Monday, October 20, 2014

The Conversation: Signal And Noise

As I continue looking at horror in non-horror movies, I’m still thinking about the idea of surveillance that started with writing about One Hour Photo. Like that film, The Conversation is also about surveillance, but appearance is the least important thing going on here, either cinematically or thematically - it's not about what we see, but what we hear and consequently what we know. Information, not image, is the weapon of choice here.

The film opens on the titular conversation - a man and a woman walking through a park in downtown San Francisco during lunchtime. They're surrounded by other people, performers, musicians, the everyday noise and clatter of life in the city. We can't quite hear what they're saying, though - instead of naturalistic dialogue, what we hear is the output from a number of devices recording this conversation, with varying degrees of comprehensibility. Much of it, at least initially, is lost in garble, a noisy, lossy recording. There are men perched in high places with scoped directional microphones, looking like nothing so much as snipers. There are two other men on the ground - innocuous, middle-management types, wandering through the crowd, sitting on benches, carrying packages. As the couple talking weaves in and out of the crowd, their conversation weaves in and out of focus.

Somebody really, really wants to know what they're saying.

One of the innocuous men on the park benches is Harry Caul, surveillance and security expert. He's in business for himself, taking work from the government, law enforcement, and, in this case, private clients. He's careful, quiet, and intensely private, possibly because someone in his line of work knows just how fragile privacy is. Deeply serious, as religious about his work as he is about his Catholic faith, he's not somebody who lets anyone in as a matter of course. Harry’s been hired by the director of a large corporation to record what these specific people are saying during this conversation they’ve so painstakingly decided to have in a noisy public place. It has to be their voices, not a transcription, and the tapes must be delivered to the director and the director alone. And this is where Harry runs into trouble, when the director’s assistant insists on picking up the tapes instead. When Caul refuses, the assistant makes some vague threats, suggesting that Caul is in over his head - after all, he knows what’s on those tapes. And so Harry retreats to his workshop, where he takes the source recordings and goes back to work on them, peeling away layer after layer of noise and interference to try and reveal the horrible truths embedded in this apparently innocuous conversation.

As you might expect, there's an insistent strand of paranoia running through this film. Harry lives his life as if someone is trying to force their way in, whether it's getting into his apartment (his doors have multiple locks and alarms) or asking personal questions about his life. Even a harmless birthday gift moves him to cancel home delivery of his mail, and he lies about things like his age, simply so that no one person has the truth about him. Whatever motivated the job he's taken as the film begins, he's dealing with equally secretive people at a very large corporation, where a lot of money is at stake. His basic distrust opens up cracks, whether it's pushing people away from him, or attracting attention from forces within the corporation who want for themselves the tapes he's made of the conversation. As Harry continues working on the recordings, the film keeps returning to the conversation, with new layers of meaning revealed with every pass. Noise gives way to signal, obscurity gives way to meaning, and as Harry's comprehension grows, so does ours in a slow, but steady terror of discovery.

Much like visuals do a lot of the heavy lifting in One Hour Photo, sound does a lot of the heavy lifting here. Conversations are clear or obscured, and there's a lot of interplay between action and representation of action - life versus recording. And again, secrets are the point - in One Hour Photo, they provided a counterpoint to appearance, and here they act as currency, a medium for power and influence. This is neatly illustrated by an extended sequence of Harry interacting with a jealous rival, in which no physical violence occurs, and voices aren't even really raised, but knowledge, secrets, and recorded information serve as punches and counterpunches in a contest of dominance. This extends into visuals as well - people move in and out of obscured sightlines, talk to each other from behind the wire of a cage or the blurriness of plastic sheeting. Even Harry's name - Caul - is a word for a translucent veil of skin that covers the faces of some newborn children. Concealment and obscurity is everything.

It's not really a horror movie, no, but it uses the same tools of tension and release to achieve the same effect. The film is an extended slow burn, with everything playing out in small, gradually revealed details until the climax, which takes all of the tightly compressed anxiety and paranoia of what came before and explodes it outward in a single moment of sudden, shocking violence that carries the cathartic release of a scream and much more of a punch than any of the rote stabbings, impalements, or beheadings of your typical slasher film. Harry is right, there is something terrible happening here, and the revelation of what exactly that is forces its way into his life (and our attention) with exactly the same amount of violence as you'd attribute to a home invasion, and so living in Harry's world exacts a terrible price. It's deeply frightening, not just in specific events, but implication as well. Nothing and nowhere are safe.

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  1. This is one of my favorite movies ever. Gene Hackman is an amazing actor - I've never seen him give a bad performance, and this one is incredible.

  2. I know! It's incredible, and I feel like it should be much more on everyone's radar than it seems to be.