In the 1970s, San Francisco gained a new importance for post-studio Hollywood. This article examines the role played by the city during a decade of crisis and reorganization for the film industry, arguing that its contribution to New Hollywood went deeper than iconic cityscapes or countercultural surface. As a rapidly redeveloping city at the cutting edge of high-tech, post-Fordist production, San Francisco offered the spaces and capital arrangements necessary to allow Hollywood sufficient breathing room to reconfigure both its relationship to its own talent and its viewers' relationship to films in ways that would fully enlist both groups in the post-industrial economy. In this article, I explore San Francisco's distinctive role through close analysis of The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974), a key text of seventies cinema. While conventionally viewed through the prism of Watergate and national politics, reframing or remapping the film in its specific urban context provides an alternative perspective on New Hollywood filmmaking and its participation in new paradigms of production, consumption and labor. Shot on location by Coppola's independent company American Zoetrope in disused warehouses, condemned buildings and newly-built skyscrapers, The Conversation evinces the material role of the film industry in the shifting productive capacities of the city. And through its central investigational narrative and evocation of two key visual tropes - the planner's gaze and the editor's gaze - it engages with the transformation of San Francisco and with new modes of authorship and spectatorship in the emerging New Hollywood.
At the end of 1970, Variety's veteran editor Abel Green looked back over a year of exceptional turmoil and critical self-examination in the American film industry. As he summarized in his singular style, "All media in 1970 reflected in day-by-day downbeat the madness, modness, moodiness of a year of crisis and confusion." Inflation, cutbacks and recession had been consistent themes not only for the national economy but also more specifically for Hollywood, where writedowns, layoffs and liquidation of assets had dominated the trade press headlines. Beyond the film industry, Green also drew direct connections between Hollywood's malaise and the state of the American city. In particular, New York offered a compressed portrait of the country in microcosm, with a kaleidoscope of concerns encompassing "housing, reurbanization, flight of population, strikes, passing of traditional enterprise...violence, bombings, Panther trials, prison revolt, narcotics addiction programs, police bribery, firemen harassment, bomb scares... and vigilante aggressiveness."1 Elsewhere, however, the media were spinning a different story. Despite its fair share of urban problems, San Francisco was showing a sharp rise in film production; as Show magazine had proclaimed earlier that year, 'The Movie Business is Alive and Well and Living in San Francisco."2 Indeed, since the massive success of Bullitt (Peter Yates, 1968), San Francisco had attracted a series of high profile location shoots. This trend continued in the following year with Dirty Harry (Warners, 1971), the first in a Bay Area franchise that would propel Clint Eastwood to Hollywood's top tier. But what accounted for this rapid burst of filmmaking in San Francisco, and what was at stake in the dual crisis of Hollywood and the city implied by Green's editorial?
In retrospect, the crisis can be best understood as a moment of transition for the city just as for Hollywood, and furthermore, as a transition that placed both together in novel configurations. By the turn of the 1970s, the break-up of the Hollywood studio system had catalyzed new dynamics between the base of the film industry in Southern California and a variety of emerging production centers across the United States.3 In the face of vanishing employment in traditional industries, many cities began to turn to the more characteristically post-industrial sectors of media and culture as avenues for investment. Hollywood location shooting, dramatically increased by studio sell-offs and new production practices, presented itself as an ideal clean industry - and not coincidentally, one that came pre-packaged with glamour as well as with powerful branding opportunities. As James Sanders has outlined, John Lindsay's New York was a trendsetter, becoming the first city to create a standalone film bureau and to market itself as a 'film friendly' destination to compete with Los Angeles. But while the rise of New York City as a location shooting hub in this period has been relatively well-documented, San Francisco also had a distinctive and influential role to play in the formation and development of New Hollywood.4
