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PostPosted: Thu Jul 12, 2012 5:29 pm 
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[Reveal] Spoiler:
I thought that's what you meant, but I don't think it's a problem. Here's how I've always thought of it: given how much is indeterminate in general in that movie, how do we know what we're hearing? What I mean is, is the new possible tone actually objectively derived from the recording, or is this Caul's new interpretation of the dialogue? Have we just sunk one level deeper into his paranoid head and are now hearing the new frightening way he is interpreting the meaning of the dialogue, and whose seeming concrete existence in the recording just matches how concretely he believes it to be there? There are several sequences in the movie that are edited in a way that call into question some of the things Caul appears to be seeing (blood in the toilet), so it's still possible that what we hear at that moment is Caul's interpretation only.

Because of that added possibility, that we're just in Caul's head at that moment, the movie keeps its paranoid atmosphere without cheating.


EDIT: and matrixschmatrix beats me to it.


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PostPosted: Thu Jul 12, 2012 5:54 pm 
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I understand that, but the problem for me is that the original either is what it is or it isn't, so even if the specifics of the rug-pulling is an impressionistic effect, it still undermines the entire plot mechanism that set the thing in motion. This is the only explanation the film offers for 'what went wrong', and if nothing went wrong, there's no film.

[Reveal] Spoiler:
And in my opinion Coppola's rationalization is disingenuous: the plot point can only work if he uses a completely different line reading. If he stuck the original line reading in there, the 'reveal' would make no sense whatsoever. And therein lies the problem.


I do concede that I'm probably more sensitive to these kind of logical cheats than most people (see also the early works of David Fincher), and the more fundamental they are to a film's meaning, the less slack I can cut them.


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PostPosted: Thu Jul 12, 2012 6:14 pm 
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zedz wrote:
This is the only explanation the film offers for 'what went wrong', and if nothing went wrong, there's no film.

I don't know that that's true. I mean, first, the movie is about it being impossible to tell if there is something or nothing there, so I think it's apt for the whole thing to be possibly nothing. Plus, if nothing went wrong, we're still left with the intense and accurate portrait of Caul's paranoia which is the kind of thing that not only functions when nothing has gone wrong, but continues to construe the nothing-wrong with the everything-wrong. If nothing were wrong, the movie is probably even more poignant.

zedz wrote:
[Reveal] Spoiler:
And in my opinion Coppola's rationalization is disingenuous: the plot point can only work if he uses a completely different line reading. If he stuck the original line reading in there, the 'reveal' would make no sense whatsoever. And therein lies the problem.

[Reveal] Spoiler:
I think, tho', that the different line reading is merely meant to signify Caul's interpretation of it (not necessarily what he's hearing but what he's now presuming could be the meaning behind it, and therefore what he's presuming is the meaning behind all the subsequent and perhaps benign events). It's functioning a bit like exposition, as if Caul, listening to the tape again, says outloud in that hackneyed movie way "but maybe that means he'd kill them if he had the chance!" It works, I think, because this is a possibility rather than the actual objective reality. We can still doubt.


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PostPosted: Thu Jul 12, 2012 7:45 pm 
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I'm still not convinced. Isn't Caul's paranoia a chicken-and-egg thing? It's in large part fuelled by what he 'finds out' (and by everybody's subsequent behaviour). Also, it's not as if his paranoia is entirely unfounded, it's just that he's mistaken about the nature of the conspiracy.

Also, I stand by my assertion that if Coppola hadn't cheated in the big reveal, nothing at all would have been revealed - just imagine how that scene (and the film) would have played without the cheat: the scene would be completely nonsensical - so as fudges go, it's pretty fundamental, however much reverse-engineered rationalization you plaster over it. The alternative exposition you offer really just emphasizes to me how sloppy that particular piece of plotting was - imagine if the character had actually said that and we never heard the 'evidence' for ourselves. It's the same cheat: it's just a little less devious and a little more obvious.


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PostPosted: Thu Jul 12, 2012 8:25 pm 
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It's been a number of years since I last saw it, so it could well be that the cracks aren't papered over as well as I'm remembering (tho' I don't think my explanation was a post-hoc rationalization on my part as I do remember feeling the first time I saw it like the altered tone could be totally subjective on Caul's part). But then again, it may not even matter much to me in the end since I think I may well be less sensitive to this kind of thing than you. For instance, I don't mind at all that Argento cheats a bit in Bird with the Crystal Plumage by using a different shot of the opening attempted murder for Musante's final recollection than what we actually see when it happened.


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PostPosted: Thu Jul 12, 2012 8:44 pm 
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Yeah, in general as long as the concepts are moving smoothly for me that doesn't matter. I think Zedz is perfectly right that it is a cheat and as part of the cinematic narrative it probably should be seen as weakening the film, but the cheat doesn't affect a variety of other things that I personally care more for.


