Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Francis Ford Coppola in my head: The Conversation

| by Justin Thomas |

An idea. To punish Michael Bay for his seizure-inducing edits he should be made to watch repeatedly the opening shot from The Conversation. This punishment would be a great deal of fun to watch because he’d turn into a hyperactive five-year-old, antsy, unable to sit still, jonesing to get up and do something, anything, and it’d eventually drive him so nuts he’d get up from the couch, race to the window and jump through it. There’s no way he’d be able to sit through the zoom, to understand drama doesn’t need a camera on a bungee cord or lightning-fast cuts to occur, to see how the very length of the zoom helps establish the movie’s tone. Ha, ha, take that, Michael Bay.

Of everything in The Conversation my inability to take my eyes off it surprised me the most. Behind Enemy Lines was a poor choice, and there are many poor choices in his filmography, but Gene Hackman has a screen presence among the best I’ve seen, and he carries well Francis Ford Coppola’s insistence on patience in unfolding the story. He understands the need to just be there and not necessarily do anything to be Harry Caul, which is at the opposite end of the spectrum of the archetypal paranoid movie character. Hackman was the right performer to pull off Coppola’s design for how to tell the story, which even without mind-blowing visuals kept my eyes focused on the screen.

The Sixth Sense has a twist ending; if you paid attention enough you might have caught the clues and figured it out but if you didn’t then the movie pulls the rug from beneath your feet and you have to watch it again to find the clues. The Conversation doesn’t have a twist ending; the ending illustrates the theme and forces the audience to go back and rethink each scene in context, doing the opposite of what led Harry to only one conclusion as to what “he’d kill us if he had the chance” could mean. That line isn’t a clue. The line is about how we perceive what’s being said, when it’s being said and precisely how is it being said, and the fact it can’t really be known. It’s perception versus reality, and after Harry finally meets the Director, The Conversation stops giving definitive mile markers as to when it’s in reality and when it’s not.

My only complaint with The Conversation is not about the movie itself but what I brought into it and what I imagine happened behind the camera. When Harry is on the phone, walks out of frame and continues talking while the camera remains still before finally walking back into frame, in my mind I could hear Coppola providing the direction. Because I’ve watched so many interviews with him I have a Francis Ford Coppola running in my head and I “know” how he’d say it. It’d be very dramatic, very old school, jodhpurs-and-beret wearing director pontificating about how his idea would elicit the key emotional response in the audience and how they’ll love it in Pomona. Coppola’s presence in the movie was distracting but didn’t ruin the experience, and I don’t think his presence is an illustration of the auteur theory. I’m getting to the point to where I might need to stop watching Francis Ford Coppola interviews because I certainly don’t want the Francis Ford Coppola in my head being too loud when I eventually get around to watching Jack.

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