The Conversation, The Lives of Others, and Staring Inappropriately as Vocation

Being a writer means spending one’s life transgressing a rule we all learn as preschoolers: it’s not polite to stare. There is nothing at all polite about true and good writing. We stare as vocation.

conversationIn Francis Ford Coppola’s underappreciated 1974 classic The Conversation, Gene Hackman plays Harry Caul, a private surveillance expert who watches, listens and records for a living scenes that are none of his business. He is paid a healthy fee for invading the privacy of people he has never met. He’s reasonably good at parts of his profession, though we come to find out he is not as good as he thinks he is at all of them. What Harry is frankly miserable at is anything resembling a life of his own.

In the gorgeous 2006 German film The Lives of Others, written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Ulrich Muhe plays Gerd Wiesler, an East German Stasi officer in the early 1980s. Wiesler is assigned to spy on playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his actress girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck) who are suspected of Western sympathies. Wiesler is terrifyingly good at what he does. In a system that sustains itself through panic and fear, he is calmer and scarier than most. I have rarely seen a performance of such cold brilliance as what Muhe creates here, which makes the subtle stirrings of his humanity as he spends his nights listening in on these two artists’ bugged apartment all the more moving. We come to see his life is one of damaging loneliness.

OthersBeing alone does not, of course, mean one is miserable or damaged. On the contrary, solitude is essential for any writer. It’s a cliche that only those who have been wounded by life, or more wounded than most, become artists. It’s not the wounding that makes an artist so much as enough solitude to kick the common wounds around the vacant lot in one’s head. Of course, it is often our wounds that isolate us. I said in my last essay that my childhood was rich with both wounds and wonders, and certainly both have been active in shaping me. But others have been wounded worse. I’m convinced what led me most to writing was solitude, but not solitude exclusively; I’ve needed that soil of solitude to be watered by human empathy and understanding.

Caul, by aspects of his childhood that are revealed to us, and Wiesler, by the circumstances of his surroundings, have lived lives of solitude untempered by such empathy. Lacking the emotional language and relational incubation to help them express what they’ve dug up in that solitude, as adults they become gainfully employed parasites upon the emotions and relationships of others. It is safe to say neither of them, even the Stasi agent in The Lives of Others, intend hurt in what they do, though pain and pleasure would probably not register as integers on Wiesler’s moral scale. He almost surely believes he is doing what is right. In The Conversation the central conflict comes when Caul realizes he might be doing great harm.

Harry Caul and Gerd Wiesler are not able to love; they watch others do it. They do not laugh; they record the laughter of strangers. After listening as his charges make love (they “presumably have intercourse”, according to his report), Wiesler hires a prostitute who apologetically tells him to “next time book me for longer” after he asks her to sit with him a few minutes after their hurried sex act. Caul gets drunk at a party and lies down with a woman he believes he can trust, only to find out the next morning she has stolen many of his materials. In the evenings, alone in his apartment, he plays his saxophone along to a recording of a live orchestra, complete with applause. Both men have failed at human relationship, or been failed by it.

Gene Hackman as Harry Caul in The Conversation.

Caul knows his field well, but he lacks the personal intuition to be exceptional in it. He has talents, but also crippling blindspots, and some frankly baffling incompetencies. Early in the film he sets off his alarm system upon entering his own apartment. Inside he finds a birthday gift from his landlady. He calls her ostensibly to thank her, but in fact he wants to know how she found out it was his birthday, how she got into his locked apartment, and how she evaded the alarm system. Information and access he had thought secure were all easily acquired by someone who just wanted to give him a bottle of wine and a greeting card. We find out after a short while he has a secret girlfriend. Why she is secret is known only to Harry; even she doesn’t understand why, and neither do we. What she does know, and teases him about affectionately, is that he’s conducted surveillance on her. She has deduced something he sought to hide using a tool he, with all his high tech gadgetry, had never taken into account: intuition. At a party with his colleagues and rivals his desire for camaraderie is exploited to trick him into giving away many of his secrets. He is good at what he does from a technical standpoint. His failures in these instances all result from his emotional and social incapacities.

Harry Caul has one friend who likes him without ulterior motives (played by the fantastic and sorely missed John Cazale). At one point the two men are listening to a surveillance recording they’ve worked hard to make clearly legible. Stan (Cazale) presses Harry to admit he might sometimes be recreationally curious about the lives of the people he records, and does not relent when Harry refutes him. Caul finally erupts in response, “If I’ve learned one thing in this business, it’s that I don’t know anything about human nature. I don’t know anything about curiosity. This is my business!” It may very well be true he doesn’t know much about these things, but the lady doth protest too much. This is far more than just his business. Having successfully pushed Stan away for the evening and at last alone with his precious recordings, Caul listens to them again and again. He wants to be by himself, and when he’s finally alone, he listens to the voices on his tape machine and longs for the connection they share. He wants to be alone, and then he thumbs the bruise of that loneliness.

