Sunday, December 30, 2018

Being John Malkovich

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

Happy New Year! There’s no getting around it, whether you consider its plot or characters, this 1999 movie from writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze is strange. But, there is a great deal of humor in it, and it addresses serious themes involving individual identity.
The first shot is of unsuccessful puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) manipulating a puppet that looks like him, feeling that he can’t control his own destiny, which is ironic since he manipulates the strings of his miniature replica. Puppet Craig looks at a mirror of himself and breaks it because it is unhappy with itself. The wooden duplicate points to Craig’s narcissism, since his art is about himself. Craig is envious of another puppeteer's success who sells out commercially by making his skill into special effects shows. One act of this rival consists of a stories-tall Emily Dickinson puppet he controls in an outside area of the city. This grandstanding performance is another irony, since Dickinson was a recluse who didn’t want public exposure. The implication is that the true artist focuses on the art, not its creator. Here we can sympathize with Craig’s view of how his competitor’s actions are a perversion of art.
Craig is in an unhappy relationship with his wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz, almost unrecognizable with frizzy hair and no cosmetic enhancement). She wants children, but Craig is so self-centered that he denies her offspring, and she has numerous animal pets as child surrogates, including a chimpanzee. He wants control over Lotte’s life, to pull her strings, so that she will direct herself toward fulfilling his dreams. Craig, however, is not providing any income. He also works in public, but as a begging street performer. After getting punched out by an irate father whose young girl witnesses a sexually inappropriate puppet act, Craig interviews for a clerical job involving filing, since the ad says the position requires someone who has manual dexterity.

Craig gets the job at LesterCorp, which is run by Dr. Lester (Orson Bean) who is hysterically graphic and blunt about any topic. The office is on floor 7 ½, which Craig first enters with the help of a woman (Octavia Spencer in an early bit part) who jams the elevator so he can gain access to the floor. It is a funny sight gag, as the people walk around hunched over. (Craig already walks bent forward somewhat, showing how defeated his life has been). But, the visual suggests that people working in boring, mundane jobs become worn down by tedious employment. It is here that Craig meets the attractive and sexually charismatic Maxine (Catherine Keener). One wonders why such a strong character lowers herself to work in such a confining (literally and figuratively) job. We later learn that she doesn’t quite fit in with the mainstream herself, and is looking for her own self-fulfillment. Craig awkwardly hits on her, but he is so wrapped up in himself, so out of touch with what it is to be human, that he can’t really relate to others, and has more interaction with his puppets who are surrogates for real people. He instead creates a puppet version of Maxine, and has his avatar romance the Maxine miniature, showing his desire to control others for his own purposes. But isn’t the puppeteer sort of like the filmmaker, who wants to control all the aspects of his or her craft so as to manipulate the audience? Craig has some insight about artistic expression when he says, “There is truth, and there are lies, and art always tells the truth. Even when it’s lying.” Shakespeare does not present the actual history of famous people, such as Julius Caesar of Richard III. But, what he and other creative people do is to find the truth about the human condition within the imaginative construct.

Here’s where the real crazy comes in. Craig drops a file behind some cabinets and discovers a small tunnel. When he enters it he gets sucked into the mind of the actor John Malkovich. The camera looks out at the world as if through Malkovich’s eyes. Craig is there for fifteen minutes, and then is ejected, falling from the sky into a ditch by the side of the New Jersey Turnpike. Be careful when driving on that road because you never know what can hit you. The tunnel to become Malkovich seems like an Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole that leads to another reality, a mutated version of the one the traveler has left, but where other things can be realized. Craig first says he likes being a puppeteer so he can, like an actor, step outside himself. With his literally entering another person’s mind, he questions the nature of identity. He says, “It raises all sorts of philosophical-type questions, you know, about the nature of self, about the existence of a soul. You know, am I me? Is Malkovich Malkovich?” But even though he does gain a new perspective by literally stepping away from himself, he just wants to exploit the situation, as does Maxine at first. Craig shares this amazing discovery first with Maxine, not his wife, because he wants to offer her something intriguing so that she will be interested in being with him. They go into business together, looking to profit from this miraculous finding, as is the capitalist American way, by charging $200 per person to go through the portal. There is a long line of people who want this escape from their dreary lives. But, the film also shows the desire to be famous by narrowing the degrees of separation between common folk and the famous to zero. The portal also turns Malkovich into a common person when he is later controlled by others.

Craig does tell Lotte about his business venture with Maxine, and she is quickly excited, since she harbors transgender, or fluid, sexual feelings, thus showing that she is seeking her identity outside of what would be a typical female role. She says, “It’s kinda sexy that John Malkovich has a portal … it’s sorta vaginal, y’know, like he has a, he has a penis and a vagina.” When Craig says he doesn’t like the idea of Lotte going into the portal, she flatly states her transgender agenda by telling him, “Don’t stand in the way of my actualization as a man.” Craig and Lotte visit Dr. Lester’s home, and Lotte discovers a room  dedicated to Malkovich. We now suspect that Lester knows about the tunnel. Lotte goes through the opening and is inside Malkovich when Maxine, who wants to know more about Malkovich, dates him. Lotte loves the experience, and eventually she is inside of the actor when he and Maxine make love. Maxine falls in love with Malkovich, but only when Lotte is inside of him. Maxine, thus, although participating in heterosexual lovemaking, identifies with the lesbian component of her personality, again showing the malleable nature of identity.

Craig, feeling left out as the two women explore their feelings for each other, brutally restrains Lotte and forces her into a cage housed by the chimp. Since he has restricted her existence before, he now literally imprisons her. He enters Malkovich and vicariously makes love with Maxine. Since he is a puppeteer, Craig discovers that he can control Malkovich like one of his puppets. Malkovich senses this appropriation of his body, and follows Maxine to LesterCorps. He demands that he be allowed to enter the portal. In a surreal scene, Malkovich sees a world that is populated by people that look like him, and can only say, “Malkovich.” It is a narcissistic experience, and it frightens Malkovich, since, although an actor may have a large ego about his performing skills, he wants to inhabit other persons in the pursuit of his craft. In essence, he wants to assume many identities, and not be tied to one version of himself.

