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Historical Markers of the Modern Soundtrack

8   The Conversation   1972 - Francis Ford Coppola (USA)
  Distortion & misperception   Zones of audibility; private & public space; sonic stability; psycho-acoustics

Profile: Francis Ford Coppola & Walter Murch

Francis Ford Coppola is part of the 70s group of American directors trained in filmmaking from US film schools and conversant in both the history of American cinema as well as contemporary trends in European cinema. Along with other directors like George Lucas, Stephen Speilberg, Martin Scorsese et al, this group of filmmakers were interested in combining the Hollywood studio style of story-telling but with an auteur-driven model of direction. This had particular ramifications for how these directors approached all technical aspects of the filmmaking process - almost as if they were individually overseeing all departments of the filmmaking process as distinct to the tradtionally demarcated and divisional mode of production developed within the Hollywood studio system.

In terms of sound, this meant that these directors were integrally involved with the film score and sound design of their films. All these directors were professed lovers of music and have been responsible for fostering new talent, styles and approaches to film scoring. They also were attracted to new technological developments in location recording, studio recording and post-production editing and mixing (George Lucas being most notable in his development of the THX sound system for hi-fidelity theatre-sound playback).

Coppola is notable for collaborating with sound designer Walter Murch - the man responsible for coining the term. Walter Murch sound designed THE CONVERSATION and APPOCALYPSE NOW for Coppola, as well as AMERICAN GRAFITTI for George Lucas. He was a key player in this largely Marin County-based group of filmmakers who ultimately regarded themselves as American filmmakers rather than Hollywood filmmakers, particular as their methods of production (initially in their developing period through the 70s) were displaced from the studio-related facilities in Southern California.

Walter Murch has written on his approach to designing sound and his ideas have been very influential o sound editor, recordists, mixers and designers in the 80s and 90s working in the US. Murch is notable for devloping the concept of 'worldizing' sound - that is, processing and treating any sound to match the acoustic nature of its screen-related depiction. AMERICAN GRAFITTI is his ultimate statement on working sound according to these acoustic principles.

Close Analysis: THE CONVERSATION (1971)

THE CONVERSATION is based around Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) - a surveillance recordist, bugger and tapper whose specialty is recording people's conversations. He is hired by a variety of people for these clandestine operations, but he is never concerned with their reasons for hiring him, nor what they will do with his supplied tapes. Harry is only concerned with obtaining a strong, clear, legible recording: he is not interested in what people are saying, only that you can hear what they are saying. He is thus a dehumanized microphone. Harry is engaged in recording a particular conversation which he ends up listening to at a deeper level than usual - he actually wants to listen to what this couple he is recording are saying, to understand what exactly they are talking about and what consequences may befall them and others if this recording is handed over. In shifting his consiousness so fundamentally from his usual mechanical mode of operation, Harry's world starts to fall apart.

1. Opening scene. A single long shot with a slow zoom in onto a crowded city square full of people on their lunch break. The distant sound of a busking jazz band is audible. The slow zoom in suggests we are being led to something, however we have no idea who or waht to focus on. Throughout, strange interjections of noise occur. These moments are revealed to be distorted snippets of voice. It becomes apparent that this perspective is a surveillance perspective of one of the recordistics with a tele-photo microphone. The scene then cuts between a variery of different perspectives, showing eventually the undercover recording team moving within the square, pluys the couple this team is attempting to record. The sound, however, is continual and in uninterrupted real-time. Sound therefore occupies the totality of space; visionis the fragmented attempt to sonically match and encode that totality. Moving into a mobile van, the sound of the square continues, revealing that all the sound we have been hearing is in fact the multi-track unmixed live recording (all simulated for the film) which documents the attempt to capture the couple's conversation. This recording will be replayed throughout the film. This first version is its raw encoding on tape: location sound.

2. First piano cue. This covers shots of Harry leaving the van, travellling, and returning home. The score by David Shire is solo piano. It symbolizes the figure of Harry - his disposition, his emotional self as viewed from the outside. The piano music evokes the bar piano-player - a site where depressed, lonely and insular people gather. The music semiologically and phonologically evokes this style and presence of music. The theme is like a down-tempoed ragtime, overlaid with a trilling chromatic line which is like a slowed down quote from Flight of the Bumble Bee. All these facets combined present the music as drained of energy, lifeless and listeless, lacking in momentum and isolated - characterizing Harry Caul. Throughout the film, this theme appears over segues and transitional moments when Harry is getting from A to B: void moments where he is lost within himself. His body language communicates his world-weariness as he slumps and trudges forth, plastic raincoat trailing, framed as a solo shape against the urban downtown spread of anonymous buildings. This is the existential state and location of Harry, as the music of these moments while soft in performance and volume is mixed above any location sound, suggesting Harry is always disconnected from his environment. His mind is always somewhere else.

