The joy of searching

To me, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation is a near-perfect film: well made, well told, well performed. The storytelling is focused and controlled and, as with all good stories, the mystery works in pleasing tandem with the main character’s own inherent fears and anxieties.

But beyond quality (pah! quality!) I loved the way the film repeated the conversation, to which the title refers, over and over again. I wish I’d been able to watch this film in the theatre, rather than in front of my laptop with its tinny-tiny speakers, but alas.

The film revolves around an audiotape, and the conversation between a man and a woman recorded on it. The main character Harry, played pitch-perfectly by Gene Hackman, is a surveillance expert who has recorded the tape for a mysterious client.

Harry listens to it over and over again, adjusting the levels and patching the different feeds together in order to get a clear master version of what the couple is discussing. But the more he listens to it, the more anxious he becomes about what the conversation really means and to what end handing the tape over might lead.

Still from The Conversation

Time to get to work.

For me, there was a great pleasure in listening along with Harry to the conversation again and again, in searching along with him for something I might have missed, some new way of interpreting what was said, some previously undetected inflection that would reveal the conversation’s subtext.

This searching, this compulsive return to an object, shows up in other movies that I’ve liked similarly, such as Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up, in which a fashion photographer takes a photograph of what might be a murder. We, along with the photographer, study successively larger prints of the picture in an attempt to “get closer” to the meaning of the captured image. But past a certain size, the image’s coherence simply dissolves into a series of disconnected grainy splotches.

There is something compelling and pleasurable for me in closely searching a text, an image, a sound. The object is what it is; it does not change. But my interpretation of it can. I can try to fit various meanings over it, I can manipulate its component parts like a paper fortune teller, I can turn it over and inside out and try reading it backwards. Its impenetrability becomes a mirror; it impassively reflects back whatever I project.

This impenetrable quality is beautifully captured in one of The Conversation’s climactic scenes (spoiler alert). Harry is in a hotel room, and in the adjoining room we can hear noises of what may or may not be a murder in progress. But he’s unable to clearly hear or see what’s happening, nor do anything about it. We can hear murky sounds of violence unfolding, but all we get visually is a shot of the room’s obstinate, unchanging wallpaper.

Unlike Blow Up, where the event the photo did or didn’t capture remains an enigma, The Conversation does eventually reveal the meaning of the conversation. During the final time we listen to it, the inflections and subtext become crystal clear (in fact, the new meaning changed how I received the sounds so much I wondered if there was a second version of the recording used only in this scene for emphasis). But whether they contain an ultimate answer or not, I simply like it when films ask me to do some of the work: to make my own connections, to lift a possible solution out of the clues that I’m seeing and hearing. Those kinds of films see the viewers as an equal – and I’m an equal rights kind of gal.

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