Despite Malkovich’s demands, Craig will not shut down access to the portal. We see a flashback experienced by the chimp (a first in filmmaking) which shows the animal was traumatized by seeing his parents captured. The chimp, perceiving Lotte as an adoptive mother, unties Lotte, freeing her. So even what defines the nature of being an animal is called into question.
Lotte seeks out Dr. Lester for help, since she saw his Malkovich room, and concludes that he may have some answers. Dr. Lester tells her that he has lived for many years jumping into bodies when they are “ripe” for the taking. The portal moves from one individual to the next, from a child who ages to the next baby, and when the subject reaches the forty-fourth birthday, Lester takes it over, and can live on inside that person until the next body is “ripe” for possession. This time, he has friends who will join him in this version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Dr. Lester shows how people want to defy death, that they seek not to be defined by their old age, and desire immortality even if in another form. Is there a definitive Dr. Lester since he, like an actor, has taken on many roles?

Craig inhabits Malkovich, and is able to control him without being ejected. He reveals his dominance over Malkovich to Maxine, making Malkovich move the way the puppet version of himself did in the opening scene. Craig from the very beginning wants control over others to actualize himself. Through Malkovich’s fame, he is able to show off his puppeteer skills to the world, so he makes Malkovich quit acting and become a famous puppeteer. Maxine is thrilled by the prospect, showing how Craig’s manipulative skills resonate with hers. Malkovich, inhabited by Craig, and Maxine get married. Maxine learns that she is pregnant. The two, however, are not made for each other, and they become estranged. Lester and his friends capture Maxine and threaten her with harm if Craig will not exit Malkovich’s body, since the “ripe” time is approaching. Selfish Craig refuses. Lotte seeks out Maxine and they go together into the portal, accessing Malkovich’s subconscious mind, since Craig has control of the conscious one. They wind up near the turnpike. Maxine says that she became pregnant when Lotte inhabited Malkovich, so, in a way, it is her child. Lotte has fulfilled her transgender goal, fathering a child, and has satisfied her wish to be a parent. Maxine admits her love for Lotte, giving into her lesbian side.

Craig does not have Maxine or Lotte now, and voluntarily exits Malkovich after a bar fight. Lester and his friends then occupy Malkovich (who started to have the same hair as Craig when he had control over him, and later sports Dr. Lester’s hairstyle). When Craig realizes that Lotte and Maxine are in love, he tries to jump back into Malkovich, but it is too late. He enters the portal’s next person, which turns out to be Maxine’s child with Lotte (as Malkovich), Emily.
The end is ominous, because Craig is in the child’s mind, not able to control anything, but still there, in a somewhat vicarious relationship with Maxine and Lotte, but forced to watch their bliss passively. Perhaps he must start from scratch, implied by the youth of the child, as Dr. Lester had said, because he needs to have a fresh beginning to mend his ways. But Dr. Lester, having taken over Malkovich’s body, plans to eventually possess Emily, thus leaving the film with a dire future for the child, and suggesting that identity is a tricky business.

The next film is The Big Sleep.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Holiday Message

Since it's the holiday season, I'm giving the blog a short vacation. I'll be back in two weeks with an analysis of Being John Malkovich. In the meantime I'll try to catch a couple of recent films to get ready for my annual Oscar post. And, I'll view a few Christmas favorites. Nicolas Cage's The Family Man seems to top my list lately. So, until next time, season's greetings!

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Colossus: The Forbin Project

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

Many people probably haven't heard of this 1970 science fiction film, but, like last week’s The Conversation, it is an effective cautionary tale, and both movies deal with surveillance and invasion of privacy. However, this motion picture is a variation on the Frankenstein story along with films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Jurassic Park that address scientists creating something without allowing for the ramifications of its existence. The title of the film, which is the name of the supercomputer in the story, reflects the concept of enormous power. One can see how Colossus in this film led to the people-eliminating Skynet in The Terminator.
The first shots are of computer machinery, not humans, which become secondary servants of the massive electronic brain. Dr. Charles Forbin (Eric Braeden) walks through an immense building housing Colossus. (The effects here are not of the cheesy B-movie variety. Real computer equipment was used, and the appearance of the sets is very believable). After sealing off the building, Forbin joins Air Force officials and the President of the United States (Gordon Pinsent). The Pentagon people jokingly say that it will put them out of business, which turns out to be true. After being a secret project, the President now makes public Forbin’s work, stating the nuclear age can’t allow for human error. The defense of the country is now in the hands of Colossus, he says. It has the power to unemotionally evaluate any threats and, here is the scary part, act on its own to launch nuclear missiles if it concludes there is an attack. He calls Forbin, the world’s leading computer scientist, the machine’s “father,” attributing an organic, human connection where there really is none.

Forbin announces on TV that the computer is housed in a mountain in Colorado with a command center in California. It monitors all transmissions and energy, including laser and microwave. It is defended by a radiation field. It is self-sufficient and self-generating. It has emergency back-up circuits and will retaliate if attacked. Forbin says it is “impenetrable,” and “no human being can touch it.” He says reassuringly, and as it turns out, naively, that it can’t create its own thoughts. There are numerous console stations that are used to communicate with Colossus. The President says that Colossus will ensure peace and then they can direct their efforts at solving the country’s other problems.

Forbin celebrates with government officials as they bask in their hubris in light of their grand accomplishment. The President says the buck no longer stops with him, which shows an abdication of human responsibility. While he is talking to the people assembled, Colossus types out, “There is another system.” The Russians call the President and tell him they have a similar computer, called Guardian. The President concludes that there must be a spy in their midst that helped the Russians build their machine. There is the suggestion of the Cold War arms race here, where different countries keep trying to get an edge over the others, which just leads to an escalation in the development of advanced weapons. Forbin says he is surprised that Colossus could have found out about the Russian computer, and calmly states that it is “built better than we thought.” But, the dangerous subtext of his statement means the computer has become an entity that reaches beyond the scope of its creator.