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PostPosted: Thu Jul 12, 2012 8:47 pm 
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I don't think it's more of a cheat than the implied closure at the end of Zodiac- it doesn't really matter if it's accurate or not, it matters because of the effect it has on the character, and by extension the audience that sympathizes with that character. I don't really see that as a weakness in the least.


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PostPosted: Thu Jul 12, 2012 10:11 pm 
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knives wrote:
Yeah, in general as long as the concepts are moving smoothly for me that doesn't matter. I think Zedz is perfectly right that it is a cheat and as part of the cinematic narrative it probably should be seen as weakening the film, but the cheat doesn't affect a variety of other things that I personally care more for.

Oh yeah, there are still plenty of things to admire about the film.

I'm also quite aware that there are some films that I love so much that I find myself perfectly capable of rationalizing away an obvious flaw; others (like this one) where a flaw is niggly enough to keep it down a tier or two; and still others where a flaw is sufficient to completely break the back of a film for me and make me resent the whole thing.


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PostPosted: Thu Jul 12, 2012 10:21 pm 
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That's got to happen to all of us with the only difference being the what for our little niggles. To bring the conversation back around though I don't see how All the President's Men is supposed to be Antonioni-esque though that may be my prejudices speaking.


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PostPosted: Thu Jul 12, 2012 11:52 pm 
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All the President's Men is visually a lot more straight, and straight-forward, than The Parallax View or Klute, where those comparisons might be more apparent. But once you see them, you'll probably recognise a close relationship between all of the Pakula / Willis films.

The Parallax View, in particular, has lots of threateningly anonymous corporate architecture, displacing / disorienting reflections and eerily empty cavernous spaces full of hidden menace. This is toned down considerably in All the President's Men, as I recall, but when its characters become isolated in space or dominated by their environments (e.g. furtive meetings in underground carparks), the same characteristics emerge.

Veering back off-topic, until I saw that Alex Cox intro posted above, I hadn't seen this fantastic poster:
Image


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PostPosted: Fri Jul 13, 2012 5:42 am 
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Mr Sausage, I have to say I disagree strongly that Harry Caul is simply paranoid in The Conversation, or that things might be more benign than they seem to him:

[Reveal] Spoiler:
For me (and zedz said part of this above), the point is that his paranoia is just mis-directed; he's right to suspect the big corporation, Harrison Ford and so on, but wrong to think that the young couple (and not Robert Duvall) are the victims. If anything, he isn't paranoid enough, and this point is made several times in the film when he opens up or trusts someone and is immediately betrayed.

Part of the point of that key repeated line is that it clearly indicates something bad is going on: it tells Harry, and us, that this young couple fear for their lives. What it doesn't tell us, without a bit of context, is that they're going to deal with this problem by means of a pre-emptive strike. They don't need protecting; and perhaps it's true that if they hadn't killed Duvall, he would have killed them instead. What's really awful about the ending is that Harry realises there are no good guys in this story, no innocent victims - except him, perhaps.

Most importantly, no one has yet mentioned the final scene: I don't know how others interpret this, but I think it proves that Harry doesn't know the half of what's been going on. His whole world really is swarming with bugs, traps and conspiracies, and he is powerless to stand up to any of this, or protect himself or anyone else; he can't even get a firm hold on who exactly needs protecting. But there's no doubt that the conspiracy is real and malign. That he responds to all this at the end by playing his (probably bugged) saxophone is a wonderful touch, and I love how the camera pans from side to side like a surveillance camera.

With regard to the twist, this never bothered me in the slightest - this too is, I think, a wholly successful aspect of the film, and one of the moments I treasure most. It sends shivers down my spine every time I see it. I don't agree with you, zedz, that the ending wouldn't work without the changed intonation. If the Frederic Forrest character still just said 'He'd kill us if he got the chance', without emphasising the 'us', a sharp viewer could still figure out what this actually meant. All Coppola does is change the intonation to spell the point out for the audience, and also to heighten the dramatic impact of the revelation - as a less than sharp viewer myself (I didn't figure out the ending of Blair Witch until hours after the film finished, when I was trying to sleep...), I appreciate this kind of thing, but I do also think it 'points' the horror of this moment.

What Sausage and matrix say about this being Harry's re-interpretation of the line also works, but I would place more emphasis on the way it fits in with the two other big nightmare moments leading up to the twist: the bloody hands thrust against the hotel window and the blood billowing up in the toilet bowl, both supremely creepy and shocking touches (the first anticipated when Harry is shocked by a loud noise as he listens in on the room next door). These moments, and the montage of details which precede 'He'd kill us if he got the chance', sufficiently establish an air of uncanny dread to make the change in intonation work - it's the icing on the cake.