On the surface, San Francisco had much to offer the Hollywood location scout: a long-standing (counter)cultural center in relative proximity to Los Angeles, it could boast a beautiful and highly iconic visual environment with a newly cinematic, "Manhattanized" skyline. Yet, as I will argue, the causes of the city's expansion as a filmmaking center and its significance within the composition of New Hollywood require further unpacking. My article pursues this project from three interrelated perspectives. Firstly, the film industry in San Francisco was substantially assisted by proactive local government support. As part of a wider post-industrial turn, imaging (and potentially branding) the city via cinema began to be conceived of within a wider visual strategy of which urban design was the clearest expression. In the early 1970s, San Francisco was an important testing ground for this emerging discipline, which reconceptualized the urban citizen of the modernist city as a "user" or "consumer" of the cityscape as visual environment. Secondly, the redevelopment of specific areas of San Francisco provided both novel backdrops for filmmaking and cheap and plentiful space for post-production facilities. Though this redevelopment was not unique to the city, the expansion of film and cultural industries in San Francisco followed an especially high-tech path that evinced its interconnectedness with the wider urban region. Beyond the city limits, Bay Area firms were at the cutting edge of new developments in electronics and microprocessors, fueling innovation in key aspects of film technology from sound processing to special effects - areas that would be of central importance to the industry's revival in the second half of the decade. Thirdly, the city functioned as an important space, both materially and discursively, for a set of successful filmmakers (notably Francis Coppola and George Lucas) who reflexively constructed the notion of an "independent" or "creative" San Francisco in implicit opposition to the imperatives of corporate studio management. In this way, San Francisco not only provided the physical distance from L.A. and the infrastructural requirements for a new kind of filmmaking but also became an important ideological marker for renegotiating the status of the "auteur" in the age of flexible specialization.
In this article, these concerns are framed by an in-depth analysis of The Conversation. While the film's strong political resonances with the Watergate scandal have long been understood by critics and academics alike, little has been written about its relationship to the city. Shot on location in San Francisco under the auspices of Coppola's American Zoetrope studio, though funded and distributed by Paramount/Gulf & Western, its production history provides a rich case study of the ways in which New Hollywood was both shaped by and participated in the restructuring of urban space and the emergence of post-Fordist models of production, and of the specific role of San Francisco within these processes. Yet, as I will explore, cinema did not passively reflect such developments, but arguably played an active, material role in crystallizing new forms of visuality and spectatorial activity that were central to the post-industrial city and its emerging logic of labor and consumption. Finally, I double back from the city to the film industry again to consider how The Conversation might be read as an industrial allegory, whereby the film's central premise - the struggle over the ownership and interpretation of a piece of recorded material - becomes a figure for the perennial battle for "final cut" and a productive symbol for the role of the artist in New Hollywood.
Untangling these complex, recursive relationships between cinema and the city requires illumination from multiple angles simultaneously. In Utopia's Ghost, architectural theorist Reinhold Martin outlines an interpretive model for assessing "the interplay between discursive constructions, urban imaginaries, and new politico-economic configurations." As he argues, the complexity of the postmodern or post-Fordist moment necessitates that "such a model must move along two distinct but related axes: an axis of representation and axis of production," a theoretical move that requires the "complex topologies" of the feedback loop.5 My analysis of The Conversation and San Francisco therefore moves back and forth between the material and the imaginary, the concrete and the discursive, in order to grasp the complex system of feedback between the urban and the cinematic in this moment of transition.