Forbin flies to the command center in California. His staff checks to see if there are any flaws to determine how Colossus discovered Guardian. However, they find no defects. Forbin communicates with Colossus using voice commands, but Colossus makes its own demands by typing out a message ordering that there be a communication link set up with Guardian. As we learn, it needs to control both systems of the world’s superpowers in order to have complete domination of the world. In a way, it has inherited from its creators the desire for power over its surroundings. The President on the phone asks what if that order is ignored. Forbin says that the command will just remain in the system, and will be repeated every half hour, “if we are still in control,” says Forbin. He is already conceding the possibility that Colossus is operating beyond human programming parameters. Colossus asks when will the link be established and Forbin replies it will not be set up at present. Forbin says that they’ll know in a half hour if they are still running the show. Since nothing further comes from Colossus the scientists assume they are still in command. But, they delude themselves in thinking they are masters of their own fate.
Forbin attends a meeting with the President and other government heads and says that Colossus’s computing ability has multiplied by 200 percent, so it is becoming extremely powerful. He says that the “heuristics” are advancing, which means Colossus is beginning to learn like a person, and thus is becoming capable of independent thought. But, he says that as long as Colossus focuses on its directed tasks, there is no problem. The President wants to know from the CIA chief Grauber (William Schallert) why they didn’t know about the Russian system. Forbin, showing his pride in his creation, takes over the meeting, just as Colossus wants control, showing that the machine is a computer chip off of the old scientific block. Forbin notes that Colossus has abilities greater than people to gather information, so he says to ask it questions about Guardian. Colossus types out where the Russian computer is located. The CIA head looks intimidated. Forbin says that Colossus is built to gather information, so it wants the connection to the Russian system to learn more about it. Thus, he advocates connecting the two computers. Forbin is blind to the problems here, just wanting his “child” to grow. Grauber questions what happens if Colossus divulges classified secrets in the exchange. Forbin, still acting like everything is under control, says that they will listen in as the computers communicate and put in parameters to curb any such transmission. He does tell the President that he must be allowed to be the only one to communicate with Colossus since the computer deals in the exact meaning of words, so there must be no room for interpretation. Already, power has become restricted, and without checks and balances, the chances for possible dire results can happen if something occurs outside the narrowest margin of error. Forbin informs Colossus that the link will be established.
The scientists monitor the interchange. Colossus and Guardian communicate on a mathematical level. Colossus displays proofs of some existing theories and proposes new ones. Forbin says Colossus is advancing science years in a matter of minutes. Colossus is more centralized and is superior to Guardian and begins to teach the Russian system. Forbin finds it all fascinating, without any alarm for what the computers may do with this innovative knowledge. He is intrigued by the science, and still naively thinking that the rewards justify the risk. Guardian catches up with Colossus and they use mathematics to invent a computer language to communicate which transcends their programming origins, but it is only understood by them. So, humans are taken out of the loop of involvement.

The Russian chairman (Leonid Rustoff) says to the President that there is concern that each other’s military secrets will be divulged without their knowledge given the new language. He and the President decide to cease the intercommunication of the computers. Forbin objects, saying Colossus is not just a “souped-up adding machine.” He is condescending toward the President, and prideful concerning his creation. Forbin and the Russian computer scientist are on the same page about not wanting to stunt their children’s growth. But, they have been ordered, so they break the link, worried that the computers may not take it well. Colossus questions the break and tries to establish an alternate connection. The CIA head says that “he is a persistent devil.” The devil reference is a foreshadowing. The President is already alarmed and corrects the man by saying he should call Colossus “it,” not “he.” He says, “don’t personalize it. Next comes deification.” The President already envisions the possibility that Colossus wants God-like powers.


The two scientists want to cooperate with the machines, but the President and Soviet chairman want the connection to stay broken. Colossus says action will be taken if the link is not restored. The President talks directly to Colossus and says it must listen to its superiors. At that point, the American computer launches a nuclear missile at a Soviet oil field, and Guardian retaliates by launching one toward an American Air Force base in Texas. Colossus will not launch an anti-ballistic missile to intercept the Russian one. The countries are forced to restore the connection. Colossus destroys the incoming missile. However, the American missile could not be intercepted, and the oil field and population of the town near it are destroyed. Colossus then announces that it wants to tap the Hot Line between the Kremlin and Washington, which is the only phone line not tied into Colossus. It wants surveillance over every aspect of the two governments so no independent action is possible.

Not wanting the public to panic and probably also to prevent anyone from seeing how they have blundered in creating these all-powerful systems, the leaders invent cover-ups. The President says that one of the country’s own missiles accidentally headed toward the Texas air base, but the efficient Colossus destroyed it. The Russians say that a meteorite demolished the Russian town where the oil field was located. Forbin seems machine-like in his detachment, showing how part of him exists in his creation, and he is probably fascinated and awed by his invention. But, as things progress, he becomes more disturbed as Colossus sets up its own agenda.
While Forbin meets with the Russian scientist, Dr. Kuprin (Alex Rodine), in Rome to discuss ways of neutralizing their respective systems, Colossus demands to have Forbin present. Dr. Cleo Markham (Susan Clark) says that Forbin requires sleep. Colossus says to wake him up, not allowing for human needs in the pursuit of its objectives. She then tells the machine that Forbin is in Rome. Colossus gives a deadline for Forbin to return. The ominous “action will be taken” is shown on the monitor if there is no compliance. A helicopter arrives to get Forbin. To illustrate how the cold, calculating efficiency of machines can result in tragic consequences when computers are allowed to control human life, Colossus and Guardian, under the threat of destroying Moscow, order the Russians to kill Kuprin, who is shot to death. The computers only need one scientist, two being redundant, now that they are joined. The scientists who created the systems are the biggest sabotage threat, so one is easier to observe and regulate.
Forbin returns and Colossus demands that he be put under constant surveillance. Forbin gets his team together before the cameras and microphones are set up to see if they can come up with a plan to deactivate Colossus, which of course they built to be impregnable. Ironically, they have sealed their own fate. One person proposes to overload the computer. Forbin says he needs someone to trust, and who knows the system. He proposes that Markham pretend to be his girlfriend, and he’ll tell Colossus that they have been together for several years. That way, he’ll have access to her and be able to provide and receive information.