As for The Parallax View and All the President's Men being Antonioni-esque, as zedz says the positioning of characters in relation to architecture and other surroundings (the Library of Congress, the whole of Washington - wonderful shots, these) feeds into this, although I would actually say this stuff is more overt and deliberately evocative of Antonioni in The Conversation. Remember the big building that houses Caul's employers; and his own 'office' is at least as cavernous and alien as the car park in AtPM. The dream sequence where he sees Cindy Williams in the fog also reminds me of a great scene in Red Desert (and the whole of Il Grido; Identification of a Woman hadn't quite been made yet...), and the use of parks (with mimes!), as well as more obvious factors, is of course reminiscent of Blow Up.

I said the Pakula films deserve the label 'Antonioni-esque' more than Coppola's film for a very vague and subjective reason: I think Coppola is trying harder for these kind of effects, and going back to his film after getting into Antonioni, I couldn't help feeling that his treatment of alienation was an enthusiastic pose, lacking conviction at times. I hate to use the word 'pretentious', but there are times in The Conversation where I just feel it's working too hard, and too obviously, to show how lonely and alienated Harry Caul is. I love David Shire's score, and it fits the movie very well, but I think that wry, lonely piano reinforces the sense that we're being told to see the hero in a certain light (note the 'And happy birthday!' moment at the beginning, and the way the score underlines this), whereas Antonioni or Pakula, at their best, achieve these effects more organically and, as I say, with more conviction.

(Interesting fact: David Shire also did the score for All the President's Men and Zodiac, and the music in the former is clearly imitative of Michael Small's score for Parallax. Shire also composed the staggeringly awesome score for the original Taking of Pelham 123, and I'm also fond of his work on the 1975 Farewell My Lovely. Sadly most of his career since the '70s seems to have been spent on TV movies. Fincher must have hired him partly as a homage to Pakula's film, I think.)

I tend to group Antonioni's films into two broad categories. In most of his films up to and including Red Desert, we get a protagonist who is more or less emotionally 'normal' or 'well-adjusted', but finds him/herself in an increasingly alien, inhuman world; at the end, they find some partial and ambivalent way of coping with this world. From Blow Up onwards, there is much more of a sense that the protagonist is fully immersed and integrated with that alien world - as if the pod people have already taken over. Although ostensibly they're still fighting against something (a murder conspiracy, the establishment, the mundanity of a settled existence, the dissolution of a love affair, or whatever), in fact we get an odd sense that they're not really fighting it at all, but that even the appearance of conflict and resistance is just part of the beautiful, soulless abyss that is the modern world.

I think The Conversation fits into the former category, and its ending seems to me very similar to those of La Notte and Red Desert in particular. Pakula's films (at least the two under discussion) fit into the latter category; for instance, in The Parallax View,

[Reveal] Spoiler:
Beatty reacts to the Parallax test very much like Hemmings in Blow Up, impassive and un-moved; at the end he runs towards the light but is eclipsed and blown away, just as Hemmings looks for a body and ends up vanishing himself.


And I already mentioned the ending of AtPM. I couldn't really substantiate this point without watching all the films again, but I can't help feeling as though the heroes in Pakula's films are integral parts of those abstract forces of darkness that seem to hang over everything. They're perversely at home in this world, they operate smoothly and mechanically within it, and whether or not it literally destroys them, they (like everyone else we see) scarcely seem to exist as individuals with identities, emotions or thoughts. I might be alone on this, but I get a kick out of seeing the films this way. I look forward to re-watching Klute soon; it seems to take several viewings for me to even begin to appreciate what Pakula is doing.


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PostPosted: Fri Jul 13, 2012 10:48 am 
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Sloper wrote:
Mr Sausage, I have to say I disagree strongly that Harry Caul is simply paranoid in The Conversation, or that things might be more benign than they seem to him:

I was thinking primarily of the ending. You seem about as sure as Harry does
[Reveal] Spoiler:
that his apartment is bugged and that he's now the target of malign forces. But that's not assured, and that's where his paranoia kicks in. Perhaps people are after him, perhaps no one is. Perhaps this is a vast, sinister conspiracy that now has him in mind, perhaps it's a simple Hitchcock-like murder plot that isn't concerned with him. By the time he rips apart his rooms, it hardly matters any more if they even have been bugged. Harry has descended so far into paranoia that he'll tear apart everything looking for that one little clue, that one little piece of the puzzle, always afraid that everyone--and no one--is watching him and plotting against him. I think it's that psychological condition more than any specific plot point that is the true object of the ending scene.


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PostPosted: Fri Jul 13, 2012 12:20 pm 
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But, at the end of The Conversation,
[Reveal] Spoiler:
Harry is playing the saxophone, then the Harrison Ford character (at least I think it's him) calls him on the phone and plays back a recording of the music Harry has just been playing. You might have forgotten this detail, but I'm pretty sure it proves the flat is bugged.


