One of my all-time favorite opening shots in film history is this one from Francis Ford Coppola’s THE CONVERSATION. This bird’s-eye-view of the plaza is the very first thing we see in the film; this bright sunny day in San Francisco, activity everywhere, people dotting the canvas like splotches of paint on a canvas, and shortly, the sound of two voices.
One female, one male, having a private conversation. What they think is a private conversation anyway. We hear every word of it, and we do so for the most part without seeing them. Are they walking near that monument, are they seated on the avenue, are they perhaps sitting in this lofty perch from which we have zoomed in? The film takes great delight in not telling us until it has to…wanting instead for is to look and to listen.
In a way, this is the film putting us to work. It knows our desire to match faces with voices (and further, our desire to match them both with context), but it doesn’t want to just hand us that answer. To do so would be doing what every other film does. To do so would cost us less attention, less focus. As our eyes dart from person to person, we extrapolate our ideas on to the sources…thinking about age and dress. We try to match our expectation with the reality in front of us.
It’s a trick that would be echoed in other films before and after (both BLOW-UP and LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE come to mind). It’s a situation that requires a particular blend of observation:
Look too closely and you stop hearing. Listen to closely and you will not see. This fatal flaw ultimately undoes our hero Harry Caul; a man so intent on listening that he fails to truly hear. This fatal flaw undoes so many heroes in fiction trying to solve their own versions of this puzzle, heroes that stare so intently they miss the nose on their own face.
Something about this shot – and the way the camera pushes into it and sweeps around – feels like the most elegant version of that classic challenge to “Look and Listen”. It begs the viewer not just to consider the scene but to become part of it – to feed those birds, to dodge those children, to walk a lap of that plaza. It wants us to fully grasp what’s going on with the strangers in the scene by becoming one of them; not by observing from seven stories up.
There’s a contradiction interwoven into this post. Here I am going on about attention, awareness, and being a part of ones surroundings…talking about both looking and listening. Yet as I write this, I am standing on a crowded subway car, Jack White’s guitar blaring in my ear, my head crooked down as I tap these words into my electronic gizmo. Through the corner of my eye I can see that the woman standing egg teen inches to my left is wearing blue & white, but I couldn’t tell you if her hair was brunette, blonde, or red.
THE CONVERSATION is a dare for us to look and listen more closely. Nowadays, it feels like a plea for us to look and listen at all.
Here’s three more from THE CONVERSATION for the road…
This series of posts is inspired by the “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series at The Film Experience. Do check out all of the awesome entires in their series so far