Hearing The Conversation
A celebration of and inquiry into humble sounds
by Luke J. Corbin.
What it is, how it came to be and who was involved.
The Conversation was a passion project lucky to be turned into a feature film. Hemmed in between director Francis Ford Coppola’s blockbusters The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II, and reluctantly supported by the studio system, it stands as an adjunct to its New Hollywood director’s steady rise in success throughout the 1970s. Less financially fortunate than its neighbouring films, The Conversation nevertheless gained substantial critical praise and was nominated for three Academy awards, including best sound.
The sound nomination was particularly well deserved as few films allow sound to function in such a way as The Conversation does. Sound is the primary premise of the entire film: its membrane-inspired protagonist, Harry Caul, is a professional surveillance expert, or “eavesdropper”, earning profit in exchange for the invasion of people’s privacy. The Conversation’s plot and narrative revolve around Harry’s usage of technical sound equipment and his interpretation of audio information, in this case the recorded titular conversation. A tantalising task, mixing sound for The Conversation was never going to be merely foley fun – it had to be an eruditely executed endeavour.
Sound is so important to The Conversation that Coppola refers to the entire film as “a sound composition”. As director, Coppola was the artist most responsible for the film’s picture and sound. However, The Conversation would not have the sound mix it does today if Coppola hadn’t engaged the elementary and esteemed Walter Murch to guide his vision. Murch is credited as Supervising Editor, Sound Editor, Sound Montagist, and Sound Re-Recordist and was responsible for the cohesion of all audio elements, including the dialogue, sound effects and soundtrack, and was second only to Coppola in post-production authority.
Eventually winning best sound Academy awards for Apocalypse Now and The English Patient, Walter Murch in 1974 was a young sound artist who had not yet shaken up the old order of cinematic sound. Claimed by noted peers as “the film world’s one intellectual” and “being quite superior at sound”, Murch had previously worked on a string of New Hollywood projects. This list includes The Rain People, American Graffiti and THX 1138, and even the tragic, infamous Gimme Shelter.
Where it sits, who its friends were and what else was going on.
When the first batch of baby boomers graduated from film school in the 1960s they started making anti-authoritative, innovative films, creating a new filmmaking climate retrospectively termed “New Hollywood”. From cinematography to sound design, things would never be the same again, and although the movement eventually ended with the birth of the blockbusters Star Wars and Jaws, New Hollywood’s legacy and impact upon filmmaking is still felt in all areas of motion pictures today. The Conversation came at the mid-point of the movement, when director Coppola was already dictating the economic and creative terms of his films and Murch was successfully experimenting with new sound techniques such as “worldizing”.
As an artistic and technological practice, film sound was a very different beast by the time of New Hollywood than in its beginnings. Competing claims abound for the title of first ever “sound film”, from Edison’s violin record to The Jazz Singer, but regardless of these early efforts the true potential for film sound wasn’t arguably discovered until the sprocketed 35-millimeter optical sound track was perfected in 1929. At this juncture, all that was potential became possible. Fritz Lang’s M stands as a testament to the new opportunities the optical sound track presented, with its dynamic sound editing, haunting acousmêtre and recurring leitmotif enhancing all areas of what still remains a very disturbing piece of cinema.
Film sound debates were prolific in this period, with hectic theoretical banter occurring between Soviets such as Pudovkin and Eisenstein, and Americans such as Basil Wright and Alberto Cavalvanti. It was possibility that was paramount, and the best way of harnessing it. Film practitioners’ were becoming aware of the fact that sound could fundamentally alter the way a motion picture was received. There were restrictions, such as immobile cameras and noise interference, but Ken Dancyger’s analysis of the first British sound film, Blackmail, highlights how filmmakers were already transcending the technological limitations of the day, and prefiguring the next great revolution in film sound.
This revolution came about in the 1960s, when the introduction of technologies such as the lightweight Nagra III magnetic tape recorder, smaller lavaliere microphones with radio transmitters, graphic equalizers and multi-track mixing boards “allowed for film sound to be reconceptualised and remobilised” in exciting new ways. This was the state of film sound technology when Murch mixed The Conversation. Recording had become portable. The opportunities this allowed sound makers of the day were unparalleled in history. But zooming out slightly, it is important to locate film sound within the broader historical context of sound itself. It would be remiss of us if we did not take a cursory glance at what else was going on in sound at the time of The Conversation outside the sphere of cinema.
When Murch was a young boy during the 1950s he would come home from school and listen to musique concrete, which he says “raised the hairs on the back of my neck”. The arrangements of the real-life sound symphonies were similar to what Murch as experimenting with as a kid, and touched a definite nerve in the boy’s early thoughts – it was a long way from Beethoven, one of Murch’s other favourites, but he knew at that moment that “this was the future!”. Sound luminary John Cage was also shaking things up when Murch was a young man, and Murch was fortunate enough to have a father “tangentially involved in Cage’s world”. Murch therefore attended Cage’s concerts, and was moved by “the idea of what he was doing, taking humble sounds out of their normal contexts”. These experiences laid the groundwork for Murch to choose sound as his career and eventually be the first person to be called a “sound designer”.
With our final lens, it is pertinent to explicate the political context of The Conversation – which was released in the last year of Nixon’s beleaguered and abbreviated term. The U.S.A was reeling from Watergate, the biggest political scandal in its history, and The Conversation fitted into this zeitgeist perfectly. As scholar W. Russel Gray suggests, “Reports or rumours of electronic espionage as well as assassinations and alleged conspiracies had become the subjects of headlines and film thrillers (at this time)”. In other words, the capability of sound technology to intrude upon private space was very much in the filmmaker’s and American audience’s consciousness.