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PostPosted: Fri Jul 13, 2012 1:27 pm 
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[Reveal] Spoiler:
You're right, I had forgotten that point. Which doesn't mitigate the fact that Harry has now given over totally to paranoia as the fear of constant surveillance consumes him, with destructive consequences (demolishing his room is symbolic), as indeed he never finds what he's looking for. But I was definitely misremembering how indeterminate the threat actually was in the movie. Obviously the fact that he did not find the bug impressed me more forcibly than the phone call. Rewatching the ending, I don't wonder if the bug isn't in the phone, as it rings once with no one on the other end (as if the bug has to be activated), and only then rings the second time with the recording playing back just the last bit of music made after the first phone call. But therein lies the paranoia: it could be anywhere and nowhere. They could even stop listening to Caul the very next day and he'd still be in a paranoid hell. That's what I meant about the psychology of paranoia: there doesn't need to be an actual threat once you're in that mental state. And it doesn't really matter if they'll actually continue to watch Caul. He'll always think they're watching, and that fear and constant suspicion will cause him to see threats anywhere and everywhere if even they aren't there. That, anyway, is what I've always taken away from the ending, in which the threat of surveillance kind of hangs over everything with the camera panning back and forth and the bug seemingly never to be found.

So I still think the movie is more about the psychological condition of paranoia than, for instance, The Parallax View (itself fantastic). A film like that is paranoid as a movie, and we the audience may leave it feeling more paranoid, but it is not about the condition of paranoia since the lead is interpreting things rightly and his interpretations are constantly confirmed by the plot. The Conversation is about the compulsive need to draw out the sinister meaning behind a single sentence (a more truly paranoid act than following around shadowy figures who actually do have bombs and guns), a meaning that might be totally different than the one that had been assumed, and which the plot isn't constantly confirming. And it ends with the lead character possibly hallucinating awful images and tearing apart his life looking for a bug he may never find, the camera imparting an omnipresent sense of surveillance as it pans back and forth. Harry is now entirely in the grip of paranoia, and we can wonder if he'll ever stop searching for bugs and shadowy figures wherever he goes, if they are there or not. The movie allows that omni-directed fear to hang over the movie at the end and go unresolved, so I think it is trying to get inside that psychological state more than the others mentioned.


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PostPosted: Fri Jul 13, 2012 1:51 pm 

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Mr Sausage wrote:
[Reveal] Spoiler:
... But I was definitely misremembering how indeterminate the threat actually was in the movie. Obviously the fact that he did not find the bug impressed me more forcibly than the phone call. Rewatching the ending, I don't wonder if the bug isn't in the phone, as it rings once with no one on the other end (as if the bug has to be activated), and only then rings the second time with the recording playing back just the last bit of music made after the first phone call. But therein lies the paranoia: it could be anywhere and nowhere. ...


[Reveal] Spoiler:
Dont' forget earlier in the film a competitor claimed to have created a device to turn any existing phone into a recording device. That would coincide perfectly with the fact that the "message" was after the first phone call which turned his phone into a listening device. The fact that he does not remember this says much about his character.


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PostPosted: Fri Jul 13, 2012 2:00 pm 
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I like how the movie enlists you in its paranoia at that moment, making you look back through the movie to make connections on evidence with more portent than actual weight (an unverifiable claim, two phone calls and not one, the sinister import behind no one on the other line--all of which could be the real thing or white noise).


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PostPosted: Fri Jul 13, 2012 4:06 pm 
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I think it's probably time to spin off into a '70s Paranoia Classics' thread (if we don't have one already - we've probably got threads for The Conversation and The Parallax View, but disentangling this discussion would be awkward).

Sausage is right that in The Parallax View it's the film that's paranoid rather than the main character, which is one of the reasons why that film is so crushingly bleak, with
[Reveal] Spoiler:
Beatty doomed as soon as he sets foot in the trap, and the trap lies everywhere.


Something Sloper said reminded me that the Parallax Test might actually have a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't quality, since
[Reveal] Spoiler:
it's presumably testing for genuine recruits and for patsies. That whole sequence is so unnerving that you start worrying about your own responses.


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PostPosted: Fri Jul 13, 2012 4:49 pm 
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zedz wrote:
[Reveal] Spoiler:
Beatty doomed as soon as he sets foot in the trap, and the trap lies everywhere.

[Reveal] Spoiler:
The idea that the trap is everywhere ties in to what I love so much about the ending: how as he runs towards the doorway the shot makes it seem like he's running in place and it's the doorway, with its fatal guardian, that moves towards him. It's like as the plot goes on the whole world just leans in and exerts this massive pressure on him until he can't go anywhere no matter how hard he tries--he's trapped, running in place. Speaking of that, the ending with all the gangways reminded me of a rat in a maze. Makes quite a contrast to the earlier, very much conventional car chase which is the point where the movie seems most like a normal thriller, before the parallax corporation begins to intrude on the narrative and Beatty is increasingly framed within imposing and oppressive architecture. It's unnerving that no matter how far Beatty gets away from civilization, going out to the boonies or far out onto the water, the corporation reaches out and pushes him right back to where he started. It's a paranoid movie because almost the entire world can seem to be subject to a sinister design.


