In the last two nights I’ve seen The Hurt Locker (in theaters) and The Conversation. I’ve lumped a review of them together, because they each share very high quality but somewhat limited artistic ambitions. Both movies are well worth watching, but their smallness excludes them from the very first rank of the cinema. The films are small and self-contained, yet perfectly crafted.
Each movie focuses on a tiny core of well-realized characters. The Hurt Locker has three: Sergeants James (the wild man who defuses the bombs) and Sanborn (the fraying professional who fears he won’t survive the rest of his deployment), and Specialist Eldridge (the newbie wracked by guilt at his failure to save a former comrade’s life). While there are many excellently-acted smaller parts in The Conversation, that story is entirely focused on just one man: Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul, the Catholic surveillance expert (“the best bugger on the west coast”), painfully awkward, antisocial and paranoid; who denies the role of his conscience but is beset by guilt over some of his past work.
Each movie tells its story entirely from the perspective of those main characters. This drives their tremendous creative achievenments, which are firstly of perspective and mood. Both films pull the audience into the immediacy of the character’s lives to an extent that’s almost impossible for a more ambitious movie. Compare The Conversation with The Godfather; the latter is clearly the better movie, but there the audience feels for Michael Corleone, whereas a viewer of The Conversation feels like Harry Caul.
The Hurt Locker gives its audience the same sensation of dull, inexorable terror that the soldiers themselves experience. Its plot is simply an accretion of mission after mission; the only through line unifying the movie is the emotional states of our characters. At the beginning of each mission, we see the amount of days in their tour that our heroes have remaining — a ticking clock counting down the minutes to the emotional release the audience will feel once we know who has survived. Each mission is hazardous — they could die at any time — but no one mission is likely to be fatal. This constant high suspense, inflicted on the audience over and over again, mirrors the unrelenting bursts of fear that our soldiers are forced to confront again and again until finally the clock clicks down and their fighting ends.
Like Hurt Locker, the plot of The Conversation is fairly simple; Harry Caul records a seemingly innocuous conversation on behalf of a powerful man (“The Director”); he becomes obsessed with the meaning of the recording and the possible harm that could come from its use; after the recording has left his hands, he then tries to discover the consequences of his action. Unlike The Hurt Locker, Coppola’s movie’s plot is far more directional (it conforms to the typical three-act plot structure) and has a natural forward momentum as Caul tries to discover the meaning of the conversation and then must decide what to do about it. This forward-movement, however, serves to align the viewer directly with Harry Caul. We too want to uncover the hidden meaning of the recording; we too share Caul’s surprise at seeing his employer’s assistant watching Caul at a surveillance convention. As the movie goes on, we begin to share Caul’s paranoia (he triple-locks his door, doesn’t tell his lover anything about himself, and tells people he has no phone) at possibly being observed.
Interestingly, whereas The Hurt Locker aims to give the viewer an understanding of the way its soldiers feel, The Conversation’s topic is surveillance more broadly. Identification with Caul’s character helps us see this: at one point at a party he asks his dancing partner a question that reveals a great deal about himself emotionally; it turns out that his odious professional rival, Bernie Moran, has recorded his conversation and plays it to the rest of the party as a joke. We feel Harry’s sense of violation at this intrusion of his privacy (Coppola sets this up beautifully both by showing how awkward and private a person Harry is and by making Moran an incredibly vivid asshole). Nevertheless, although Harry is a vehicle for the audience’s visceral understanding of surveillance, our identification with him is not total. Most notably, our desire to know a secret from Harry’s past that is mentioned early renders us voyeurs starved for the kind of understanding Harry hands over with his recordings.
Both movies wrap the audience in an omnipresent mood; their smallness enables this, but though small in scale, these movies have much to say about their times — The Conversation was released in the midst of the Watergate scandal, and The Hurt Locker comes as more troops go to fight in Afghanistan. Neither film makes a direct political statement, but the messages contained within them are no doubt important, and, to my mind, they each represent the height of socially-conscious artistry, showing the audience part of the world and then letting us draw what conclusions we may.
I’m on break from school now; I wanted to do something entertaining but at least somewhat edifying. To this end, I’ve decided to try to explore classic foreign films (my knowledge of foreign cinema is quite low). So far, I’m taking out (of the library) the following movies (though I won’t necessarily watch them all). I’m looking for other ideas (in particular Latin American filmmakers and French New Wave), so if you have other suggestions, I’d definitely love to hear them:
- La Dolce Vita
- 8 1/2
- Seven Samurai
- Through a Glass Darkly
- Fanny and Alexander
- Spirited Away
- Princess Mononoke
Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso
Mikhalkov’s Burnt by the Sun
Mereilles City of God
Lindvisqt’s Let the Right One In