Friday, July 04, 2008

The Conversation by Francis Ford Coppola

The Conversation is a grave character study of a man who is extremely moral and professional, but whose very professionalism clashes with his morality. As a professional, he professes to do his job and leave the consequences of his work to others. He seems totally oblivious to the inherent inhumanity of his work, which is to eavesdrop on others. And finally, in a climactic moment, this inhumanity wreaks his world apart, literally and figuratively.

Privacy is a human notion, and in many films, e.g. in Bergman's Shame, its violation seems to strip people of their dignity and humanity. Those involved in eavesdropping and surveillance rarely realize, or perhaps realize too well (and revel in that power and dominance), that freedom is meaningless without the freedom to be on one's own, without anyone policing one's private thoughts, emotions or acts.

Humans have a unique capacity for self-reflection and internal dialogue, and this makes us private individuals by our very nature. Some of us feel uncomfortable when left alone, but for some of us, solitude is a much-needed respite from crowds, noise and frivolousness.

To trust someone mostly means entrusting him with a piece of information. To betray someone is to exploit that trust to one's advantage. Therefore, it is also betrayal, one no less heinous, to peer surreptitiously into someone's private life (and thus get private information without the act of entrusting by the other).

It is also a betrayal in some sense to not open oneself to people close to one. If I know more about you than you about me, I have power over you. And if you gave yourself away to me because you trusted me, my remaining opaque is an insult towards that trust. This expectation of reciprocity of trust can also be misused. Psychopaths reveal false but intensely private details about themselves in order to elicit your most intimate thoughts.

In the aftermath of the convention, Harry Caul, brilliantly played by Gene Hackman, in a rare moment of vulnerability reveals something intensely private to himself.

The sense of violation that he feels when he finds out that his words have been recorded and listened to by others does not make him question his life and work. But it does make us question.

Human communication is inherently ambiguous without proper context and the mental states of its subjects. Surveillance focuses on what is visible, what is verbal, what is written down, the overt acts. This assumption of understanding another by a few acts is also a form of violation, because as humans, we seek to be understood in our entirety, not by our isolated acts.

When finally, the weapons of surveillance are switched on towards Harry Caul, rather than by him, his world falls apart. He is reduced to an abject persona, unable to say anything except play his musical organ.

Because after all, if one does not speak, how can one be heard?

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