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PostPosted: Fri Jul 13, 2012 4:57 pm 

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What's so compelling to me about Parallax is the total uncertainty by the audience in the second half (after the "test") as to what exactly is going on. In the first half, we're on the same page as Beatty's character (sometimes even a step ahead); we know exactly his motives and intentions for his actions. After the test, though, everything becomes murky; it's uncertain what exactly Beatty knows about Parallax, and whether he's still operating as a rogue, truth-seeking journalist, or has already become initiated, brainwashed into becoming a Parallax patsy of some sort. And as this narrative confusion happens, so too does the style of the film become even more remote, more abstracted, more about surfaces than "substance"; we see the doorway but not what lies beyond the door. All this, of course, culminates in the lengthy final sequence set in that large, largely secluded convention center, to my mind one of the greatest things put to celluloid. I particularly love Small's ironically chirpy, ultra-patriotic score, with the marching band here, as we watch shadowy figures meet on the darkened rafters above (and Parallax "Security" men look down through a cinemascope-shaped window from their perch in an office). It's just masterful, unforgettable film-making.

I think my favorite shot may be of Senator Hammond arriving in his little golf cart, the sliding door slowly closing shut behind him as all light is increasingly sucked out of the screen, leaving total blackness at the end. God, Gordon Willis was such a genius. As great as Pakula was, I have to wonder how effective these films would be without Willis' utterly distinct vision.


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PostPosted: Sat Jul 14, 2012 7:15 am 
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Re: The Conversation.

Mr Sausage, I actually agree with a lot of what you say, especially about this film being more of a 'character study' than the Pakulas. Perhaps that's why I see it as having less in common with Antonioni - I don't really see any of his films as character studies. La Signora, Il Grido and Identification maybe come close, but even there I tend to feel that the protagonists are more embodiments of concepts or aspects of human relationships than fully-realised individuals. That isn't to say that they're not authentic, just that they reflect a worldview that observes individuals as more or less helpless elements within larger systems - in Pakula's hands this is more politicised, obviously.

It seems like what we're disagreeing about is the extent to which Harry Caul is simply paranoid, and the extent to which he is actually perceiving some awful truth that everyone else is lucky enough to be blind to - I tend to lean towards the latter reading. Yes, he ends up stuck in a spiral of self-destructive obsession, but he has every reason to be stuck there. His annihilated state is grounded on reality rather than mere perception, and as such he's more like Rock Hudson at the end of Seconds, or Paul Muni at the end of I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, or Caleb in William Godwin's original ending to Caleb Williams (a great novel on this same subject) than, say, Jack Nicholson at the end of The Pledge (tried to think of a better example but I'm drawing a blank). Having said that, I'd come back to the point I made earlier about Harry Caul
[Reveal] Spoiler:
playing the saxophone at the end. There is almost a sense of peace here, as if he knows there is nothing more he can do to resist the intrusion of dark forces into his life. His destruction of the Virgin Mary statue is a key turning point here. His tragedy has always been that he can't do his job without getting people hurt: one of the reasons he is so paranoid is that the people he bugged on a previous job ended up dead. But at the end of the film, he can at least retreat into his music - something that's just for him, something that no 'bugger' can really get to, and that is guaranteed not to place him or anybody else in danger. The camera may pan back and forth like a surveillance camera, but this also signifies that it is mechanical and inhuman. Harry himself stands out in that final shot as a vestige of humanity, victimised almost into oblivion, but still clinging on by a thread. In a way it's actually less bleak than the endings of La Notte and Red Desert, which I compared it to earlier. It's not totally unlike the ending of another great paranoid film from this era, Rosemary's Baby.


This discussion makes me think of Michael Corleone's trajectory in the first two Godfather films: on one level, when you get to the end of Part 2 you can see how the monster Michael has become has emerged from aspects of his character that were always there, even when he was trying to distance himself from the corrupt family business; on another level, you can see how that same monster is the logical outcome of the corrupt business Vito started up for much more sympathetic reasons (and, to put it differently, the logical outcome of the social circumstances that led to Vito's being in that position to start with). So there's that same tension between character and circumstance; it's why these films work so well as modern-day classical tragedies.


Re: The Parallax View.

'oh yeah' just said several of the things I was trying, less successfully, to say earlier, especially about Beatty's reaction to the test. As well as Blow Up, this strongly reminds me of Zabriskie Point: the student radicals, the orgy in the desert, the anonymous 'climax' at the airport, the imagined destruction of bourgeois idols at the end; it's all so detached and dispassionate. And when that sunset fades to black at the end, it's less the traditional symbol of the happy ending than an obliteration which swallows us all up. I love how these films put us into this state of mind where all definitions and distinctions seem to blur into each other and vanish. Antonioni is less frightened by this than Pakula - of course this goes back to the fact that Pakula is much more focused on politics, as such - and even finds a kind of beauty or release in it.

