The Conversation (analysis)

Here is as close as I've gotten to a final draft of my paper analyzing The Conversation through Freud, Lacan, and Zizek. It is the mostly deeply Freudian paper I think I have ever written and because of that and its originality (it obviously takes something from Zizek and even more from Kaja Silverman, but as far as I can tell most analysis of the film concentrates instead on the sort of ethics of surveillance in the film) it has a special place in my heart. If you are interested in other analyses of the movie there is a huge amount of scholarship dedicated to the film (and I'm sure somewhere in there someone's already made this argument, but screw them). Anyway I hope you enjoy it as it is the first paper in a series of about six psychoanalytic film papers I wrote for school and which I am now revising and publishing here. Please let me know if I can clarify anything since not everyone speaks Lacanese and someone else probably has the same question. 

Harry's Attempt to Return to His Caul

In Francis Ford Coppola's film The Conversation (1974), Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a “surveillance and security technician” as Martin Stett (Harrison Ford) euphemistically puts it: Harry takes jobs offered by private parties to spy on individuals with equipment used to capture sounds. The film revolves around a single conversation (giving the film its title) which Harry is contracted to record. He never knows the reasons for which he is hired, and in fact makes a point of remaining exterior to the issues of each case he takes on. His desire for exteriority will be crucial for my analysis as the central conversation in the film causes Harry to lose this safe position as an outsider. By analyzing and over-analyzing the conversation he tapes at the beginning of the film and subsequently investigating the case personally, Harry's work constitutes an unconscious search for his lamella and an attempt to return to a pre-Symbolic reality before his separation from his mother. In the process of this search, Harry gets too close to his objet a and has a traumatic encounter with the Lacanian Real.

The film begins with the conversation between a man, Mark (Frederic Forrest), and a woman, Ann (Cindy Williams), which Harry has agreed to surreptitiously tape for his most recent customer. Harry records the conversation using three different microphones placed strategically throughout the square where the conversation takes place. Not each microphone can accurately pick up the conversation by itself since the couple is constantly walking around, so what the audience hears of the conversation is at this point in the movie broken up by fragments of static. These missing fragments of the conversation provide a perfect analogy for that which cannot be understood within the Symbolic and foreshadow Harry's eventual encounter with the Real. During this scene the couple conversing notices one of Harry's men operating a microphone hidden within a shopping bag. Subsequently, the man removes himself from the square and returns to the van out of which this surveillance team is operating. This foregrounds Harry's need to remain exterior to the scenes he observes which we will later see mirrors his desire to extricate himself from the Symbolic order.

Harry then returns to his office where he attempts to unite the data received by the three microphones into one coherent conversation. After syncing the tapes and adjusting their respective volumes so that the three tapes become one, he records this onto a fourth tape which he will turn in to his customer. In this process he manages to eliminate all the static and make the entire conversation intelligible except for one comment whispered from the Mark to Ann. This fragment which cannot be integrated coherently into the conversation will become significant as it eventually sparks Harry's desire and causes him to become an actor in the action which he has until now only been observing.

Before Harry attempts to make sense of this remaining senseless piece of sound, we are given several examples of Harry's attempts to extricate himself from the Symbolic order and return to a pre-Symbolic time when he has full enjoyment of his lamella. Lacan describes the lamella as follows:

It is the libido, qua pure life instinct, that is to say, immortal life, or irrepressible life, life that has need of no organ, simplified, indestructible life. It is precisely what is subtracted from the living being by virtue of the fact that it is subject to the cycle of sexed reproduction. And it is of this that all the forms of the objet a that can be enumerated are the representatives, the equivalents. The objets a are merely its representatives, its figures. (Lacan, 198)

Lamella is not only the true embodiment of objet a, what pursuing objet a aims at, but the “pure life instinct” which the subject loses as part of the process of subjectification. In this way lamella is something Real, something beyond or before the Symbolic which the subject, as a subject, no longer has access to. As that which objet a represents, it is something that grants direct access to jouissance, something that allows pure enjoyment without guilt, something beyond the superego. This is what Harry (and every subject, as its loss is constitutive of subjectivity) lacks, and what he is searching for in deciphering the conversation and investigating the people involved. Unfortunately what Harry doesn't realize is that the only ways out of the claustrophobic deadlocks of the Symbolic are through fantasy, which Harry ultimately finds unsatisfying, or through the Real, which is traumatizing. There is fundamentally no way back to the comfortable jouissance of childhood, only the traumatic jouissance of the subject of the signifier. 