Although The Conversation belongs to this political climate, it is also connected to other works outside of it. Entering into the inter-textual, Dennis Turner claims that The Conversation has a filial relationship not just to Steppenwolf, but also to Antonioni’s Blow-Up, Cortizar’s story of the same name, and a parental relationship to De Palma’s later released Blow-Out,” providing an original context to make meaning of the film. Eminent film philosopher Noël Carroll agrees, stating that “both The Conversation and Blow-Out sharpen their edges through the central theme of voyeurism”.
Fundamental features, bewitching moments and areas of attention.
“In the same way that painting, or looking at paintings, makes you see the world in a different way, listening to interestingly arranged sounds makes you hear differently”. No film plays on this truth more than The Conversation. With its central narrative twist relying on the protagonist’s (and audience’s) interpretation of interestingly arranged sounds, The Conversation reflexively uses the simple device of vocal inflection and more complex explorations of the ontology of film sound in order to define itself.
Turner writes in the Wide Angle journal that “Harry Caul, who has functioned as a distant observer, now himself becomes the vulnerable target of distant observation”. He continues, “instead of recording experience, Harry is actually creating it, though he is not in full control of his creation. As perception is mediated through his surveillance technologies, Harry is truly incapable of knowing anything conclusively. Perhaps this is one of the most salient arguments couched in the film text … surveillance technology and its technicians may be more directly involved in creating reality rather than making a record of it,”.
Arguments such as those outlined above presuppose a sound mix that not only suffices for The Conversation to tell its story as a motion picture, but actively resonates and contributes to the film’s themes of sound, surveillance and alienation. Walter Murch used several techniques to achieve this level of reflexive quality in The Conversation’s sound mix. One such technique that permeates the entire film is the use of pre-laps (starting the audio of a scene before cutting to the visuals). As Murch stated in an interview, “The Conversation is certainly a film about sound, and if you use pre-laps, it sensitises the audience to sound”. When the audience hears audio from the next scene leaking into the previous, they are queued to the artifice of the sound, and are asked to ponder what this means. Consider the end of the sample below, and listen to how the saxophone slowly fades into focus over the flashback of conga music.
Murch also uses real-world sounds that are plausible in the film’s world, yet are completely non-diegetic, to heighten the emotional impact of some scenes. He works this way because “if you stretch it too far, it just becomes absurd. You haven’t given the audience enough of the circle to know whether it’s a circle or not”. Murch is referring to the audience’s capacity to accept the sound as believable, and therefore be affected by it, or not. This approach is displayed in the sample below, where Caul discovers that a murder has taken place in the room next to him, quite possible because of his own surveillance activities. Instead of a completely unrelated shock sound, such as a nuclear explosion, Murch plays with the high frequency of a train whistle (one of his staples) in concert with spare, deliberate, use of the piano soundtrack to render a jolt to the audience.
This cooperation between sound effects and soundtrack was the result of the unique method used to score The Conversation, and Murch expands upon this in his DVD commentary for the film. The original music for The Conversation, best described as something of a piano treatise, was composed by David Shire. He was hired early, given the script and asked to come up with theme music before the film had even started shooting – a most irregular procedure for a feature film at that time. Then, when the cameras started rolling, Coppola played the theme music on-set, allowing the actors to comprehend the texture of the music and respond to it. The entire soundtrack was finalised before Murch started post-production, allowing him to bounce sound effects off the soundtrack and use Shire’s music in innovative ways.
But, as important as sound is, it is nothing without its slippery counterpart: silence. Murch tries to incorporate serious silence three or four times in every film, usually at points in the story where he wants the audience to use their “sonic imagination”. We hear this clearly in the sequence where Harry is listening to the titular conversation for the second time, after fleeing the Director’s building, an extract of which is included below. Caul is suspicious, straining his ears, and the audience finds themselves drawn into this void, the intent world of an audio expert stopping, playing, winding and digesting in silence. There seems to be an audio binary of only the tape and the silence – but in reality there is much more than this. When Caul clears the signal, and hears the words he’s been looking for, the penny drops and we hear nothing, until the soundtrack creeps up on us slowly – a discovery has been made.
Impacts on its contemporaries and influence on the industry.
The Conversation was a critical hit and its sound mix was recognized by those in the field by its nomination for an Academy award. However, Murch’s innovative and experimental approach was not taken up by the majority of sound artists at the time. As Beck puts it, “The use of sound in The Conversation was possible because of the freedom of the sound mixer to work closely with the director and to marshal the soundtrack to the services of the narrative. But this innovation was short lived in its potential. Concurrent with films like Star Wars in 1977, Dolby Stereo introduced new rules of film sound recording and mixing that effectively served to cover the gap created by prior sound experiments”.
But The Conversation does teach a keen lesson – it upsets the visual dominance of film with its reflexivity through audio. Previously, film sound had stood perpetually in support of its visuals, as Murch is first to admit: “whatever virtues sound brings to film are largely perceived and appreciated by the audience in visual terms”. Thanks to Murch’s sound mix, the audience is taught during the length of The Conversation to pay close attention to the sound, not just to the visuals. The film is important because it encourages active listening, and highlights the importance of interpretation. When we listen, we interpret, and if we ever forget that, if we become passive listeners … well, we’re no better off than Harry.
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