I also agree with 'oh yeah' about Small's score. As I said earlier, Shire was obviously asked to do something similar for All the President's Men, and does it very well; there, though, the music is more evocative of the quiet forces chipping away at the powers that be, whereas Small's score just sounds like those same powers that be quietly winning the day, which is exactly what they tend to do.


Re: All the President's Men

knives wrote:
Of course the Watergate story is a fascinating one, but it really doesn't scream cinema and a laid back style focusing on Woodward and Bernstein is probably the weakest way to go about things (I'd personally say Altman tackled the most exciting). Despite all of this possibility for failure (not even mentioning Peck 2.0 as one of the leads) the film manages to not just be great, but as great as these sort of things get. It's presenting a wonderful dissertation of the role of the journalist, presenting as factually as possible the ultimate tale of American corruption, and presenting a wonderful labyrinth of lies that finally reveal the truth. We have to believe these liars and understand the nature of the liar to work towards that golden object, truth. Best yet it does all of this in as entertaining a way as possible (had to be the inspiration for Zodiac) and further proves that everything is better with more Jason Robards.

Since we've moved to a new thread, I just wanted to quote the rest of knives' original tribute to this film from the Alternate Oscars thread, first of all because his reference to 'that golden object, truth' was one of the things that spurred me to post on this in the first place. I think it's a perfectly valid reading of the film, and in some ways the most obvious and 'correct' one, but I think one of the big things Fincher carried over into Zodiac was the sense that these seekers after truth actually lose sight of exactly what the truth is or might be, or why it matters. Fincher's film is more of a character study: we see three obsessive individuals destroying themselves for reasons that, as we gradually realise, have little to do with the Zodiac case itself, so that the 'revelation' at the end (which someone referred to earlier) really doesn't seem like a significant revelation at all - it's a totally, and brilliantly, bathetic ending. In Pakula's film the bathetic ending suggests (to me) that these forces of resistance might themselves still be trapped within a larger system they can't even begin to stand up to.

I also wanted to defend Robert Redford, who can be annoying but is in danger of being underrated. Trying watching Michael Ritchie's The Candidate if you don't believe me - I think Redford is terrific in that one.


Two famous phrases from the ending of another paranoid '70s classic spring to mind: 'as little as possible' and 'forget it, Jake - it's Chinatown'. They conjure up that sense of utter futility that defines so many American films from this period. Another one that I dimly recall is Elektra Glide in Blue -
[Reveal] Spoiler:
which joins Chinatown in that small, select group of films with tacked on unhappy endings. Marvellous stuff.


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PostPosted: Sat Jul 14, 2012 11:35 am 
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Sloper wrote:
His annihilated state is grounded on reality rather than mere perception

[Reveal] Spoiler:
Isn't the whole point, tho', that his his job and his identity--his whole state, really--is grounded solely on perception, indeed a perception that becomes increasingly unstable? He starts to doubt his earlier interpretation of the conversation, he 'discovers' a new possible reading of it (which could be entirely in his head), and chases down a murder whose evidence he could, in his panic, be hallucinating (the editing leaves room to suspect this). In the end he cannot even find the one thing a surveillance expert ought to be able to find, a bug, which guts him because he is no longer the outside observer, the one who's above it all, watching and explicating from a safe distance, exerting control by gathering hidden knowledge. He's now the one being watched (an even more isolating position than his former one), and that's significant considering people go into surveillance because they don't want to be surveilled themselves.

It's not that Caul is simply paranoid, or that he's like this for the whole movie. What I'm saying is that the trajectory of the movie is to leave him with paranoia, and only that, since the threat is not resolved. Consider two other possible endings and what they'd mean: 1. if Harry receives the call, hears the recording, is told he's being watched, and the movie freeze frames on his face before fading to black. 2. If Harry receives the call, ect., then tears his room apart like usual, gives up, plays his sax, only to suddenly realize where the bug is and pulls it out. If 1., the ending is about the awful sinking feeling of Harry now being in explicit danger, the focus of the conspiracy, and his immediate panic, surprise, and fear at this revelation. If 2., the ending implies he's paranoid and destructive, but that his knowledge and training will see him through to the other side with the further implication that he does at least have the tools to play this game.

The actual ending dilutes the explicitness of the danger in 1. by focusing on the psychological position it puts him in over a dramatic reinforcement of his own danger, and it avoids the feeling of capability and resolution in 2. by failing to resolve. Without that resolution, Harry must remain in a somewhat indeterminate state of worry. I'm not saying the threat of surveillance isn't real, I'm saying such a threat doesn't need to be followed up to have its effect. Since Caul doesn't find the bug, we can assume he will continue to look for evidence of surveillance just like anyone else would, and his compulsive, detail-obsessive nature will take over, analyzing and re-analyzing and piecing together the evidence of what could be a coherent plot or could be an empty threat, it makes no difference to his state. And with the possibility that he's already hallucinated once, we can imagine he may start seeing things that aren't there all over again. Point being, if he's surveilled or not makes no difference, he'll act the same either way.