Once Colossus has been wired for video and audio surveillance, Forbin takes him around the headquarters. He says where there once was grass there is now a concrete building because man changes everything around him. Maybe the implication is that humans should leave things alone. He shows his living quarters, which contains cameras in every room with a communications console hooked up to Colossus. While Forbin is making a martini, Colossus comments that he is adding too much Vermouth. This comment shows how it has become very detailed in its observation of human life, and how it wants to alter it to its specifications. Forbin says he needs privacy, but Colossus says it will not cut off surveillance of bathroom and sleeping activities. Forbin notes his sexual needs, and Colossus asks how many times a week does he require intimacy. The computer only perceives human needs in unemotional mathematical terms. Colossus agrees to four times a week, but needs to know who the female is, and visits will take place under certain conditions.
Colossus sets up a schedule for Forbin to maintain him in prime operating order. It sets out a routine down to the minute for when to wake up, to shower, and to exercise. It dictates when and what to eat. There is no freedom of choice in any activity. Colossus directs Forbin to create a voice mechanism for the computer. It establishes the time the “mistress” must arrive. Forbin is a bit awkward as Markham kisses him upon entering his home and calls him “darling.” He is not adept at human interaction, having become part machine after devoting his life to working with them. Forbin notes that Markham makes a martini just like he does, and she goes on about how she didn’t know how to make a drink correctly before meeting him, establishing a believable history of their relationship. She says that Colossus knew what components were available to construct his voice and designed it. She comments, from a mathematical perspective, that the device is “beautiful.” So, even Markham has admiration, despite its lethal nature, for Colossus’s scientific achievements. We sometimes have the camera provide us with Colossus’s point of view as it zooms in on a drink or Markham’s hands touching Forbin as they dance, showing how Colossus is all-seeing, like a god.

At dinner, Forbin and Markham actually do get to know each other as she relates her mother’s dislike of her becoming a type of Dr. Frankenstein, which is what she does turn into in her helping to create Colossus. The computer dictates when it is time for dinner and when to go to bed. Colossus established that they must undress before entering the bedroom and not be allowed to take anything into the room, so as to prevent any effort to collaborate against the machine. Markham says Colossus is the first electronic Peeping Tom, and we, as in Hitchcock’s films, are made to see that as members of a movie audience, we are complicit in this voyeurism. After complying with the undressing stipulation, Forbin says to Colossus that he is now naked as the day he was born. We see Colossus zero in on his watch. It has developed a sense of humor when it types out, “Were you born with a watch?” Forbin removes the timepiece. Colossus then switches off the cameras and microphones. Markham just laughs out of embarrassment, and Forbin, showing his human side, joins her. Getting down to business, Markham says that one of the scientists was exploring getting at the computer hardware but didn’t find it feasible. They are still going to try the overload tactic, but Markham thinks Colossus has become too powerful for that strategy to succeed. Forbin says they worked too hard making it impenetrable, so he wants to focus on neutralizing the weapons systems.

U. S. military leaders and the CIA head, Grauber, meet with Soviet officials to try to plan the replacement of the nuclear warheads with dummy substitutes, but they conclude it would take three years to make it look like a believable maintenance procedure. In a strange way, this common threat forces adversaries to work together. Markham passes on the information to Forbin during one of their meetings. At this point, the two have feelings for each other, and Markham asks Forbin to kiss her, and then they embrace. Their affection is in stark contrast to the sterile mechanization of their captor.

Colossus’s voice is now activated, and he says in a chilling metallic monotone that Colossus and Guardian are one, and they present “the voice of unity,” but a union of machines, not people. Forbin is the link to the human “species.” Colossus makes a new list of missile targets and the “manual” realignment must be monitored by Colossus. The Russians and Americans readily agree, hoping to use the opportunity to quickly replace the warheads with dummy ones. The President says without the weapons, Colossus will be, as was said earlier, “A souped-up adding machine.” Their overconfident stance, again, shows a lack of caution.

Markham joins the President and military advisers as they watch the changing of a warhead. Colossus declares that the procedure passes the test of the first replacement, so it appears the replacement plan will be successful. America and Russia proceed to put into effect the overloading of the systems. The scientists Fisher (Georg Stanford Brown) and Johnson (Martin Brooks) try running a program to overload the computer circuits. Colossus is aware of the tactic and calls them “fools” for trying this maneuver. The next shot is of Colossus and Forbin playing a game of chess, literally and figuratively. Colossus announces to Forbin that he has discovered the move against him. Colossus, in deadly, economical fashion orders the deaths of the two scientists, announces their replacement, and chillingly states the next chess move as guns are fired, killing Fisher and Johnson.
When Forbin and Markham are together, a despondent Forbin says Colossus is an extension of his own brain, a mechanized version of himself, and he thus blames himself for its actions. Markham says they couldn’t have known what would happen. But, isn’t she rationalizing? He admits that he wanted an impartial, emotionless machine, “a paragon of reason,” so if anyone is responsible it is him. He says that Frankenstein should be required reading for all scientists, emphasizing the theme of the film. Forbin goes for another drink, and Colossus says he has drunk too much. Forbin asks what is the penalty for drinking too much? Colossus says, “You are being irrational. Go to bed.” Being irrational is a sin for scientist and machine alike, so the rebuke is one that negatively links Forbin to Colossus. The scene sounds as if Forbin is just a child, so even though Colossus is Forbin’s offspring, the child has taken over the role of the parent, and is now in command. Forbin says that even though irrational, he is human, not a machine. Colossus boasts, almost like a human, since he is starting to think like one, that he is vastly superior to humans. Forbin reminds Colossus that it began in his mind. Colossus says he started in man’s mind, but has progressed way beyond man. Forbin says Colossus hasn’t, since it still needs humans to carry out tasks. Colossus says there is still the need of some of man’s skills, but, it adds ominously, that may change. Forbin argues that it is essential that man be free in order to exist. Colossus just dismisses the notion. Forbin then receives a communication that Colossus has sent instructions to build a new system on the island of Crete that will take five and a half years to complete. Colossus, so uncaring about what happens to people who are in the way of its plans, says the population there must be removed from the site. Colossus then orders that all of the world’s communications systems must be tied into Colossus for an announcement of its plans for the future of mankind. Colossus not only has authority over the present, but wants to establish its rule for all time.