In the first example of Harry attempting to extricate himself from the Symbolic, he receives a gift from his landlady for his birthday, and instead of being thankful he worriedly calls her to ask how she got into his apartment and how she even knew it was his birthday. Presumably the landlady excuses herself for having an extra set of keys (we can't hear her side of the conversation) in order to protect Harry's personal items in the event of a fire because Harry replies that he “[doesn't] have anything personal, nothing of value, nothing personal except [his] keys, which [he] would really like to have the only copy of.” Thus the only thing Harry values is his privacy, or in other words, his ability to remain unnoticed by the Big Other who grants consistency to the Symbolic. Second, he visits his girlfriend, and after she asks him to tell her secrets and about his life he tells her he “[doesn't] like it when people ask a lot of questions.” He also seems upset by the fact that people know when his birthday is despite never having told anyone. This shows that he doesn't want to have a stable identity within the Symbolic, he doesn't want to be pinned down, regardless of whatever his own imaginary identifications may be. Third, he asks both his work partner Stan (John Cazale) and his rival Bernie Moran (Allen Garfield) not to take the Lord's name in vain. This appears to be out of a fear of being watched in a violent way by God. Kaja Silverman argues that

Harry is haunted by the thought of a heavenly surveillance system which might at any moment be turned against him. Since 'to use the name of the Lord in vain' would be to incriminate himself with the operator of that system, he not only avoids swearing himself, but demands the same from his colleagues (Silverman, 89). 

Harry is paranoid that if he does not behave properly then the Symbolic (father; God) will turn its gaze to Harry as punishment. The final example of Harry's obsessional avoidance of encounters within the Symbolic is when he has his friends over to his house after a convention of other wire-tappers. At one point during the party, Harry separates himself from the others with a woman to whom he eventually reveals his troubles with his girlfriend (without directly describing them, of course). Meanwhile, unknown to Harry, the conversation is recorded by a pen with a microphone in it that Bernie gave him earlier at the convention. When this recording is played back, Harry becomes furious and kicks everyone out of his house except the woman, who then puts Harry to bed as would a mother. These examples all show Harry's paranoia of being watched by the Big Other and of being integrated successfully into the Symbolic. Additionally, the woman's position as a mother figure hints at the fact that the only way to access purely pre-Symbolic jouissance is through the enjoyment of the mother in childhood.

After this comes the crucial moment for my analysis of the film: Harry returns to his office in order to decipher the fragments of the conversation that had until now been obscured by static. Harry uses a piece of equipment of his own invention (which Coppola notes in his commentary didn't exist at the time) to reduce the noises outside the conversation in order to zone in on the voices and what they are saying. If we take this moment of static as something unrepresentable within the Symbolic, Harry's attempt to decipher this inaudible dialogue becomes a perfect analogy for his desire to return to a pre-Symbolic state, or at least to escape the Symbolic. Lacan's first graph of desire depicts two intersecting vectors, one going from S on the left to S' on the right, and another going from Δ on the right to an S with a diagonal bar through it on the left (for which I will simply use “$” for lack of a better option).

Zizek analyzes how for Lacan this graph illustrates the process of signification:

Lacan structures this double movement quite differently: some mythical, pre-symbolic intention (marked Δ) 'quilts' the signifier's chain, the series of the signifier marked by the vector S'. The product of this quilting (what 'comes out the other side' after the mythical – real – intention goes through the signifier and steps out of it) is the subject marked by the matheme $ (the divided, split subject, and at the same time the effaced signifier, the lack of signifier, the void, an empty space in the signifier's network). (Zizek1, 112). 

Thus to bring the analogy back to The Conversation, we have the “effaced signifier, the lack of signifier” $ in the form of the (initially) undecipherable dialogue within the conversation which until now could only be heard as static. Through attempting to decipher this static, Harry is attempting to trace the “effaced signifier” back to its mythical (pre-Symbolic) intention (Δ). For better or for worse, Harry fails at this task. Instead of discovering the speaker's mythic intention, he simply removes the static to uncover what the whispered, unheard dialogue is: “He'd kill us if he had the chance.” Thus, instead of reaching Δ, Harry has been caught in the quilting of the signifier and presented instead with S', or the simple chain of signifiers used to express this pre-Symbolic intention. Because of this, despite all of Harry's efforts, he remains stuck within the Symbolic order, and consequently he continues to attempt to extricate himself from it.

At this point it becomes important to understand Harry's own fantasies, because, as Silverman points out, this chain of signifiers that Harry has created “must be doctored to the point where it is virtually constructed by Harry” (Silverman, 90). Because Harry has “constructed” this part of the conversation himself, it is inextricably tied up with his own fantasy frame. Thus both Harry and the audience hear the phrase emphasized “He'd kill us if he had the chance.” This plays perfectly into Harry's fantasy of his own reunion with his mother since the mother figure in the conversation is threatened with death, which he fantasizes himself capable of preventing. Silverman points out Harry's intense fascination with another moment in the conversation he has taped where Ann pities a bum and says that every time she sees a homeless person she thinks that “he was once somebody's baby boy, and he had a mother and father who loved him”. She argues that

This speech intersects with two other details from the conversation, which also resonate with maternal affect, and which are similarly privileged by Harry. One of those details is the sound of Ann's voice singing snatches from [a] child's song.... The other is the image of her solicitously removing a speck from her companion's eye. (Silverman, 89) 

These images all symbolize Harry's desire for reunion with his mother: first her pity for a grown-up boy and his lost family, second her singing a lullaby, and third her motherly care for her companion. Thus it is significant that Harry (and the audience) at first understand the statement “He'd kill us if he had the chance” as a threat to the maternal figure embodied by Ann.

