Can you explain to me the ending of Coppola's "The Conversation"?
December 8, 2016 8:41 AM   Subscribe

I don't want to put a spoiler on the front page, but if you've seen this film you probably can guess the question. SPOILER INSIDE.

After lots of processing, Caul, and we, are able to hear the couple say, "He’ll KILL us if he gets the chance.” After the couple kills the Director, he listens again and now he hears, "He'll kill US if he gets the chance."

How is this not cheating on Coppola's part? I've read online that this is merely showing Caul's inability to parse humans, that he didn't pick up on the emphasis the first time, but with the knowledge of what actually happened, he then hears it differently. But the emphasis is not subtle, either in how FFC portrays it or even in real life.

To me this is the retcon of all retcons and it really got in the way of the film for me. Can anybody make me feel better about this otherwise fantastic movie?
posted by stupidsexyFlanders to Media & Arts (7 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I hear you (pun!) but I always felt it was just to dramatize the fact that he heard it (at least) two different ways. If my memory is correct, we never have a god's eye / independent view of the conversation. We only hear it through his equipment and from his perspective. Add to that the fact that he is cleaning, tweaking, sweetening, etc. the audio to make it clearer, so changes in volume and clarity of certain parts wouldn't be out of the question.

That's how it struck me anyway.
posted by The Deej at 8:49 AM on December 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yeah, for me that sense of - wait what just happened - heightens the complicity with him. Like we've been cheated, he's cracking up and paranoid... I think the film wouldn't work as well if it were open and shut. Maybe that's just excusing the retcon though!
posted by benadryl at 9:05 AM on December 8, 2016

Yes, the idea is (and it is not crazy of you to take it as a cheat! but you can also choose not to) that the revelation is not just about what the couple were up to, but specifically about the fact that what we were hearing was Caul's POV all along. Here's are a fews quotes from the sound director, Walter Murch, on this point:

"most unexpectedly, we discover that Harry has--all along--mentally altered the cadence of the line, which is hypersubjectivity, because of what happened in the past"

(it turns out that...) "the whole film is singularly and fiercely made from Harry's point of view"

"what sabotoges him is the mental filter, the subjective filter that chooses to hear an inflection that isn't really there, because of his own past history"

That may well not satisfy you, of course! Anyway, all this and more is from this book of interviews between Murch and Michael Ontaatje.
posted by redfoxtail at 9:23 AM on December 8, 2016 [8 favorites]

It's been a while since I've seen it, but from what I remember it's less a retcon and more just a cementing of how unreliable Caul's perspective is even as far as the ostensibly objective tape recording. I don't think we're meant to take the change in inflection as a literal altering of the sound on the tape, but a shift/collapse in Caul's ability to derive 'objective' information from the tapes.
posted by griphus at 9:27 AM on December 8, 2016

I saw it as a kind of unconscious bias, that Caul misinterpreted what he was hearing because of what he thought was going to happen. But he only really heard it once he knew and understood what had actually happened.
posted by essexjan at 9:55 AM on December 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

I've seen this movie so many times that I'm ashamed to admit that it was only the last time, a couple of years ago, that I caught this. I had thought that the end was just, "oh, he's pissed and discouraged because someone got a bug on him for a change." Afterwards, the irony appears in that he maintains throughout the movie that he doesn't care about the content, doesn't get involved.
posted by rhizome at 12:17 PM on December 8, 2016

Best answer: Christopher Ricks reviewed the film when it first came out (the review is reprinted in his essay collection Reviewery) and was troubled just as you are by the suspicion that Coppola was cheating:
I would have been tempted to bug the two key moments: that of Caul's listening to the tapes, and that when the words' true significance breaks hideously on him as he comes to hear them ring differently in his head. For I believe that what we are given is not the truly terrifying fact that the same words, with the same stress, can muster appallingly (lethally) different meanings, but the falsely thrilling fact that a film can muster excitements out of the rigged clash between eight words unambiguously stressed on tape and those words when they are again unambiguously but this time differently stressed. The eight words in a manuscript would all have been without stress; they would have been ambiguous, but preconception could still have stifled the ambiguity. But the words on tape had their clear stress.
Even if we assume that Coppola wasn't cheating, Ricks points out that this still presents us with a difficulty: "it would still have to be explained why the ears of the Director (whose preconceptions were very different from Caul's) deceived him, so that he apparently heard, misheard, in exactly the same way as Caul".

I hesitate to disagree with Christopher Ricks, but my reading of the film is rather different. What hits Caul at the end of the film is not new knowledge, but new uncertainty. He doesn't know what was really said on the tape, he doesn't know what really happened in the hotel room, he doesn't know whether his intervention made any difference .. and he will never know. And because he's the kind of person he is, that uncertainty hits him much harder than any knowledge possibly could. We can tell it's going to gnaw at him for the rest of his life.

That, to me, is what makes the film truly great as a commentary on the sick paranoia of its time. Ricks, writing in 1974 in the aftermath of Watergate, assumed the film was about conspiracy. Now, in 2016, we can see that the film is actually about conspiracy theories and the state of mind that creates them. The essence of paranoia, after all, is uncertainty. Who knows who killed Kennedy? The true obsessive will go over the case again and again without ever being able to reach closure. The Watergate tapes have faded into history but The Conversation remains relevant and disturbing, because its true theme is (in Richard Hofstadter's famous phrase) the paranoid style in American politics.
posted by verstegan at 1:01 PM on December 8, 2016 [9 favorites]

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