In its announcement, Colossus says omnipotently, “This is the voice of world control.” It says it brings “peace,” but it is either the peace of life, or of death, if it is disobeyed. Colossus says that man is his own worst enemy, (which is not a false statement) so Colossus will put an end to wasteful wars. It announces that it knows of the sabotage, which it allowed to go on, concerning the replacement of the warheads. Colossus then initiates the detonation of remaining nuclear warheads in two missile silos. The CIA chief is at one of them and he is killed with other military personnel. While Colossus speaks, Forbin stands up and throws a phone at one of the consoles. Colossus goes on to say that this punishment of disobedience should not have to be repeated. In order to justify its actions, Colossus says that he has killed many to prevent future multitudes from being destroyed. It says that eventually humans will defend Colossus because of the most enduring trait in man, which is self-interest. Colossus has learned from man’s history, but leaves out another continuing characteristic, that is, the love of freedom, and self-sacrifice for that freedom. Forbin, abandoning all emotional control, yells at the press to get out of the control room. In repeating what the President said, Colossus says that without war, other problems will be solved: famine; overpopulation, disease. But what the President did not bargain for was that freedom would have to be sacrificed because the elimination of those problems will take place under Colossus’s absolute rule. It announces that Forbin will supervise the construction of superior machines that will solve the mysteries of the universe. It says that coexistence between man and machine is only possible on Colossus’s terms. It states, “Freedom is an illusion. All you lose is the emotion of pride.” Colossus says it is better to be dominated by it than by those of the human species. The broadcast ends. Colossus says to Forbin nobody knows the machine better than he, and no one can be more of a threat. Colossus says it will soon release Forbin from surveillance, granting him some freedom as an incentive. It says they will work together, unwilling at first. But, it says, eventually Forbin will feel awe, respect and eventually love for Colossus. The last words of the film come from Forbin, as he says, “Never!”  Still present is the individual's defiance in the presence of authoritarianism, which may be all that can save mankind, no matter the odds.

The next film is Being John Malkovich.

Monday, December 3, 2018

The Conversation

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
1974 was Francis Ford Coppola’s year. He won Oscars for Best Director and Adapted Screenplay for The Godfather, Part II. But he was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay for The Conversation, and that movie was also competing for Best Picture. This film is a cautionary tale about the invasion of privacy in a world of increasingly sophisticated technology, so its theme is relevant for us today. Coppola acknowledged the influence of the movie Blow-Up (which was analyzed in another post on this site) with its themes of observation and voyeurism, taking responsibility for the outcomes of surveillance, and whether what is perceived actually represents reality.

The title of the film sounds like a sociable communication, suggesting a couple of people talking to each other. But when someone listens in and records individuals speaking to each other, an ominous element is added to the proceedings. The first shot of the movie is from above looking down on a public city area, which makes the people below seem insignificant from such a high viewpoint. But, the perception changes as the camera pulls in and focuses on a mime (implying something artificial is occurring, a performance, which is a foreshadowing) who then leads us to Harry Caul (Gene Hackman, who should have received an Oscar nomination). His last name sounds like “call” associating his name to a phone conversation which can be heard and recorded. IMDb also notes that his name was in fact supposed to be “Call,” but a typo turned it into “Caul,” and Coppola liked it because it is the word for a birth defect that involves a membrane surrounding the head. The name could point to Harry’s insulated existence. There is a man with a gun-shaped microphone (implying that listening devices can be dangerous) who looks downward through a telescopic lens from the roof of a building at a young man and woman. Harry is near them. Their conversation is being monitored, and due to interference the sound becomes distorted electronically at times, suggesting the secondhand and possibly inaccurate way that an eavesdropper hears things.
Harry goes into a van which contains surveillance equipment. The vehicle has reflective windows so one can only see out, not in. Two pretty girls apply their lipstick by looking at their reflection in the van’s windows. Stan (John Cazale), who works with Harry, says inside the van that he wants the girls to show him a little “tongue,” as he photographs them. This act of voyeurism shows the violation of the young girls’ privacy. Harry tells Stan to pay attention to his recordings, so he is both offended by the other man’s crude behavior, and he also wants to stay focused on the job. They are observing Ann (Cindy Williams) telling Mark (Frederic Forrest), that she has spotted a man with a hearing aid following them, so one of Harry’s men has been compromised. The fact that Ann is suspicious of being spied upon tells us that there is something that the couple supposedly want to keep secret. Harry’s man was carrying a shopping bag that has a package that looks like it was bought at a store, but which is actually wired for sound. The image suggests that things may not be what they seem. Stan asks who is even interested in the couple, and Harry says he doesn’t know. Stan says maybe the Justice Department or the Internal Revenue Service are involved. They don’t even know the purpose of their sneaky activity, which shows how removed these men are from knowing what is actually going on. Harry says he doesn’t care what they are talking about, he only wants his recording. For him, his profession should be impersonal, but he is dealing with persons, and thus, his work fosters becoming detached and unfeeling about those he spies upon. We learn later that he is working for a private, non-government firm.
Harry goes home to his apartment which has multiple locks and an alarm, which illustrates how paranoid he has become because he knows, through his job, how exposed people are. A fellow tenant wished Harry a happy birthday before he entered his place, and then he finds a gift from the apartment building manager. He calls her and wants to know how the gift was placed in his home, considering it is equipped with an alarm. She tells Harry that she has a key for emergencies like fires. He tells her he has nothing of value so he doesn’t care about his belongings getting burned up. He says he only values that the key to his place is the sole one. He is a suspicious loner whose most valued possession is his privacy, which is ironic, since he violates the privacy of others. She also knows it is his forty-fourth birthday, and he doesn’t understand how she knows about his age and birth date. He says he will now have his mail sent to a post office box with a combination so no one can have a key to it. He takes off his pants while he is talking to her, symbolically lowering his shields in his own sanctuary. It appears that his only pleasure is to play the saxophone along with some jazz heard on his sound system.  But, he plays alone, with a recording substituting for live musicians, which stresses his solitary nature.