San Francisco and New Hollywood
As San Francisco moved rapidly towards a primarily post-industrial economy, Mayor Joseph Alioto (1968-1976) was quick to grasp the importance of the film industry as an area of strategic significance in economic, cultural and ideological terms. Taking the lead from his New York counterpart John Lindsay, Alioto was a key player in promoting filmmaking in the city.6 Previously an antitrust lawyer, the Mayor had already played a supporting role in the vertical disintegration of the studio system, having successfully represented Walt Disney and Samuel Goldwyn in widely-publicized lawsuits against 20th Century Fox and their West Coast exhibition monopoly.7 And as chair of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency during the 1960s, he had an especially strong understanding of the potential synergy between urbanism, cinema and the visual branding of the city on the national and international stage. Throughout his time in office, Alioto was a strong advocate for the local movie industry and a visible public presence in the city's film community, making speeches at the San Francisco premiere of Dirty Harry and at the opening party of American Zoetrope (an event described as "an orgy of self-congratulation.")8 While the city had yet to develop an autonomous film commission, location shooting was promoted as a wider part of the city's marketing strategy through the Convention and Visitors Bureau. Alongside producing publicity materials for the city more generally, the CVB developed a location shooting manual, a guide to filmmaking and offered industry liaison both for Hollywood and the city's expanding advertising industry.9
This pro-active support from local government catalyzed the development of the city as a Hollywood location shooting destination. Bullitt (1968) kick-started a series of Bay Area crime films that took advantage of the city's distinctive topography and soaring skyline, which provided a visual environment that was at once recognizably metropolitan yet subtly different from (and markedly less dystopian than) Manhattan. Alongside films such as They Call me Mr Tibbs! (Gordon Douglas, 1970) and The Laughing Policeman (Stuart Rosenberg, 1973), it was above all Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971) and its sequels that cemented the city's onscreen reputation during the 1970s.10 While the crime film naturally leaned towards urban crisis and the landscapes of disinvestment and decline, San Francisco was also a natural habitat for comedies and capers, such as Play it Again, Sam (Herbert Ross, 1972), What's Up, Doc? (Peter Bogdanovich, 1972) and Foul Play (Colin Higgins, 1978) (fig. 1).11 Frequently, the city's redevelopment became directly implicated in films, from George Lucas's sci-fi dystopia THX 1138 (1971), which used sections of the newly constructed Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system to double as a futuristic underground city, to disaster film The Towering Inferno (John Guillermin and Irwin Allen, 1974), which depicted an imaginary addition to the skyline, the ill-fated "glass tower."
From a broader perspective, location shooting was but one component of a strategy to manage the city's post-industrial transition - a strategy that viewed the city both in terms of economics and aesthetics and increasingly placed the city's visual environment center stage. In some cases, the city branding potential of cinema and television was self-evident. For example, the credit sequence of The Streets of San Francisco (Quinn Martin Productions, 1972-1977), a rapid montage of iconic monuments and visitor attractions, plots out a tourist itinerary of the city (fig. 2). Showcasing the Golden Gate Bridge, the Municipal Railway, Coit Tower and Chinatown, this sequence brings together historic landmarks with newly redeveloped areas such as the post-industrial dockland district of Fisherman's Wharf. On the surface, The Conversation's low-key and somewhat abstract meditation on urban alienation could hardly have been further removed from this vision of the city. But while Coppola's film was hardly likely to excite the Chamber of Commerce, it was nevertheless implicated in a sea change in the development of the city's approach to planning, a correspondence that requires a brief detour into San Francisco's unique urban history.
From modernist planning to urban design
As I have suggested, San Francisco was a key arena for the emergence of a new discipline, urban design, which superseded the practices of modernist planning that had defined urban development in the postwar period.12 Nascent during the 1960s, the new approach was enshrined in public policy in the San Francisco Urban Design Plan (1971), which set a benchmark for future engagement between city government, developers and citizens.13 The rise of urban design in San Francisco was, in part, a pragmatic response to the city's rapid modernization - and the resistance it generated - during the postwar decades. It is now somewhat of a historical irony that Jimmy Stewart's detective in Vertigo (1958) should develop acrophobia on the eve of what San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen would dub a "vertical earthquake": a two-decade skyscraper boom that transformed downtown and dramatically re-imagined the city skyline. In the year following Vertigo's release, the construction of the Crown-Zellerbach building (SOM, 1959) inaugurated a series of high-profile construction projects that massively expanded the Central Business District. Throughout the 1960s, a pro-growth coalition of local government and business interests pushed urban renewal schemes intended to revitalize key areas and reposition the city as a financial hub for the West Coast/Pacific Rim. Downtown office space doubled between 1960 and 1980; by the mid 1970s, the city could claim to be the second largest financial center in the United States.14 By the time Harry Callahan surveyed the city from the rooftop of the Bank of America Center at 555 California Street, a radically transformed San Francisco was in full view (fig. 3).