I think one of the major implications of the movie is that when Harry's temperament is focused on other people, it's working constructively; but if his compulsions are turned on himself, they'll become destructive. Without the resolution of finding the bug, the movie leaves us in an indefinite state, and it's those types of states where paranoia fully takes over. Harry's carefully protected, hermetic world (symbolized by his apartment) has been invaded, leaving him to tear it apart while he looks for what he cannot find, his former security.

I've always thought the final sax playing to be very sad. It's really the only thing he has left, and he has to feel like there is always an implied audience.


EDIT: I made some small alterations in the first two paragraphs because I wrote this right after I got up and the phrasing was kind of wonky and hovering just outside of what I was trying to say.


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PostPosted: Sat Jul 14, 2012 2:12 pm 
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In some ways, I think the arc of The Conversation is the inverse of one of Michael Mann's standard arcs (as seen in, say, Thief)- Harry goes from a perfect state of no meaningful attachments and no permanent connections, walking through life protected by his little condom (the raincoat) and believing that as long as he maintains that state, he can feel neither guilt nor risk. The case broke through his caul, and everything inside of him comes spilling out nothing is safe and nothing can be protected.

[Reveal] Spoiler:
As such, I think the saxophone playing is intensely sad- it's not private anymore, and it may well be where they've put the bug. Harry's taken himself apart (including the little religious figurine) but he'll never feel safe again, because his extra skin is gone. It doesn't really matter whether they're all that interested in him.


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PostPosted: Sat Jul 14, 2012 3:35 pm 
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That's a nice observation, re: it being the obverse of the typical Michael Mann trajectory. Harry is a very paranoid, very frightened person, but he's built all of these mechanisms for managing that paranoia and turning it into something constructive. The movie slowly strips him of all of those mechanisms until he's defenseless, left with nothing but his own fear.


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PostPosted: Sun Jul 15, 2012 4:34 pm 
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[Reveal] Spoiler:
Mr Sausage wrote:
It's not that Caul is simply paranoid

Yes, that wasn't quite the right phrase to use - I didn't mean to simplify your argument, or imply that it was simplistic. I'm just more fixated on the idea that Harry has pretty much figured out what's happened, and perhaps even why it's happened. I re-watched the ending as well (love the floor tiles in the evil corporation HQ), and was struck by what the Harrison Ford character (turns out his name is Stett) says over the phone: 'We know you know, Mr Caul. For your own benefit, don't get involved any further. We'll be listening to you.' First of all, consider that first phrase: it suggests that when Stett sees Harry at the press conference, he knows from the look on Harry's face that he's figured it out. The Cindy Williams character sees this too. I think the following sequence showing what 'really happened' in the hotel room probably is accurate.

The question I've always been left with is, why was Harry hired to make the recording, and what exactly did the Robert Duvall character make of it? He appears loving and trusting in the hotel room, just before Frederic Forrest wraps the plastic sheet around him. Did Stett lure him into thinking he was one step ahead of the young couple, with the aid of the recording, which suggests that they feel vulnerable and threatened; but actually Stett was in league with the couple to help them get control of the company? That would suggest that Harry was hired specifically because they knew he'd be able to decipher 'He'd kill us if he got the chance', so that this would make Duvall think precisely what Harry thinks: that the young couple are the ones in the weaker position. This would certainly strengthen the idea that the new line reading at the end is a re-interpretation: 'They wanted me to hear it that way; but if they'd been honest it would have sounded like this.'

It's fascinating that the film cuts from the new line reading straight to a shot of Harry, in his apartment, playing his saxophone. Throughout the film, he's invested so much in an idealised vision of this couple, where he saves them (and especially her; remember he only meets her in the dream) from the bad guys and so vicariously participates in that idealised relationship. He trusts this relationship in a way that he can't trust any of his own relationships; and the moment when he realises what that sentence really means signals the disintegration of this ideal. He'd been assuming a simple battle between good and evil here (doesn't he say in the dream 'I'm not afraid of death, but I am afraid of evil'?), and obviously his religious faith feeds into this, but now he finds out the sweet young couple are cold-blooded murderers. And his response is to play the saxophone. Just before he plays it again, for the final time, we get a flashback to the couple in the park, exchanging sweet nothings; again, the film cuts straight from this to Harry on his saxophone. In the first instance it's a retreat, an acknowledgement that there's nothing more he can do with this case, and it's interesting that at first he plays along to a recording of a jazz band - this at least is a relationship he can fall back on. I guess anyone who's come away from a failed relationship and found solace in a good book or film can understand this.