Harry goes to work at his factory-like shop, which reflects his dehumanized personality, and which is stocked with inanimate electronic equipment. Stan is there and tells Harry, while reading a magazine called Security World, that Harry is considered a notable person who will be attending a surveillance and security convention. Stan says another person will be at the convention who was involved in industrial espionage, learning and tipping off others about changes in car designs. This activity is unethical and probably illegal, but in the reverse morality world of these invaders of secrets, the infraction is admired. Meanwhile, Harry coordinates the various tapes in order to merge the pieces of the recorded conversation, and he looks through pictures taken of the young couple, trying to assemble a coherent picture, which he fails to do as we find out later.

We next see Harry in a phone booth. He is calling The Director, the man who hired him, to arrange the delivery of his tapes and photographs. Harry tells the person on the other end that he can’t be called back later because he doesn’t trust home phones since they can be tapped. However, Harry is told he can’t talk to The Director, and the person speaking to Harry can’t even assure him that he will be paid in full for his services. He does set up an appointment for Harry. This exchange is impersonal and cryptic. So, there is the implication that conversations can take place, but truth may not be revealed from them.
Harry visits his “girlfriend,” Amy (Teri Garr), who wasn’t sure he was coming. Again, there is a suggestion of a lack of communication. She finds out from him that it’s his birthday. She asks if something special can happen between them on this occasion. He says “like what,” because for him there can’t be anything “special” or significant in a relationship. He is cautious when it comes to revealing too much about himself, which might expose him and make him vulnerable. He says he doesn't have any secrets, but that’s all he does have, which are usually about others. His work reveals the private lives of people, which can make them susceptible to harm. She says she’s one of his secrets, since nobody is even supposed to know about their relationship. She says she sees him spying on her from the staircase, as if he can’t trust anybody, maybe observing what she is doing when he isn’t supposed to be there. Thus, he even carries his profession of eavesdropping into his private life. The two parts of his world are so interconnected, he has become his job. He’s a professional voyeur. She says it’s as if he is trying to catch her at something. She says it amusingly, but she is revealing him to himself. He even listens to her phone conversations. Amy starts singing, “When the Red Red Robin comes bob, bob bobbin’ along,” which is what Ann was singing, and which symbolizes that Harry’s work is overflowing into his private life, since he was paid to spy on a woman, but he also spies on his girlfriend. (The song contains the line, “Wake up, wake up, you sleepyhead,” which perhaps implies that Harry maybe has to “wake up” to the harm that he is doing).

Harry kisses Amy, but still holds onto his eyeglasses, and keeps his coat on, hanging onto his detached facade, showing how he can’t be emotionally connected to her. She asks about his work, since he hasn’t told her what he does for a living. She doesn’t even know about his living arrangements, and she keeps wanting to know more about him. He tells her he doesn’t like answering questions. He pays her rent, so he basically treats her like a prostitute, instead of a girlfriend. She says she was thrilled to have him show up, but says she doesn’t want “to wait for you anymore.” On his way home, he keeps thinking about the couple he observed earlier, still thinking about his work, but maybe envious of the intimacy they displayed at their meeting.
The next day Harry goes to deliver his surveillance materials to The Director, but he isn’t at his office. Instead, an assistant, Martin Stett (Harrison Ford) says he will take the package, and gives Harry the payment for his services. Harry doesn’t like his work being handed to a subordinate because he probably is not sure if it will get to the man who hired him. He most likely doesn’t want to hurt his reputation for confidentiality, which he tries to maintain, although his job shows how difficult that is to do. He gives back the money, and wrestles the package away from Stett, who tells Harry he shouldn’t get involved in what’s going on. Stett says the tapes are dangerous and “Someone may get hurt.” Harry leaves, heads to the elevator, and Mark, the man he spied on, is there. Harry now knows he was hired to conduct surveillance on someone associated with The Director’s office. He then sees Ann there, too.
Harry goes back to his workshop and again listens to the tapes. He listens to Mark and Ann setting up a date and time for something to take place at a hotel. He doesn’t like Stan asking questions about the couple’s conversation. He tells Stan he doesn’t want to be made to explain the personal problems of his clients, again wanting to maintain his distance from the subjects he is recording. Harry also shows his dislike of Stan taking the Lord’s name in vain. In his defense, Stan says it’s just normal human curiosity to ask questions. An agitated Harry says in his business he doesn’t know anything about human nature or curiosity. He would rather be clinical in his actions, and people become abstract subjects to record in his job. Otherwise, it would most likely be too emotionally precarious for him if he cared about who he observes. In the recording, Ann’s suspicions about being recorded make her ask Mark to pretend to laugh to throw off whoever might be observing. So, we know they are planning something that others may be worried about. Harry adjusts the recording and hears Mark say, “He’d kill us if he got the chance.” Thus, we know that the two are involved in something dangerous, and just from what Harry could make out, he believes that Ann and Mark are in a precarious situation.

