Monday, January 2, 2017

The Conversation

Year 9, Day 2 - 1/2/17 - Movie #2,502

BEFORE: I've had a day or two to live with the new chain, and now I'm thinking that I have really done the best I could, given what I had to work with.  If I pad January just a little bit (I do this by taking a look at the people I'm planning to use as links, like say, Brad Pitt, and then searching his name on my DVR to see what other films with him are available...) I think I can get the start of the romance chain just a bit closer to February 1.  And after double-checking my links, I found that two animated films I put next to each other don't really share an actor, this guy popped up on IMDB as being in "Sausage Party" because he received a "thanks" in the credits, that's a glitch I'll have to keep an eye on.  But no problem, I found another animated film that will bridge the gap, I think it's running Free on Demand now, but even if it isn't, I can probably watch it on Amazon for a couple bucks.  

So, with the addition of five films, all of which I was probably going to add at some point anyway, I've got my January line-up in place.   Thank God, because I'd already started the chain, it would have been terrible if I couldn't find the month-long chain that would get me close to Feb. 1.  And January's line-up is roughly comprised of the most important films on the list, or thereabouts, and some of the least urgent films have been moved down to the end, but if they turn out to be relevant in March, they can easily be moved back up.  Like if I go out to see "Logan" in March, it will make sense to move up those two films with Hugh Jackman in them, and also whatever they're linked to.  But since the list is ever-changing, I'll still have to re-assess things in late February.  Still, after setting aside the Sherlock Holmes films and the Halloween films, that only leaves about 60 films on my list currently unscheduled, arranged in little clusters of 2 to 5 films.  When I get some time, I can go through all of those, and make sure there are no little hidden connections that I'm currently unaware of.

And tonight the chain gets me to "The Conversation", which is on that list of "1,001 Movies To See Before You Die", and tomorrow's film is ALSO on that list.  After tomorrow, I'll have seen 396 films on that list, and I should make it to 400 by the end of February, that will be a real accomplishment!  

Today, two actors carry over from "The Black Stallion Returns", Allen Garfield and Teri Garr.  They were both also in "One From the Heart", and this all makes sense when you realize that all three films were produced by Francis Ford Coppola's studio, American Zoetrope, and that Coppola directed two of them.  It seems he had a stable of actors that he liked to work with, again and again.  My mistake, perhaps, was watching "One From the Heart" during last year's February chain, because it really screwed up the linking possibilities - but I think I've made up for that this week. 

THE PLOT: A paranoid, secretive surveillance expert has a crisis of conscience when he suspects that a couple he is spying on will be murdered.

AFTER: So, it's generally regarded as a "classic" must-see film, but it's also very, very dated.  1974 was a long, long time ago, but in many ways, this film was well ahead of its time, even if the technology shown here seems incredibly crude, what with reel-to-reel tape recorders (kids, ask your parents.  OK, grandparents.) and shotgun mikes.  You may have to explain to millennials that this took place before there were surveillance cameras on every street corner, and on every computer, and inside that teddy bear.  

Of course, this film was made around the time of the Watergate scandal, when the U.S. President saw fit to secretly tape every single conversation he had in the Oval Office, and ALSO send someone to wire-tap the Democratic National Committee headquarters (is that what happened?  I was never really sure, as a kid.)  Thank God we're all beyond this, and our political parties no longer pull dirty tricks like planting recording devices, they just hack each other's e-mails and release them on WikiLeaks.  But I guess we all know now that the missing 18 minutes of Nixon's tapes are related to his actions in covering up the break-in, right?

At first, when we see Harry Caul in this film, we're not sure what his purpose is, in recording the conversation between two people in a public park.  But then, neither is he.  Is he working for the Feds? The IRS?  There's a lot of speculation, especially when their conversation seems so innocuous at first, discussing things like Christmas gifts, that homeless guy over there - ah, but they also make references to "walking in circles" and then there's that reference to meeting on Sunday at a hotel.  So, they're secret lovers, then?  Harry (and by extension, we, the audience) has a couple of different theories, but how can he really get to the bottom of things when his co-worker just won't stop distracting him?

In the meantime, Harry's got a girlfriend, who manages to hum the same exact song that he heard the woman in the park singing.  Wait, what does that mean?  Is she in on it?  How deep does the rabbit hole go?  And who's that guy over there cleaning the floor, is he really a janitor?  And so begins a long, slow descent into madness.  When Harry (and we the audience) finally learn what the purpose of the recording is, who the client is and what they're up to, that explains everything, right?  Or does it?

There are later parts that are nearly David Lynchian, or perhaps Stanley Kubrickian - particularly the later scenes in the hotel, where we're not sure if what we're seeing is really taking place, or occuring just in Harry's mind, due to his guilty conscience.  I suppose this topic could be much debated, but I have a feeling that Coppola is much more literal than those other two directors, so if we see it, it's probably really happening.  Right?

NITPICK POINT: The film is set in San Francisco, but the opening scenes feature a "City of Paris" sign very prominently, along with a mime that's working the crowd.  For a while I thought part of the film was set in Paris, which didn't seem to make much sense, because why would an American be recording other Americans while in France?  All they needed to do was to change the sign, or eliminate the mime, or just include a shot of a famous San Francisco landmark, would that have been so hard?  It's called an "establishing shot" for a reason.  OK, so maybe it's on me, I didn't recognize Union Square in San Francisco, and I'm not aware that there used to be a store there called "City of Paris" (it's now a Neiman-Marcus).  Regardless of this, it's a confusing sign. 

NITPICK POINT #2 - We see Harry Caul synching up three reel-to-reel tape recorders.  Someone shouldn't do that manually, because there will ALWAYS be a different amount of time between him hearing the "beep" and pushing the Stop button.  This is best done by some electronic device that will stop all three tapes exactly on the beep.  Then we've got the problem of combining three different recordings of the same event, in order to make a complete "sound picture" of the people being tapped.  That seems at first like it would work, because more is better, right?  Ah, ah, not so fast - if one of those mikes dropped out, or was pointed temporarily in the wrong direction, it would have recorded some other thing, as in the "the wrong thing", and adding that track to the mix would only add more noise and confusion at that point.  In other words, if that track wasn't helpful for a while, it would only be hurtful to the overall soundscape.  And isolating a part of the track that was initially inaudible, using some other device to "enchance" or clear up the sound, I suspect is a bit of wishful movie magic.  If the sound's not there on the track, I don't see how it could be made to magically appear. 

Harrison Ford shows up about halfway through the film, and in another coincidence, I'm reading "The Princess Diarist" by Carrie Fisher, and I'm just now getting to the point where she describes her behind-the-scenes affair with Ford, in 1976 when filming the first "Star Wars" movie.  Salacious stuff to be sure, particularly because Ford was married and 13 years older (she was 19).  But I think she recounts the events well, especially when describing Harrison's natural expression as something akin to a scowl (the male equivalent of "resting bitch face") and the circumstances where he rescued her from a bunch of randy crewmen who had gotten her drunk at George Lucas' birthday party.  

Also starring Gene Hackman (last seen in "The Mexican"), John Cazale (last seen in "The Deer Hunter"), Frederic Forrest (last seen in "One From the Heart"), Cindy Williams, Harrison Ford (last seen in "K-19: The Widowmaker"), Elizabeth MacRae, Michael Higgins, Robert Duvall (last seen in "The Judge"), Robert Shields (he was a famous mime in the 1970's, yes, there once was such a thing...)

RATING: 5 out of 10 floorboards

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