October 6, 2012

Plumbing Problems

by Allen Irwin

The Conversation (1974) - dir. Francis For Coppola

(Sorry for the split videos, the whole scene wasn't online in one piece)

Hotel rooms are meant to be anonymously comforting and reassuringly sterile: spaces where cleanliness stands for safety; a reminder that you have been provided for, that you are in good hands. They assume a trust that benign systems and structures will insulate you from harm and preserve your privacy. This trust, however, is usually extremely fragile; there is a reason so many horror movies take place in hotels.

This unease surrounding the eerily sanitized hotel room occasionally overflows, as it were, into other genres apart from horror, as it does in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, when surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) arrives at room 773 in the Jack Tarr Hotel in the hope of recording and perhaps preventing a murder. Harry’s meticulous preparation of his surveillance equipment, his discovery of foul play, and his final, horrific discovery in room 773 are woven into a tense sequence that uses horror as a gateway into Harry’s fracturing psyche.

After listening to an argument through the wall in room 772 (an adjoining, mirror image of room 773) and seeing a bloodied hand seemingly grasping at him through the frosted divider, Harry wakes up from an unexplained lapse into unconsciousness and nervously makes his way to room 773. Instead of a grisly murder scene, he finds an immaculate, empty hotel room. Yet somehow too immaculate, and there’s something wrong about the way it sounds: too quiet, but with a barely perceptible rustling. A slow, observational pan shows the room, with Harry uncannily appearing twice in the same shot, as if he has entered the room only to find himself already occupying it.

He checks the bathroom and we realize that the rustling we heard earlier is the toilet running. Though the toilet is the first thing Harry sees upon entering the bathroom, he avoids investigating it, instead trying the bathtub. We hear his nervous breathing as he pulls the curtain aside, as if expecting it to be concealing an unknown killer. Nothing. The toilet is the last thing to check, and we know from the moment Harry lifts the lid that something is wrong: a low, electronic moan creeps into the soundtrack. He flushes and a jet of red erupts from the depths of the toilet bowl while the electronic moan becomes a screech. At first, it seems we might be spared the sight, as the camera focuses solely on Harry’s frightened reaction, but then we see Harry, frozen in place, as the bloody mass tops the edge of the toilet and in one quick motion covers the entire floor of the pristine, white bathroom in a sickening crimson. The last thing we see is Harry’s view, peering down into the dark red abyss as it continues to pour forth blood. Cut to black as the soundtrack continues its dissonant screeching.

While it remains a mystery whether Harry’s experience in room 773 is real or imagined, the sequence’s effect on both Harry and the audience remains undiminished. Through the careful buildup to the final, sanguinary reveal, Coppola (with the help of sound editor Walter Murch) takes us on an audio-visual odyssey that paints a precise portrait of Harry’s inner world. The premonitory image of Harry standing, isolated on the balcony with the mirrored blue and red squares on the neighboring building suggest the division between his cool, collected surface (emphasized by his bright blue tool case, which he uses in the bathroom of 772) and the guilt and paranoia that have become backed up in the U-bend of his subconscious, ready to come surging back with explosive, bloody force.

By framing Harry’s lavatory revelation like a horror scene, Coppola gives it the power of a literalized metaphor: the two rooms become the two sides of his mind. In the first room, he maintains a carefully planned and restrained order, observing his targets through a wall like a child at a keyhole overhearing his parents argue. In the other, the mise-en-scène suggests a bizarre self-surveillance and an environment where Harry’s repressed, guilty conscience over the work he does threatens to burst forth like a geyser, while the sounds of his audio mixes play back on the soundtrack like a grotesque scream. He may try to keep his mind and his life much like a crisp, clean, anonymous hotel room, but unfortunately for Harry, his profession comes equipped with its own plumbing problems.

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