Please note! This essay has been submitted by a student.
There are many aspects we can cite from the film The Conversation, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, that run parallel with the themes we find evident in other films that would be considered American Independent films. Coppola’s films work to bend the traditional rules of Hollywood filmmaking. To begin, one aspect that American Independent films are usually void of is a very distinct sense of closure. Often times, we find that these films don’t give us the closure we need and often times force the viewer to take an introspective view of the ending of the film. Many directors employ methods which force the viewer to realize that the entire premise of the movie is completely fictional and made up so that they must take aspects of their own lives and connect them to the film. In turn, this makes the film very subjective, affecting each viewer differently.
Generally what we see is that something somewhat drastic happens at the end of the film which introduces a subjective aspect for the viewer. In the instance of The Conversation, the film is essentially just about a person who is trying to perform their job, but they are unaware of what is being done or what they are being used for. In the ending scene of the film, we can see that Coppola is working against the formation of closure, leaving us with an ambiguous close to the film. This film also works deeply as a detective story. Traditionally, in Coppola’s films he captures the stages a person comes to know and accept himself through making peace with their vices. In the case of The Conversation, the film is split into a time period spanning six days, with each passing day Harry continues to his final descent into madness. It is evident that this film captures a more personal side of Coppola, leaning away from the commercial techniques which can be cited in some of his other works.
At the end of The Conversation we learn that it is actually Harry who has been wiretapped, someone who had taken drastic measures to secure his privacy and life. The end scene is very frantic, consisting of Harry ripping his apartment apart in order to search for the planted surveillance device. However, with his apartment destroyed after failing to find the device, he sits amongst the wreckage attempting to assuage himself with the only item that was ‘safety’ for him, his saxophone. This ending doesn’t actually provide us with the sense of closure that we would need to feel secure in the ending. We never find out anything past the fact that Harry has been wiretapped. His apartment is destroyed and he is left playing his saxophone (which becomes a reoccurring symbol throughout the entirety of the film) which leads us to think, could the wiretapping surveillance device be hidden within his saxophone, since that is the only object that he didn’t destroy? This film kind of works as a paranoia/psychological thriller which seems to come full circle at the end of the film.
We are presented with this idea that Harry lives a very secure life, he has taken drastic measures in order to guarantee his privacy. In the beginning he directs all his mail to a private box at the post office that does not have any keys, only a combination after he is suspicious that his neighbor had been snooping through his mail. In the end of the film this desire for security and privacy goes to his head when he realizes he has been wiretapped. We truly experience the frantic psychological thriller aspect of this film through a wide array of techniques that Coppola employs in the film. Many aspects are manipulated to provide us with a sense of disarray and unfamiliarity.
The technique in which Coppola employs the use of sound is a familiar aspect that is often manipulated in other examples of American Independent films we have viewed in class. In the film there are many overlays which include muffled voices, taped conversations, bits and pieces of fragmented talk and electronically produced noises accompanied by musical piano which provide us with a distorted almost undecipherable aspect of sound. This is continued through the film and kind of comes together as Harry pieces together the couple’s conversation that they recorded in the park at the beginning of the film. In addition to this, Coppola also uses a soundtrack of all piano music which he specifically plays when Harry is deep in thought about something.
The repetition of the audio recording also contributes to a sense of madness which the viewer goes on to experience themselves. Harry plays the tape over and over again, the lines “he’d kill us if he got the chance” specifically playing constantly throughout the film. While Harry descends into delirium after convincing himself that the couple he recorded is going to be murdered and he can intervene to stop it from happening, we find this recording playing more often. The constant repetition of this shows how this recorded conversation has resonated in Harry and how it is reflective of his irrational thoughts and paranoia. This film is somewhat structured around that phrase in it’s entirety, which all in all gives us a chaotic feel from Coppola.
Again, on the subject of repetition, when it comes to visuals, Coppola repeats the scene where the two (who are presumably engaging in marital infidelity) are meeting in public. These images and sounds begin to resonate not only within Harry, but also with the viewer conveying this sense of irrationality and delusion.
This kind of sound that jumps around and feels chaotic is representative of the plot line of the film itself when it comes to Harry’s life. The techniques that Coppola employs in the film reflect the consistent theme of paranoia that we feel throughout the film which surrounds Harry and his thoughts. Firstly with the sound being frantic and chaotic with the sound at times, making the actual conversation and words being spoken inaudible. We also listen as Harry combines, repeats and deciphers different sections of the recorded conversation which make it also give it a frantic feel.
Another aspect that Coppola manipulated were the shots that he used in the movie. In the beginning of the movie, the first scene is of a couple walking through a crowded square that is bustling with people. This scene jumps around in terms of the shots, from one group of people to another. We can vaguely put together that this couple is being recorded without their knowing, but past that we have little to no information on what is going on. It seems at times choppy, which parallels with the audio we are subject to during this scene; it is composed of electronic noises and bits and pieces of the couple’s conversation.
However, in addition to this, Coppola also utilizes a wide angle while filming, which provides open and spacious scenes and allows for the viewer to focus in on what is happening. The moving camera invokes a sense of deep focus as well throughout the film. Another technique Coppola seems to employ is always keeping Harry in a dark shroud of lighting. In the scene where he is speaking with his mistress on his birthday and again when the recorded audio tape plays in the background as he is kissing her. Even when Harry is in the church, the entire atmosphere is very dark and you can only see a vague highlight of his face during this time. This shadowy view of Harry perpetuates this darker side of Harry which really becomes evident as his irrational paranoid thoughts begin to further set in.
Another shot Coppola incorporates into the film a great deal is the panning shot, which provides the viewer with an abundance of visual information as well as a strong engagement between the audience and the total environment of the film. This shooting technique is especially used at the end of the film when the phone rings and Harry stands up to retrieve it, but there is only a dial tone. During this scene, he ends up discovering that he had fallen victim to electronic surveillance. However, what is unique about these pans is that they are not entirely smooth, the appear hesitant to follow the movement that is occurring in the film. Then finally, while Harry is amongst the wreckage of his apartment, the camera pans around allowing the viewer to fully take in all of the surroundings- which is just the entire destruction of Harry’s apartment, which he ravaged in a fit of madness.
Traditionally, we see that films associated with American Independent Cinema often reflect public issues and problems that America faced around the time of their release. Conveniently, Coppola’s film was released two years after the Watergate Scandal involving Richard Nixon. Coppola’s film focuses in on themes congeneric to destruction of privacy, voyeurism and the heightened concern over civil liberties violations. Richard Nixon resigning from office after being caught in the scandal revealed that not only did he get caught, but he also failed to even do well after wiretapping. Coppola’s film is reflective of this newfound paranoia during this time where the general American population was worried about the destruction of their privacy.
There is also a strong link to religion and Christianity in Coppola’s film. We are presented with this scene where Harry goes to confession at Catholic church to be forgiven of his sins. Then again while he is destroying his home, he comes across a Virgin Mary figurine. He seems hesitant to destroy it at first while on his mission to find out where exactly his apartment is bugged, but soon after he rips into it destroying it, only to find nothing inside.
There are an abundance of techniques employed by Coppola which reflect his ties to American Traditional Cinema in his work The Conversation. The techniques used range from camera shots, sound effects, lighting effects to visual aesthetics. In addition to this, this film encapsulates the public issue that had risen two years prior to this film with the Watergate Scandal, which had caused America to delve into serious problems surrounding the issue of privacy and government restricting upon civil liberties. These themes which are evident within the film represent not only the current issues of America, but also some insight into Coppola’s personal life, especially seeing as that this film is cited as being one of Coppola’s most personal works.