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@ K. 2005 05 07
I didn’t see Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation  until last night: on DVD.
In a theater the play starts with or without you. You can’t pause the actors while you go to the bathroom, you can’t rewind if you missed something. You take what you get. With recordings you can play the Christmas Oratorio in July. The phone can ring in the middle of an aria. Actual Easter mass must coordinate with the Christian calendar; your sneaked video tape of it is independent of all that. But, if the Easter mass is truly magical, can turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse, “save” a lot of ragamuffins, does the magic translate to your video tape?
In the movie theater the projectionist can restart the film if something goes drastically wrong, but the manager won’t authorize any such thing if someone coughs (unless the queen is in attendance). If you miss the movie’s initial local run, it may come back. Some other theater may show it. Or, wait till 2005 when you have a Mac and an account with netflix.com. Now I can pause the DVD if I’m bored, if I’m hungry, if my bowls nudge me …
I paused The Conversation a lot because I didn’t much like it. Oh, I could see that it was well-made. I’ve long known that Gene Hackman is a serviceable actor, even though I hadn’t seen this film, considered by many to be a classic: “Coppola’s best film.”
Once I’d seen the movie to its conclusion though I have to say that I’m impressed.
One of many things that distracted me during the show is something I’ve discussed in my piece Thresholds: that is, society’s redefinition of murder to suit shifts in power, demography, agendas … Joe killing Ivan or Choi under orders from Washington is not murder; these days Hamlet killing Claudius after Claudius has killed Hamlet Senior is murder (simply because Hamlet isn’t our governor). In Minority Report, discussed briefly at the above link, future-police watch a newsboy throw the man’s paper into the bushes without reacting. Without reacting, they watch the man’s wife shoo hubby from the house so she can commit adultery. When hubby reenters the house and finds his wife with the guy who’d just been lurking in the park, when hubby reaches for the scissors, they respond: they arrest hubby before he can stab anybody. All sins are beneath our notice: except murder. So the society must be very careful to redefine murder every other minute, retraining hoi poloi [hoi = “the,” poloi = “people”].
We have a parallel situation in The Conversation. Gene Hackman plays a professional bugger. He coordinates his surveillance equipment to eavesdrop on the wife of an executive as she circles Union Square (SF) with her lover. It’s mentioned that the dishonored husband might kill them.
At some point Gene Hackman says that he isn’t afraid to die; but he is afraid of “murder.” Can that be real? Have you ever heard of anyone being afraid of murder? in the abstract? Saying “I’m afraid my husband may kill me” or “I’m afraid my wife may kill the kids” is not the same as saying “I am afraid of murder.”
Anyway, since when is a cuckold killing his faithless wife murder? Well, it is in this society where the state claims a monopoly on violence. The state never murders: it executes, it arrests, it convicts, it detains, it cleanses, it punishes … Nowadays, when we’re enraged, we’re supposed to call the police. Professionals! and take a valium.
I’m not sure I would have liked the movie much in 1974. The Watergate snoops had turned my stomach at the time. I didn’t need to have my nose rubbed in it. Nixon had turned my stomach before he was elected president. Vietnam was just another illegal war before it got in the papers. Ah, but had I sat through The Conversation to the end, as I’m sure I would have, then I would have loved it!
Coppola was exploiting ambiguities in incomplete, immorally obtained, information. The couple it turns out were doing some plotting of their own: beyond the simple adultery. Adultery was merely one of many crimes afoot: corporate take-overs, illegal succession … It’s the husband who gets killed: in an itself ambiguous situation: did the adulterous couple lure him to their hotel room so that the would-be killer could himself by killed? Anyway, everyone who had worked for the husband now works for the wife. His closest employees seem to have been in on it.
But why did we have to put up with all that Watergate shit in the meantime?
I have repeated Lionel Trilling’s teaching before, I’ll repeat it again now: If you haven’t read Madame Bovary or Vanity Fair, every word of every sentence, from page one till the last word of the last sentence of the last page, then you have not read it!
And if you misread it, then you still haven’t read it.
(You’d better be an adept with irony before you think you’ve read either of those two masterpieces.)
Anyway, while I have The Conversation before me as a subject, I want to make a couple of other small points: points gathered before the movie won my heart.
Professionalism. Some of the film’s voltage comes from the bugger’s professional disinterest in his target in conflict with the bugger’s religious training as a Roman Catholic (macroinformation!) As a bugger, he’s not supposed to care what his employer’s motives are or what happens to his target. Ah, but his targets have been killed before. His conscience tells him he’s guilty. At it for twenty years, his conscience is looming larger.
But, having established him as a professional, we now see that he’s an amateur. His emotions come cascading in. His product even gets stolen: from his inner-most bastion. Ah, but then that’s why we’re supposed to sympathize with him.
- Professionalism. At least the professional who hires him is supposed to be professional. Ah, but when he gets paid, in cash, $15,000, he’s asked to count his money outside.
What would you say to the bank teller if she handed you $15,000 in cash but asked you to count it outside the bank? give up your place in line? What if the bank shorted everybody and then locked the door? What if this teller just shorted you, knowing that the door was about to be locked for some other reason?
Did you ever notice in the supermarket that everyone has to wait patiently while the cashier checks the customer’s payment. No matter how inept the cashier, we all must wait. The cashier hands you your change, your bills, covers both with your receipt, and instantly, the customer behind you clips you in the ankles with their shopping cart. Move on. Don’t count your change until you’ve given up your place in line.
Very unprofessional. If supermarkets cared about their customers, they’d protect them, isolate them, until they assented that the transaction was mutually satisfactory.
See also Aldi’s Flagrant Foul.
- Harrison Ford, the executive assistant, comments that $15,000 isn’t bad pay for one day’s work.
Very unprofessional. Executive assistants don’t discuss pay with the hired help. Not theirs, not yours, not anybody’s.
The Hackman character is supposed to be the best bugger on the west coast. What business is it of the assistant what his fee is? Has the Harrison Ford character knowledge about the bugger’s nut? Does he know his capital investment? His payroll? How does he know the day’s bugging didn’t cost him $40,000?
If we hear that RJ Reynolds grosses four million dollars an hour, do we think that goes into some individual’s pocket? No, no. We’re only so ignorantly rude with employees.