Observing, which here is a sanitized synonym for spying, eavesdropping, snooping or whatever other activities we artists allow ourselves but our subjects would not if they knew, can enable us to construct narratives about the lives of those we are watching. What it cannot do is guarantee they are the correct narratives, or even close. We can surmise and ruminate. We can mull the pieces of a life we have peeked in on and weave them into plots, scenes, even truths, but they might not be the truths of the actual lives we’ve been watching. Part of the genius of Coppola’s screenplay is that the assumptions we and Harry Caul make based on his observations turn out to be subtly but profoundly inaccurate. He has formed astute conjectures, and they turn out not to be the right ones. He has no way of knowing this; after all, he’s never met these people. In the German film there is a point at which Wiesler, listening to a conversation in Dreyman’s apartment and just beginning to tap into his own humanity in response to that of the playwright’s, does the same, with damaging results for all involved. Both men know a great deal about those they are listening in on, but not enough to avoid making catastrophic errors when they try to interfere. Solitude is part of what we need. If it is all we have, we are consigned to myths where there should be memories.

Ulrich Muhe as Gerd Wiesler in The Lives of Others.

To be a writer is to spend one’s life staring inappropriately, and I wonder if we sometimes do this hoping someone will stare back. Romantic comedies would have us believe that the only thing necessary to bring human connection to a damaged heart is willingness. Anyone who has lain awake at night in an empty bed, drowning in willingness, knows this idea to be categorically ridiculous. Every kid who has sat alone at a lunch table longing for friends knows it takes more than desire. True connection is not always standing at the door waiting for us to let it in, and intimacy is not a skill quickly recovered when life has given cause to let it atrophy. Gerd Wiesler is chilling in the first half of his film, holding power to destroy Dreyman and Christa-Maria, but as he very slowly begins to recognize the contrast between his life and theirs, he becomes progressively less frightening. His need opens him to vulnerability. He is no longer impervious; he becomes human. But in the process, he does damage. His intent is not enough. The resolution to his redemption comes only much later when, holding not a shred of the power he once did, he is granted the smallest of anonymous acknowledgements by a man he could have once destroyed but didn’t. It isn’t much. The film ends and allows us some comfort, but we are not deceived. Wiesler is still alone. In The Conversation, Harry Caul’s cultural context allows him more freedom in his attempts at intimacy. They uniformly backfire. He trusts someone and she takes advantage of him. In the film’s climax he tries to do what is right and makes a personal sacrifice, only to find out he’s been used all along, and his conscience is tortured all the more by the consequences of his role in the scheme. The movie concludes in his apartment he has trashed, as he plays his sax, this time without even a recorded applause.

In the 1970s Francis Ford Coppola made four nearly perfect films in The Godfather, The Godfather II, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now, though his output in the 35 years since has never rivaled them. While I’m not convinced it is mine, no one should be accused of trying to be cute if they count The Conversation as their favorite of the bunch. Still, it is largely obscured by the other three more celebrated films. The Lives of Others had its moment, receiving critical praise and winning Best Foreign Film at the Oscars, but like many winners of that particular award it has largely faded from view. Perhaps fittingly these two films, like their protagonists, sit largely unobserved, waiting to be found out.

To be a writer is to stare; more specifically, it is to watch and to listen. To risk human relationship is to allow others to watch and listen to us. This is not always easy, or even possible. When it is we move beyond conjectures and scenes into lived stories. I’ve spent much of my life watching people. Sometimes that staring has been skewed by my own unmet longing for connection and has been more about need than open curiosity, but even when my emotional tanks have been full, the staring and listening have persisted. Perhaps this is one of the reasons film is so powerful for me: it provides me an unlimited number of people to stare at, and with greater access than I could get from surreptitious eavesdropping in a bar.

I watch the two professional eavesdroppers in The Conversation and The Lives of Others and can’t help feeling a connection to them. I too have stared and listened, and I have longed, and I have drowned in willingness. But I have been fortunate for much of my life to also know friendship. The lives of others have not stayed wholly Other. Human connection has allowed me to watch and listen without having to guess at what it must be to love, to laugh. As a writer I stare not as a cold profession, but as an inner vocation. A writer, an artist, must not only stare at others to know them; we must allow ourselves to be known. Here’s to staring inappropriately, and to writing well.



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