3. Harry's apartment. This space is a hermetically sealed zone. It is bare and devoid of character because Harry is never wishing to disclose anything about his personal life or his personality. Within this space is silence: it is 'dead' in both the acoustic sense - recording booths in studios are 'dead' so as to not colour anything within with 'live' characteristics - and the emotional sense - Harry hinself is emotionally 'dead' and blends perfectly with this space. The space is thus baffled, not unlike the acoustic baffling used in recording studios to 'deaden' the reverberant quality of the space. This zone is comfortable to Harry, because his own inner being is emotionally baffled, giving rise to the repression that shapes his pysche.

4. Harry's plays sax. Harry's only contact with life as such is when he plays saxaphone along with a 'live' jazz recording. Dead himself but appearing to be alive, his self-projected intergration into the live recording is his fictious and psychologically therapeutic way to deal with his 'deadness'.

5. Harry at work. Harry's loft space is similarly empty and expansive. At one far end is his caged work area: symbolically controlled and demarcated as a controlled environment. There he works on the recording from the square. We witness his mechanisms, techniques and techologies with which he procures and remixes the recording into greater clarity. Over this sequence, we see images from the beginning of the film replayed: this is Harry re-picturing the layout and perspective of the space. This second version of the recording is its sifting and separation from background noise - clarified sound.

6. Harry's love interest. Harry's affair with Terri Garr isone where he pays for her apartment as a love nest which he frequents for emotional/physical contact. He doesn't listen to him - just as she appears dead/dumb to his complete refusal to reveal anything of himself to her. Harry treats her like someone he is surveilling - paranoid of her true identity. The apartment is a replica of both his work space and home - it is another 'isolation booth' that maps out his world.

7. Harry listens to the tape. After becoming suspicious of his employer and not being able to deliver the tape recording to the actual person who hired him, Harry pays the tape an even closer listen. He uncovers a line in one particularly difficult section due to excessive background noise of congas: "He'd kill us if he had the chance." Harry is suddenly wracked with guilt and unease. He has crossed the threshold from being a microphone to being an ear: he is actively listening to the words spoken and making sense of them. This second version of the recording is a personally shaped and defined mix and mastering of the tape's contents - interpreted sound.

8. Harry visits the priest. As a recorder of others' voices, Harry eases his guilt by going to the confessional in an act of 'speaking to the listener'. This is one of the few moments where Harry can converse with others in a personal way - but here it is under terms of his anonymity and the priest's contract of silence.

9. Harry's party. During the party we are given a complete overview of Harry's methods, procedeures and operations, including the strategy for recrording the conversation at the beginning of the film. During the party, Harry opens up to a hooker who seems bent on finding something personal about Harry. As his world is slowly transforming through guilt, unease and his gradual corruption of personal ethic to be nothing but a microphone, Harry talks intimately with he. However Harry has had a bug planted on him by a colleague - the colleague plays it to the party gathering causing Harry to become enraged and throw everyone out. The ultimate incursion and invasion for Harry is not just to open up, but to be recorded.

10. As Harry's world starts to fall apart following his discomforting conflicts with his corporate employer, the piano themes accompany Harry, but now they are often distorted. They use the same devices that Harry uses to clarify his recordings, but now they render the score oppressive, claustrophobic and noise-laden. As Harry gets his recording of the conversation clearer, his musicalised self (as symbol of his lonely world-weariness) becomes muddied and distorted, reflecting the build-up of anxiety within him.

11. Harry in the hotel. Harry locates next door to the couple of the conversation, thinking that they are going to be killed. Immobile to confront them personally face-to-face, he attempts to bug them. However his mind is so addled he is no longer a microphone, but a mere human, bound to subjectively interpret rather than objectively record. All sound thus become noise: he imagines all sorts of sonic and visual terror - including overlays of the wildly processed/distorted piano themes - leading him to drown out the noise in his head by turning up the TV loudly.

12. Harry returns to the corporation thoroughly wracked with guilt but is powerless to do anything. There he witnesses the two people he presumed dead - and also reads in the newspaper that the girl's father who employed him is now dead. Suddenly he hears in his head the salient line from the recorded conversation and comprehends its true meaning: "He'd kill US is he had the chance". He comprehends that they killled the father.

13. Powerless, Harry returns to his home and plays silence. But a phone call informs him that he is being bugged. Now thoroughly exposed to himself and the outside world, he rips apart his house not only to locate the bug (he doesn't find it) but to pull asunder all the baffling and covering and deadening he had been using to isolate and control his inner feelings and responsibilities.


Complete contents of this page Philip Brophy