An absurdly bad discussion
of The Conversation
over at Slate
. As often happens, the critic lets his politics run away with him, which would be embarrassing enough in a political column, but deadly in an artistic one.
The critic, Benjamin Strong, is all over the place. He wants to comment (stupidly) on the politics of the Nixon era, the Ford/Carter era, the Reagan era, the 60s and today so badly that he twists his cinematic evidence beyond recognition.The Conversation
is a 1974 Francis Ford Coppola film, shot between his two Godfather
epics. It features Gene Hackman as a wiretapper who gets too involved in a case with disastrous results. It's the kind of paranoid, downer film that was much more common in late 60s, early 70s Hollywood. The film is suspenseful, but fairly dark and hard for the average audience to take--it was a box-office disappointment even though Coppola and Hackman were at their commerical height.
This is not how Strong sees it. At the end, Hackman fears he himself is tapped and literally rips up his apartment searching for the bug. The film (by chance--Coppola had the ideas years before) was released while Nixon was ensconced in the Watergate scandal. Here's what Strong has to say:
Coppola's original audience was still waiting for its criminal president to face justice, and surely Harry's crackup was cathartic. At the very least it was profitable.
Huh? Because Nixon wasn't yet out of office, the audience enjoyed seeing Harry go nuts at the end? I don't get it. And then Strong insists that this film, which failed, made money. Why?
Strong goes on to list conspiracy thrillers made throughout the Ford and Carter years, but even he knows we still make them with regularity. (Heck, Gene Hackman keeps making them--Runaway Jury
, Enemy Of The State
, Absolute Power
.) So he has to claim they were somehow different once Reagan was elected. He chooses poor old Blow Out
(1981) to prove his point.Blow Out
is about a sound editor who records a car crash, which leads to his attempt to unveil a conspiracy. However, by the end, the conspirators have succeeded in their coverup. How does Strong read this? Simple. In the sunny Reagan era, no one wants to know the truth; Blow Out
failed at the box office--no one wanted to hear bad things anymore. (Perhaps it was the downer ending. Even the big hit conspiracy films of the 70s that Strong lists, such as All The President's Men
(1976) and The China Syndrome
(1979), in addition to being very well made films, had their conspiracies revealed to the public by the end.)
He then goes on to claim, 25 years later, "the America of Blow Out
, with its bleak atmosphere of futility and collective denial, has become distressingly familiar." His proof (read it yourself, I'm not kidding): the pessimistic thriller Syriana
and the Bush administration's argument for wiretapping. Leaving out the silly political claim, which I don't even have the energy to go into right now (I'm exhausted enough following Strong's incoherent argument about film), I think it's worth noting Syriana
is hardly symbolic of Hollywood right now--not in its subject, message or style.
Not content yet, Strong needs to misread yet another film and era. He claims not only is The Conversation
"optimistic" compared to films today, but so is Antonioni's Blow-Up
(1966). He feels the film is about a fashion photographer roused from his apathy (i.e., doing his job and having sex with models) into action. Hmmm. I seem to recall the "action" was mostly blowing up photos until the photographer become uncertain of the nature of reality itself. (Good ol' sunny Antonioni.)Blow Up
and The Conversation
(not to mention the darkest conspiracy film of them all, The Parallax View
(1974)) can be read in various ways, but to see them as optimistic because they believe the truth is out there (something any X-Files
fan can tell you) if you search hard enough, while pretending that all the films made in the last quarter century that were far more likely to have happy endings where the good guy unveils the conspiracy are the opposite, is just bizarre.
If you want to get the bad taste out of your mouth, here's a decent essay
on The Conversation