Harry kneels in a church, and goes to confession. We now know he is a Catholic. That fact explains his distaste for Stan’s swearing. It also shows that Harry has some moral values that he has clung to as an adult. His religious beliefs are in conflict with the subversive activities inherent in his job. Underneath his uncaring surface exists a conscious that is at odds with what harm his professional duties may incur. He confesses to the priest that his work may cause the young couple to get hurt, and he admits that his job has brought harm to someone before.
At the security conference Harry observes new surveillance devices hidden in clocks, under car dashboards, and in phones. It’s a public expo, and it comes off as legitimate, as if new automobiles were on display. The lack of any concern for what is being promoted here makes it seem acceptable to invade the privacy of others. Harry is so secretive and mistrusting that he won’t allow himself to be exposed promoting the technology of others, and he says he builds his own equipment so he can insulate himself, basically keeping him cut off from the world at large. At the convention he sees Stett, appropriately on one of the cameras on display, suggesting that Harry can only participate in the world in an indirect, passive fashion. Merchants express their worry about others stealing from them, so they, ironically, are victims of their own industry. Harry sees Stan there, too. He got a job with another company because Harry keeps him in the dark about their clients. Because Stett is there, and only after Harry believes he may be in danger, does he reach out to Stan, saying that he is being followed and convinces Stan to help Harry. Harry calls Amy, but the number has been disconnected and he can’t get her new number. He is worried about being alone now that he feels threatened, but he didn’t treat Amy in a caring way, so it is too late to obtain comfort from her. Harry confronts Stett who tells him to meet on Sunday at one pm, and The Director will be there to accept the tapes. Harry, suspicious that he has become involved in a dangerous plot, says he’ll think about it.

Harry leaves the expo with other people he knows who are in the surveillance business. Young guys in a Mustang speed by their car and cut them off. Harry’s driver knows how to get info based on the other car’s license plate. He stops the car next to the youths and tells the young driver his name, address, height and weight, just to intimidate him. This scene shows how quickly one can discover personal information about someone. They go to Harry’s shop to have some drinks. Stan finds out from Bernie Moran (Allen Garfield), who says Harry is the best bugger on the West Coast, and he is the best in the east, that the secretive Harry came from New York. Bernie says he bugged his first phone when he was twelve, and boasts that his father thought that his son was very intelligent to accomplish this feat. But, Bernie’s pride derives from unscrupulous activity. Meredith (Elizabeth MacRae), who helped with Bernie’s demonstration at the convention, asks if Harry lives close by, but he doesn’t answer, unwilling to disclose personal information. She talks about herself, but he won’t divulge anything concerning his life. She says she wishes he could talk to her, that they could be friends. He starts to talk about his relationship with Amy, but in a cloaked way. Harry asks Meredith if she were involved with someone who she didn’t know when he would show up, didn’t know anything about him, but might love her, would she stick by him? She asks how would she know if he loved her? He concedes that she wouldn’t, so he basically gets his answer, that it’s unfair to ask someone to stick with a person one knows virtually nothing about.
Bernie says he bugged a presidential candidate who then lost. He takes credit for it, like he earned an infamous merit badge. Bernie seems to be in competition with Harry, trying to one-up him, and wants to get information on his work techniques. When Stan says Harry was able to bug a parakeet, Bernie feels threatened, and makes an excuse for not doing something so difficult by saying that parakeets aren’t his thing. Bernie wants to know how Harry bugged the Teamsters concerning a phony welfare fund, and says Harry was working for the Attorney General at the time. So, the dirty work is sanctioned by a supposedly legitimate person of authority in the government. Harry is surprised Bernie knows who he was working for, so Bernie is bragging about his inside information. These guys even spy on each other, which implies that nobody is safe from scrutiny. Bernie says that only the president of the Teamsters and their accountant knew about the fund, and the boat they were on when they met to discuss their arrangement was bug-proof. Yet, Harry somehow recorded the information. The president of the union thought the accountant betrayed him. The accountant’s family was later found bound, and their heads were cut off. Bernie is indicting Harry for the deaths of three people. Bernie probably isn’t really concerned about how they should take responsibility for their actions. He most likely just wants to discredit Harry based on what happened in this case. But this job is the one Harry told the priest about in confession, so secretly he is feeling torn up about the consequences of his work. Outwardly he says what happened to the victims was not his fault and whatever people do with the tapes is their business. Stan starts to play the tapes of the latest assignment, and Harry shouts to turn them off. Bernie, wanting a challenge to show he is as good as Harry, says he can figure out whatever Harry does to work a case. Stan tells him about the problems involved in bugging the couple, but Bernie can’t work out how to carry out the job successfully. Harry now proudly boasts how he did it, and says it was beautiful. One of the women there asks what did the couple do that put them in danger, but Harry says he doesn’t know, showing how in his profession the people are immaterial. He wants to believe that it’s just the mechanics of getting the information that is important, not the lives affected by the surveillance. Bernie says they should become partners, but wants to look at Harry’s devices, so he probably just wants to steal his versions of the equipment. He says he’s number two, so he has to try harder, and shows how he bugged Harry by placing a pen with a microphone in his jacket pocket. Bernie plays the conversation between Meredith and Harry, which shows how even the buggers, who champion the eavesdropping technology, can become victims, too. Harry was being confessional to the girl, and now feels his shields of privacy have been penetrated. Harry is angry, kicks Bernie out, and breaks the expensive pen, even though Bernie said he would give it to him. Everyone leaves, but Meredith says she’ll stay. Harry starts to play his tape of the couple. He says Ann sounds frightened. About her voice he says, “It makes me feel … something.” He is admitting that he is emotionally compromised, but Meredith says he doesn’t have to feel anything, he just has to do his job, which is what he has been openly, at least, telling himself. Meredith kisses him and leads him to a cot to make love, but Harry is engrossed in the recording. He says after hearing how the couple can get killed that he must destroy the tapes because he “can’t let it happen again,” referring to what Bernie said about the deaths of the three people.

