is struggling with his conscience. Should he care about what people do with the audio tapes he captures using his high tech means, or should he just spy and absolve himself of all blame. The film is quite slow moving, and Coppola shows the ability to gradually build the moral dilemmas that Harry Caul is experiencing. And even whilst the snail’s pace can frustrate, Coppola always maintains a level of mystery surrounding the goings on so as to never lose the audience. This is a good thing, because the film accelerates wonderfully in the second half as the true nature of all things are slowly (then suddenly) revealed for all to see.
The Conversation is a strangely wonderful film in that it takes the viewer on an in-depth look at an industry completely foreign to most of us. There are surveillance conferences, scenes of men who work in the industry sitting around discussing war stories, an obsessive concern with the detail of surveillance technology and exceptional use of a sound design full of alarms, buzzes and garbled half-heard conversation that immerses you in this world. Hackman’s Harry Caul is a ‘man apart’, with a singular focus on his work to the detriment (or non-existence) of his personal connections. Hackman wonderfully crafts a man who seems totally not at ease in the world. This is a man who on the night of his birthday chooses to sit at home playing his sax along to an LP. On a thematic level, Harry’s work and his moral concerns regarding it, reflect a broader enquiry into Catholicism that also takes place in the film. Specifically the place of confession and the transference of sin and responsibility through the act of confession.
Much of the film does revolve around the titular conversation, which is a single, seemingly innocuous conversation. This one conversation, which Harry is paid to record, is repeated over and over again as Harry utilises all the technology at his disposal to try and ascertain what was said. And notably once he has achieved that, he goes outside the scope of his role, and attempts to discover the significance of it. The Conversation closes with a cracker of a twist. It is a plot turn that makes you see the whole of the film in an entirely new light.
This film, perhaps better than any other, shows what an original filmmaking voice Coppola was (is?). From a car chase that comes out of absolutely nowhere, to the endless close-ups of surveillance equipment, this is a little film with so much to absorb, and I recommend you give it a shot.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs
- The Butcher Boy (1917), Roscoe Arbuckle – Short film starring Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, Buster Keaton in his first screen appearance and Luke, the original superstar screen dog. Arbuckle is the greatest physical comedian ever, and that includes his co-star here, who would go on to greater esteem (and who is my favourite screen comedian). This is fantastic as all the jokes are perfectly structured, a great rapport between the stars is immediately apparent and there’s lots of action, culminating in a great food fight.
- I Am Bruce Lee (2011), Pete McCormack – The film perfectly captures Lee’s transformative brilliance and persona. The film uses Lee as a starting point to examine all the beautiful things in life. His wife, a wonderful brave woman, leads a selection of interviewees who imbue much intelligence and thought. Explores Lee’s influence over dance, MMA and many other things. A great documentary.
- The Avengers (2012), Joss Whedon – Whedon has done a wonderful job of balancing the numerous characters. Also of imbuing humour into proceedings fantastically, without it coming off as extremely lame. The film is overlong, and the characters who have not had stand alone films suffer in comparison to Iron Man et al. But whilst not perfect, this is wonderful big budget fun.
- Sherlock Season 1 (2010 – Pilot 2009), Steven Moffat & Mark Gatiss – Fucking amazing television series, featuring three 90 minute episodes. Driven by an innovative, cracking visual style and brilliant editing, this is like no TV show you have ever looked at. Benedict Cumberbatch is dynamite as an exxcentric and hilarious Sherlock and the interplay between him and Martin Freeman’s Watson is great. The third ep, featuring Andrew Scott as a chillingly effective Moriarty, is as searingly a creative piece of telly filmmaking as I have ever seen.
Not Worth Watching:
- Real Steel (2011), Shawn Levy – A Saturday arvo vibe to the whole thing, but you know, with robots. Hugh Jackman’s character starts off an utter prick – he tries to sell custody of his child for 50K – and doesn’t improve a whole lot. Boxing robots could have led to fun, well made mindless fluff. But this fluff is so mindless it is a painful experience, with montage taking up much of what should be the crux of the story and some inexplicable robot/boy dancing. Awful.
- The Thing (2011), Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. – I’m not familiar with the original, but it’s safe to say it’s much better than this. Bland, to the point that your attention to wander, with the only aspect holding interest the awesome Antarctic scenery. Butt there is not much of it. Really tame for a horror film, not enough happens unless you count bad CGI and moving arbitrarily from death to death of characters you don’t give a shit about. Pretty lacklustre and mindless overall.
- Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011), Lasse Hallstrom – I deeply disliked basically everything about this. The characterisation is intensely ham fisted – we get that Ewan McGregor is a nerdy, stuffy suit. The film starts with an annoying voiceover and even more annoying attempt at hip visual style. After that though, it just because tepid, average beyond measure with an inexplicably unbelievable romance at the centre. Only one minor character, that of Kirsten Scott Thomas, feels grounded in any sort of reality.
If you only have time to watch one I Am Bruce Lee
Avoid at all costs Salmon Fishing in the Yemen