But Stett takes this away from him by winding that 'conversation' - the one between Harry and the recording - backwards and then re-playing it to him. 'We own this as well.' It's ironic that Stett tells him not to get involved any further, as it doesn't seem like Harry was planning to do anything else. And you're right, Mr Sausage, that the emphasis then is not on the 'danger' he's in, but on his attempt to re-assert his dignity as king of the buggers. 'They think I won't pull my curtains down, but I will. They think I won't rip open this religious figurine, but I will. They think I won't tear off the wallpaper and the floorboards, but I will.' The music emphasises this sense that he is descending by stages, going to ever greater extremes to resist what's happening to him. Yes it's very sad, but there's also something a little heroic about it - one of the points I've been trying to make is that this film makes us love Harry Caul in a way that Pakula's films never ever invite us to love their protagonists.

The saxophone playing at the end is certainly more tragic than I remembered, and perhaps I have been straining a little in trying to make this seem like a redemptive ending. I remembered Harry as sitting more or less in the middle of the room, at the centre of the panning shot, but actually he's tucked himself away behind a wall, like a cornered rat. And just as Shire's piano has accompanied each stage of his descent up to this point, so now it returns to the theme from the opening of the film, emphasising once again Harry's solitude. In fact, he's accompanying the piano at this point, and complementing it beautifully; since the piano represents him and his isolation, I suppose you could say he's accompanying himself, in conversation with himself, and this marks that isolation as permanent and definitive.

But, to come back to the last line of the film, Stett also said 'We'll be listening to you'. What does that say about the bad guys? Someone is actually sitting somewhere listening to recordings of everything Harry does, and Harry's not doing anything besides playing the saxophone on his own. They played the music back at him to scare him into silence, and his playing at the end comes across as a final gesture of defiance: 'They think I won't play my saxophone, but I will.'

Nice comments on the raincoat/condom/caul, matrix - with this in mind I noticed that at the very end of the film, Harry's shirt is so soaked with sweat that it looks a bit like the raincoat, a thin, moist film through which his pink skin is clearly visible. In one sense they've taken away his privacy, but in another sense they really haven't. They underestimate him at every stage. Stett can listen all he wants, but in the end Harry knows what's been going on - he's more than a mere patsy - and conversely no one can gather any information about him, or really gain access to his inner life. So he is still king of the buggers at the end; he'd just be better off if he weren't.


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PostPosted: Sun Jul 15, 2012 4:55 pm 
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Further to this discussion, I rewatched The Parallax View over the weekend, and it just goes from strength to strength. At the end of the film I felt like giving Gordon Willis a standing ovation.

The climactic sequence is utterly masterful, constructed out of individual shots which almost all have an air of unease or positive dread. (Some very mild spoilers follow.) Throughout the film, Pakula and Willis go for long shots that are too long. While purporting to give you the big picture, they actually step back far enough to obscure information, or reduce the narrative information to abstraction. This particular nail is hit on the head by the matching shots over the opening and closing credits. In the climactic scene, this technique is coupled with a wonderfully alienating employment of extreme long lenses that crush depth. The above-and-below mise-en-scene of this sequence is already spatially disorientating, but the camera's treatment further pushes that spatial ambiguity into pure abstraction, so that in some shots, even when we can generally understand what we're looking at - Frady hiding under the walkway, suspended high above the convention centre floor, say - we still can't quite piece together all of the elements of the image (Is that a beam, or part of a wall? Is Frady immediately behind it, or is it further in the foreground? Is that dark line there the walkway or something else?), and the abstraction of the image rather suggests a figure being crushed between the real world and a sinister underworld, except that those worlds have been flipped. Frady is marginalized throughout this sequence, as in the masterful shot in which he's crushed into the extreme left of the frame while shadowy backlit figures approach him from the background. Again, this is an optical illusion created by the long lens, since they're not actually closing in on Frady at all. As was said above, by this point it's the entire film that's paranoid, so everything we see is tinged with dread: a window with three men in it; the same window with no men in it (which is more sinister?); an apocalyptic sliding door shutting out daylight; a rare close-up (of a fumbling tuba-player, of all things); a motorized golf cart seen from on high like a tiny beetle scuttling among red, white and blue pebbles. And it's not as if we can trust our other senses, with the sound in this space being amplified, distorted or completely disengaged from the events occurring on screen (specifically with the continuation of Hammond's speech).

This whole sequence is a masterclass in suspense and disorientation, but all of the film's suspense / action set pieces are beautifully crafted. Even the car chase, which is by far the most conventional sequence of the film, has the smarts to end very abruptly after only a couple of minutes. The barroom brawl that preceded it manages to keep itself fresh by taking the opposite tack, being much more ruthless and extended than you'd expect, given the narrative situation. And much of the tension in the airline scene doesn't come from any traditional 'countdown' element, but rather from anxiety over Frady's problem-solving.


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