Watergate At the Movies

For some reason, don’t ask me why, I am having nostalgia for the days when an American President could be run out of office with a sufficiently bad scandal. Here’s a review of two movies which captured the era of Watergate.

The Conversation

Central to The Conversation is the character of Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), a lonely little man with an empty little life, whose nondescript appearance and meticulously-guarded privacy disguise his true job as the head of a small private surveillance company. Widely respected in his field – as shown by the reverence he is accorded when he happens to attend a surveillance worker’s convention – Caul works for a wide variety of clients, including several government agencies (though he doesn’t always know which one).

When his company is hired to do some more government work – keeping tabs on a nervous young couple (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest) – they figure it’s most likely IRS work. But when Harry pops by to drop off the surveillance tapes, the director (Robert Duvall) of the agency he’s been working for is mysteriously absent, and his assistant Martin Stett (a startlingly young and wonderfully sinister Harrison Ford) insists that he should take charge of the tapes – which flies in the face of the instructions Caul was given. His suspicions aroused, Harry reviews the tapes and realises that the pair he’d been trailing might have been more scared than he’d at first thought. A clash between his personal ethics as a devout Catholic and his professional obligations to his client ensues; eventually, Harry ends up convinced that something tragic and horrible is about to happen, something he might be powerless to stop.

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Filmmaking Out Of Balance

In 1982 Godfrey Reggio (with the backing of Francis Ford Coppola) unleashed Koyaanisqatsi on the world, the first of a triptych of non-narrative documentaries which convey their ideas largely through images without explanatory narration or dialogue. The rest of the trilogy was filled out by Powaqqatsi in 1988 and 2002’s Naqoyqatsi, the latter of which is rather widely disliked since it consists not of lovingly assembled, gorgeous imagery shot on location but a mashup of cheap stock footage and really badly dated CGI. Indeed, when Arrow Video put out a recent Blu-Ray edition, they left out Naqoyqatsi entirely – but how do the other films hold up?


Koyaanisqatsi is a movie keen on showing us a bunch of stuff. A set of pictographs from the Great Gallery in Horseshow Canyon, the depicted figures limbs de-emphasised in a way which makes them look almost mummified. Rockets launching into space – or detonating in midair. Commuters shooting out of escalators like sausages issuing forth from a sausage machine. Mining activities, natural landscapes like Monument Valley giving way to industrial and urban landscapes. The Philip Glass soundtrack saws away at our ears as we are confronted with visual after visual and invited to string them together into some form of greater whole. But is there anything there?

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