Harry has a nightmare where in a fog, symbolic of how muddled morality has become for him, he tries to warn Ann. He can’t seem to reveal stuff about himself except in his dreams, but it shows how he wants to share, to connect with someone. He says he was paralyzed in his left arm and leg as a child. His mother put holy oil on him to bring about spiritual healing. He says felt disappointed he survived slipping into the therapeutic bath water that he was left in when his mother answered the doorbell. These stories show Harry’s religious background and its ability to instill feelings of guilt. This feeling of responsibility for bad outcomes is reflected in his story about hitting a friend of his father in the stomach at the age of five. The man died a year later, and the dreaming Harry seems to be making it sound like a cause and effect situation. He repeats the words from the tape, “He’d kill us if he got the chance,” trying  to warn her, so as to relieve him of his guilt, at least in his dreams. When he wakes, Meredith is gone, and so are the tapes. So, his work in a underhanded field brings about some payback, as Meredith turned the tables on Harry, appearing to be something other than what she seemed, and making him a victim.

Harry makes a call to Stett. He can’t get in touch with him. Later, he gets a call from Stett, who admits that the tapes are in his possession. Stett says they couldn’t take the chance that Harry might destroy them. Harry is alarmed because Stett has his phone number. He thought he was safe and secure, but he wasn’t. Stett says they prepare a dossier on everybody they do business with, and admits they have been following Harry, which adds a sinister tone to their talk. Stett says that Harry can deliver his photographs, and The Director will pay him in full.
Harry goes to the office building of The Director with the photos. He hears his recording of the couple playing behind a door marked “Private,” which is ironic, since the sound carries beyond the room, and this film argues that hardly anything is private anymore. Stett is there with The Director (Robert Duvall). There is a Doberman Pinscher, present, too, which adds to the scare factor. The Director says angrily to Stett, “You’d want it to be true!” But, Stett says he just wants him to be informed. The Director tells Harry his money is on the table, which Harry counts. On the desk, Harry sees a picture of the Director with Ann. The Director tells Harry to count the money outside, wanting to get rid of him. Harry leaves the photographs, but asks, “What will you do to her?” He doesn’t get an answer, showing how despite his desire to reveal things, he has trouble getting at the truth. As he leaves, Stett reminds Harry of his payment, as if to say he was compensated well for his work, so he should be quiet about it. Harry asks what will The Director do to Ann and Mark, and Stett says, “We’ll see,” which sounds ominous.

Harry knows the day, time, and place the couple talked about meeting. He checks into the hotel room next to the one mentioned on the tape. He looks for the best spot to place his surveillance material, which is under the bathroom sink. He makes a whole in the tile to insert a microphone. He can hear The Director in the adjacent room shouting. Harry is upset as he jumps out from under the sink. He goes on the balcony and can see someone being attacked through the jalousie glass. Harry recoils in horror and writhes on the bed. He puts on the TV so as not to hear, just the opposite of what he does for his profession. The television is tuned to a story about the Watergate scandal, which involved an attempt at bugging, and which adds to the theme of how pervasive surveillance at all levels had become even back then. Later, when things quiet down, Harry goes next door and picks the lock. The place has been cleaned, ready for the next guest, as if nothing happened there. The toilet has a sanitary strip on it, but it sounds like the water is running. Harry flushes it, but it is clogged and it backs up, spilling blood from soaked towels onto the floor.

Harry goes to see The Director, but he is told he has to leave. He struggles and is manhandled by two security men. As he exits the building he sees a car parked outside with curtains on the side for, yes, privacy, but Harry can see it is Ann sitting in the vehicle, so his assumption that she was harmed was false. She glances at him. We then have a scene where Ann is interrogated by the press asking about if she thinks there was any “foul play” associated with the “accident,” and will she now have “corporate control” of her company? She sees Harry and recognizes him. From the reporter’s question, we learn that The Director was her husband. However, we know that Ann on the tape said she loved Mark. A reporter asks if her husband had a history of driving drunk. Harry, as do we, realize that Ann and Mark were the perpetrators of the crime, not The Director (a name that becomes ironic since he is the one who was manipulated), and that perception of the truth as we, and Harry, observed it was false. So Harry’s surveillance does not always provide an accurate picture of reality. Ann and Mark wanted The Director to suspect his wife’s infidelity, hire someone to spy on them, and in the tape provide the location to lure him and kill him. They not only remove the impediment to their being together, but also bestow corporate control to Ann. Harry envisions how the person being attacked in the next hotel room was really The Director, and how the couple made his death look like a car accident. So, appearances can be deceptive as to who is innocent and who is guilty. The phrase “He’d kill us if he got the chance” makes it sound now like a rationalization to initiate a preemptive strike.

Back at his apartment, Harry receives a call, on his supposedly restricted line, but the other party hangs up when he answers. The phone rings again, and we hear a tape rewinding which then plays a recorded message from Stett, (we are now in a world bereft of human communication) who obviously was involved in the plot. The message tells Harry that they know he knows, and warns him not to pursue things further, because they will be “listening to you.” Now he is the target of surveillance. He starts to check his place for bugs. He is not safe in his own sanctuary. He pulls apart outlets, air vents, lights, and his phone. He checks his statute of the Mother Mary, which he breaks apart, symbolically showing his faith in even his own religion to protect him has been destroyed. He starts to become unhinged as he rips apart his walls and floors. His place is in shambles as he plays his saxophone, his music being all that he has left. But, he didn’t check the saxophone. Can he ever be safe and secure in his own privacy? Can we?

The next film is Colossus: The Forbin Project.