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April 23, 2021

Coppola’s “The Conversation”: The Truth Is In The Audio (If You Listen Hard)

I’ve long thought that every qualitative researcher – or anyone who has spent long hours listening back to imperfect voice recordings and working out what they mean – should watch this film. Despite the cheesy wording of the poster, The Conversation is a subtle, tense, claustrophobic psychological thriller, one of the great 20th Century films: The Conversation - movie trailer, 1974

Surprising that it’s half-forgotten these days: written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola in his prime (released in 1974), it won the the Palme d’Or at Cannes and only missed out on the best picture Oscar to another Coppola film, The Godfather Part 2. Perhaps its release around the time of Watergate, which was coincidental, led US audiences to associate it with that sorry episode in American history; perhaps it has been pigeon-holed as a period piece; or maybe it’s just too scratchy and discomfiting.

It’s about a professional surveillance man, a sound-recording expert, played by Gene Hackman. He’s been tasked to bug a couple and record their conversations. He records them in a noisy public space, Union Square in San Francisco, then has the task of deciphering the recording. The sentence he plays back over and over, spoiler alert, is “He’d kill us if he got the chance.” But Hackman has to tinker a lot with the recording to make this out; and the emphasis in the sentence seems to change depending on how he cleans and amplifies the sound.

Hackman becomes concerned the couple are in mortal danger from his own employers. Against his professional training, he starts to get personally involved in their case. But what he finds isn’t what he expected; meanwhile, his employers start bugging him …

At one level, this is a film about surveillance, the invasion of privacy and post-McCarthy-era paranoia. But at another level it really strikes a chord with my work as a qual researcher. Because it’s also about the moral tensions involved in being a professional listener.

I am out there to elicit personal and sometimes emotionally revealing words from people (albeit that I do it with willing research participants). I sit there with my best Carl Rogers face on, nodding and encouraging, looking slightly blank, being a good listener. Then I make sense of the outpourings, package it all up for my client – and walk away. But what lingers for me after my research projects finish isn’t, in truth, the client’s decision to go with an updated logo on their 500g pack – it’s the glances into people’s actual real lives I’ve been privy to. It's a privileged, fascinating and also a slightly uncomfortable position we find ourselves in, as the revealers and explainers of other people's lives.

And The Conversation chimes too because it depicts an intense process of semantic analysis, lasering in on the possible meaning of a few key words. You watch Hackman taking a phrase from the tape and repeating it over and over, until the meaning seems to change. It changes not just because of Hackman’s technical skill as a sound engineer, but because what it seems to mean shifts in the light of other information he’s discovering. Context is all. Maybe you didn’t hear what you thought you heard. Sometimes I come to put what I thought would make a great verbatim into a deck, only to realise I can't - removed from its immediate context, it is too open to misinterpretation.

Now, it is of course rare in qual research for one utterance to be quite so pivotal as the telling sentence in The Conversation. We’re not dealing in murder plots, unless multiple grocers are using point-of-sale material to poison us all on behalf of the FSB. But there’s a lot in Hackman’s guilt-ridden listener for me I think. Hackman’s pulling apart of his own apartment at the end of The Conversation made me think of the self-deconstruction I put myself through in the (always taxing) analysis and debrief-writing process. "Is that thought good enough - isn't there more, if I dig deeper"? Analysing other people’s motivations, behaviours and emotions requires you to take yourself apart too – even if it’s not quite as bleak as the Hackman apartment scene for most of us.

And in the end, slumped in his destroyed apartment after a fruitless search for bugs, even Gene Hackman still had his saxophone.

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Written by Simon Riley

Simon Riley does interesting research

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Published on Shore Qual

Shore is a UK-based qualitative research consultancy run by Simon Riley.

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