Here the film cuts from Harry asleep in his bed to a short segment of the conversation in which all we can hear is static and finally to a dream sequence. Harry dreams of an encounter with Ann over which Coppola inserts the same odd-sounding static. In the dream Harry introduces himself to Ann and tells her, in true Freudian fashion, about his childhood:

I was very sick when I was a boy. I was paralyzed in my left arm and my left leg. I couldn't walk for six months. One doctor said that I'd probably never walk again. My mother used to lower me into a hot bath as therapy. One time the doorbell rang and she went down to answer it. I started sliding down. I could feel the water starting to come up to my chin, up to my nose, and when I woke up, my body was all greasy from the holy oil she put on my body. 

Here Harry is describing to (his fantasy of) Ann a scene of his failure in childhood to fully enjoy his mother. He finishes the story by saying “I remember being disappointed I survived,” indicating that this is not a scene of satisfaction or jouissance. While this may at first appear to discount my attempts thus far to show that Harry desires to return to this point (why would he want to go back if he wasn't happy then?), on closer inspection this moment in fact reinforces my argument. First of all, the obvious point: the driving force behind Harry's attempts is above all unconscious. He is not saying to himself, “If I were to prevent this murder, it would be like being with my mother again,” but instead this is what's pushing him to break his rules about not getting emotionally involved in the cases he accepts. Second, this memory (whether it is accurate or not) actually functions as the driving mechanism behind Harry's actions. As a memory it has a functional place within the Symbolic: it is not a memory of pre-Symbolic time. It is thus, to turn it on its head, a precise confirmation of my argument in that he defines himself with this memory as someone unable to fully enjoy his mother since he is crippled (paralysis) and his mother has other desires (answering the door). He is therefore trying to return to a point even before this memory, a point which perhaps never existed, in which he was fully capable of enjoying.

After Harry's discovery (or fantasy) of a possible murder plot, he decides to take matters into his own hands. He goes to the hotel mentioned in the conversation and rents a room adjacent to the room in which the two planned to meet. After examining the interior of the room, he goes onto the balcony where he witnesses the planned murder through pebbled glass. The problem is that the murder is not of Ann nor Mark, but a third element, Ann's husband. This does not fit within Harry's fantasy, and this reversal of the subject to be saved causes Harry to be traumatized and run inside and curl up (significantly) into the fetal position in his bed. He is in this way repressing the traversal of his fantasy and exposure to the Real with a fantasmatic return to childhood or a retreat back into fantasy. This reversal, however traumatic, reveals to the audience that the correct emphasis is actually “He'd kill us if he had the chance,” justifying the couple's murderous intentions instead of providing Harry with a possible position as savior.

When Harry wakes up he picks the lock for the adjoining room and enters, looking for evidence of the murder. He goes into the bathroom and examines the shower drain and the toilet bowl, both objects which Zizek identifies as “focal objects” and which he argues are “cracks” through which “we can perceive just the abyss of a netherworld. When we look through these cracks we see the dark other side where hidden forces run the show” (Zizek2). Then what Zizek identifies as “the ultimate horror” occurs: Harry flushes the toilet and, instead of flushing, the toilet bowl fills with blood and tissue which proceed to overflow onto the floor. This is the emergence of the Real for Harry. He has come too close to the mythical intention, Δ, too close to objet a, that which organizes and gives consistency to his desire. This is especially so since the murder was not of Ann, but of her husband. This unexpected reversal completely dissolves Harry's fantasy of reunion with his mother, since the mother in this scenario is in fact a killer intent on destroying the image of the complete, unalienated family unit. Harry eventually returns to his apartment where he plays his saxophone (something he does to relax) in an apparent attempt to regain control of the situation. Instead he receives a call (despite never giving anyone his phone number) from the customer who gave him the original assignment. The voice on the other end says “we'll be listening to you” and then plays a recording of the music Harry was just playing. This completely destroys what was left of Harry's fantasy of separation from the Symbolic and causes him to tear apart his entire apartment looking for microphones or other surveillance equipment. He fails to find anything, and the movie closes with a shot of Harry's wrecked apartment which pans back and forth, imitating a surveillance camera. Thus Harry (and the audience) is denied his (our) fantasy of separating himself from the Symbolic and returning to a pre-Symbolic state before the loss of his lamella where he was reunited with his mother.

Works Cited

1. Coppola, Francis Ford, The Conversation, Paramount Pictures, 1974
2. Lacan, Jacques, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, Norton, New York, 1978
3. Silverman, Kaja, The acoustic mirror: the female voice in psychoanalysis and cinema, Indiana University Press, Indiana, 1988
4. Zizek1, Slavoj, The Sublime Object of Ideology, Verso, New York, 1989
5. Zizek2, Slavoj, The Pervert's Guide to Cinema, Mischief Films, 2009


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