Saturday, July 14, 2012

Some notes on the opening of The Conversation

Over at his excellent film blog, Scanners, Jim Emerson has an ongoing feature called the Opening Shots Projects. Here's its rationale, in brief:

1) The movie is about what happens to you while you watch it. So, pay attention -- to both the movie and your response. If you have reactions to, or questions about, what you're seeing, chances are they'll tell you something about what the movie is doing. Be aware of your questions, emotions, apprehensions, expectations.

2) The opening shot (or opening sequence) is the most important part of the movie... at least until you get to the final shot. (And in good movies, the two are often related.)

The opening shot can tell us a lot about how to interpret what follows. It can even be the whole movie in miniature.

(The full (I assume) list of films discussed is here.)

In the spirit of these examinations, I want to try my hand at writing one of these for the opening shot of Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 film The Conversation.

The short review, first of all: This is a first-rate, tightly-constructed suspense film worthy of Hitchcock. (Indeed, at a couple of moments it seems to pay quick homage to Vertigo via the films' shared San Francisco setting, but that's a subject for another post.) Its real subject, though, is its central figure, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), and his gradual emotional investment in the task he's been given despite his usual ability to remain detached from his assignments. For a couple of reasons, I am considering showing The Conversation to my Comp classes in lieu of the Hitch films I've been showing, and the only thing that makes me hesitate is the film's slow-paced middle section: most of it does nothing to advance the story, but it's absolutely vital for our understanding of Harry.

Here's the clip, via Turner Classic Movies (you might want to follow the link to see the full image as it plays):

The discussion is below the fold.

This high overhead shot of Union Square has to be one of the slowest zoom-ins in cinema. Lately, I've become fascinated by how static and nearly-static cameras hold our attention in ways that rapid cutting does not; this film is filled with such shots, and so the opening is already preparing us to be patient and watchful. Our eyes sweep the space we're shown; we look for something without (yet) having any clue as to what that something is.

The credits play an interesting role in all of this via their placement on the screen relative to the scene: though the frame is, at first, centered on the median that forms the square's central axis, the credits appear in in the lower-right corner of the frame, balanced by the grey space of the promenade that, as the shot tightens, will come to dominate the entire left-hand side of the frame. Thus, the viewer's attention keeps getting pulled back and forth between that space and the text of the credits. Thus, the credits' distracting us from watching the square creates in us, before this movie about surveillance has even begun, the great fear that we're missing something. (Why else would the camera be taking its own sweet time zooming in?) From about the 1:10 mark on, though, the shot has become tight enough that the credits--now listing those unimportant people who, you know, actually made the film--are now superimposed over the median, which allows our attention to shift over to the promenade. Perhaps for the first time, we now notice the mime; perhaps, we wonder, he will be this sequence's subject, at least for a little while.

The audio for this shot is surprisingly quiet; its ambient, faraway quality befits the positioning of the camera high above the proceedings, isolating us emotionally even as we wonder what, if anything, we are looking for. The first clear sound we hear is a small jazz ensemble playing in a Dixieland style, the most prominent instruments being the clarinet and tenor sax. The tenor sax, we'll learn, is Harry's instrument of choice--and,

and, we'll learn, forms an aural bookend for the film. (Image found here.)

For a little over a minute, all we hear is the ambient noise drifting up to us from the square; then, at the 1:05 mark, we suddenly hear a bubbling electronic sound of some sort that ends as abruptly as it has begun. We're given no explanation for it. We'll hear a similar sound at around 1:45, again with no clue as to what we're hearing, but from then on it will recur more frequently in the scene--clearly, then, it is something of significance for this scene--and, well learn, for the film.

During all this time--from about 1:10 to about 2:12--the camera's attention, or at least that of our eyes, has been on the mime, who keeps in nearly constant motion, moving both with and against the general flow of traffic in the square. At the 2:12 mark, though, the mime begins to circle a man on the edge of the crowd. This man is balding, he's wearing classes and a grey translucent raincoat. (It's a cool but sunny December day.) Harry Caul's raincoat effectively names him before we actually know his name; he wears it even when he's lying in bed with his girlfriend Amy (Teri Garr). Moreover, in scene after scene some sort of membrane-like material will be interposed between Harry and the audience. There is much more to say about this coat, but we don't yet know this.

From 2:12 till about 3:04, Harry will begin to walk away from our vantage point, the mime following him for a bit. At the 3:04 mark, the point of view suddenly shifts: we seem to be at or near ground level, looking up (perhaps Harry's perspective?) toward the large City of Paris sign on a rooftop, a man sitting under it. Another cut, and now we're on the roof observing the man; he's pointing what appears at first to be a rifle but is really a specialized microphone with a rifle scope on it. A few seconds more, and we'll peer through the scope with him as he watches a couple (Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams), the earlier electronic sounds burbling in earnest now. This unintelligible sound, we suddenly realize, is why we're here, but as to what it means . . .

These three-and-a-half minutes here are the film's essence in a nutshell: the introduction of the plot and principle characters; the establishing of jazz as a leitmotif that will run up to and including the last scene of the film; the introduction of its central themes of surveillance and the decoding of language. It's brilliant in and of itself; as a kind of Cliff's Notes for the entirety of the film, it's hard to imagine how it could be more effective.

1 comment:

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