The Conversation – Paranoia at my Heels by: Blaine Grimes

Posted: July 24, 2014 by jperritt in Action, Thriller
Tags: ,

1The paranoid thriller was a popular genre in the 1970s. Americans were reeling from Vietnam and Watergate, and they didn’t trust the government. These sentiments gave way to a new wave of conspiracy theories and a general sense of cultural suspicion and distrust. It was a time when, in the words of The Avett Brothers, paranoia was on our heels. And since art often reflects life, this period of paranoia is distinctly discernible in many films of the 1970s. In point of fact, 70s films are frequently fraught with political tension and laced with criticism and skepticism. Watching paranoia films without a basic knowledge of 70s American history can be frustrating to say the least. As important as the historical/cultural context of the genre is, however, it is important to remember that the root problem on display in paranoia films is not fundamentally political, but spiritual.[1] The problem is not despotic governments, but depraved minds. It has to do with human nature and our tendency toward paranoia, as well as the fact that hope is impossible when the gospel is taken out of the equation. This notion of an overlooked spiritual component in the paranoia epidemic of the 70s will serve as the basis for the following look at a particularly interesting paranoia film, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974).

A few lines from The Avett Brothers song, Paranoia in B Flat Major, do a great job conveying the tense and, well, paranoid tone of The Conversation:

I keep tellin’ myself that it’ll be fine. / You can’t make everybody happy all of the time. / I find myself in a place that I never been, / A place that I thought that I could never be. / There’s people looking back at me.

The film follows Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), an audio surveillance expert who, in a recorded conversation, hears what he assumes to be a couple trying to escape a murder plot. What follows in The Conversation is a case study of the effects of paranoia, as we watch Harry Caul’s initial curiosity about the recording slowly turn into madness. Caul becomes obsessed with preventing this murder, but his fear only paralyzes him. Caul replays the recoded conversation many, many times, listening for clues about the forthcoming murder attempt. Devoting himself to discovering the truth, he begins to suspect that he is being watched. Ironically, his paranoia makes him incapable of any true and meaningful action; and as the film progresses, he becomes increasingly reclusive, withdrawing from virtually all personal interaction. Caul’s fear and anxiety, which manifest themselves in paranoid behavior, drive him to near insanity.

One of the interesting things about The Conversation is that it encourages us to identify with Harry Caul in his paranoid state, for it is through this identification that the film delivers its thrills. The narrative follows Caul so closely that it is possible to say that the film is told from his perspective. On a formal level, numerous crowded, tight shots give the film a very claustrophobic feel and provide us with a deeper understanding of Caul’s paranoia. It is noteworthy, then, that, in addition to creating the suspense in the film, these narratological and stylistic elements work precisely because they make us see ourselves as Caul, the paranoid and helpless individual. In other words, we have in Harry Caul not another “good villain,” another Walter White, but a man with an extremely relatable struggle. Because it turns out that the 2010s are not all that different from the 1970s: paranoia is all the rage. Just listen to talk radio. Think about all of the security products that guarantee you peace of mind and a worry-free life. We are more paranoid than ever.[2] So, the question begged by The Conversation (and other paranoid thrillers) is this: Are we, like Caul, really nothing more than a helpless individual fighting a losing battle against our ever-increasing paranoia? Is there any solace to be had?

Christianity destroys paranoia. The Scriptures tell us that God sees all things–that God is constantly watching over his creation, dispensing both his common and and saving grace in abundant goodness. The gospel tells us that those who trust in Christ have been reconciled to God; therefore, he cares for us in a special way. He is sovereignly directing every aspect, every event of our lives (Matthew 10:26–33; Romans 8:28–30; Ephesians 1:11). In our foolishness, we fear governments instead of God. Our fear drives us to isolate ourselves from every possible danger–especially God. You see, Christianity is dangerous; it is a call to follow Christ and die to self. And Christ does not call us to comfort and security. He does not promise that we will know “what’s going on” all the time; He promises to be with us (Matthew 28:20). The One who created the cosmos at a word—the fiery sun and vast universe, the ocean depths and mountain heights, the frozen tundra and the desert—it is He who cares for you, the One who took on flesh. Do you think Him too weak? Rejoice and live! Abandon your paranoia, insecurities, hopelessness and, yes, your life for Christ. The cure to paranoia is found when, to borrow from Lidie H. Edmunds’s hymn, our faith finds a resting place in the Savior. This is the truth in the 1970s, the 2010s, and any other age.

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[1]This is not to deny that there are political factors that help explain the genre. However, the human tendency to paranoia is not caused by despotic (or allegedly despotic) governments. Most of the scholarship on paranoid thrillers completely ignore this reality.

[2] Once again, our paranoia is being reflected in the movie industry. Green Zone (2012), Paranoia (2013), and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) are just a few examples of recent entries into the genre

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