But such breakneck modernization came at a price. Unsurprisingly, given the city's long association with political radicalism, development was met with fierce resistance from the late 1950s onwards. While struggle first ignited around the proposed Embarcadero Freeway, protest subsequently became widespread, tackling a range of concerns from population displacement to environmental impact. The iconic aesthetic form of the city also figured strongly in the local imagination, and numerous attempts were made to pass anti-highrise legislation throughout the 1970s.15 The adoption of urban design in the 1971 plan was therefore strongly shaped by a strategic need to curb the most visible excesses of the city's redevelopment while preserving its political-economic functions. Building on research carried out between 1968-1970, the 1971 plan produced what Kevin Lynch described as a "statement of visual policy."16 Stipulating guidelines on building height, width and color, establishing zoning priorities and preserving specific "view corridors," the plan set out what Kenneth Halpern described as "the most comprehensive urban design controls in the US."17 In the philosophy of the designers, protecting views of the Bay and the Bay Bridge was given special weight, as were areas of classical public space such as Union Square.
From one perspective, urban design had progressive credentials, responding in part to the demands of pressure groups and paying greater respect to the existing form of the city and its public spaces. In this light, urban design was a signal moment in the turn against the perceived authoritarianism and paternalism of the top-down, modernist planner. Yet viewed from another angle, the move from "planning" to "design" had a neoliberal orientation. Rebranding the discredited urban planning as design moved urbanism more fully into an entrepreneurial paradigm of city governance, under which developing, visualizing and marketing the city became closely intermeshed. Aimed at "users" or consumers rather than "citizens," urban design largely avoided questions of social equity in favor of purely aesthetic concerns, conceptualizing the city as an essentially visual experience for consumption or reproduction. Furthermore, it replaced direct intervention with regulatory oversight, mapping out a new kind of public/private relationship for development. Just as the Hollywood studios had relinquished full control of the detail of their finished product by turning to subcontracting, so the city development agencies became authors not of city space itself but rather of the "decision environment" in which design was carried out. Variously described by Jonathan Barnett as "designing cities without designing buildings" and by Robert Shibley as "enabling but not authoring the built environment," urban designers become not the authors of city space but the creators of an "invisible web" that guides development. R. Varkki George names this intervention at one remove "second order design," an especially useful management structure for working in "turbulent decision environments" when shifting social, political and economic factors make top-down control a riskier venture.18
American Zoetrope and the logic of subcontracting
The early 1970s were also undoubtedly a "turbulent decision environment" for the Hollywood studios, where subcontracting creative work also played a significant role. Though the move to flexible specialization in the film industry had been developing since the Paramount Decrees of 1948 effectively broke the back of the studio oligopoly, the shock of the industry's profitability crisis in 1969-71 significantly accelerated the process. Faced with historic losses, the studios began to seek new ways to restructure the business, renegotiate their relationship with talent and recapture their connection with audiences. Package production allowed the studios to streamline their processes and divest unnecessary fixed capital. While finance, distribution and marketing remained core studio functions, production itself was increasingly subcontracted (albeit closely managed and overseen from the center), enabling a decentralization of shooting and post-production in key spots such as New York and San Francisco. At the same time, a new generation of film-school educated directors like Coppola, Lucas and Scorsese now envisioned their role not as studio employees but as auteurs: perceiving themselves within but not of the mainstream, they saw creative control as an ideal to be defended. Yet for the studios, and their new corporate management, these directors held the key to success with the all-important youth market.
One significant way in which studios managed the relationship with directors during the early 1970s was through contractual agreements with small, semi-independent production houses helmed by proven talent. A key example was BBS, where Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider were able to leverage their insider status and success with Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969) to produce an influential series of personal films such as The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) for distribution with Columbia. It was on this basis that Warners/SevenArts first invested in Coppola's American Zoetrope project. In a development deal worth $600,000, Warners signed options for seven pictures budgeted at under one million dollars a piece, including prospective projects such as THX 1138, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now. In its first iteration, American Zoetrope brought together a group of Coppola's established collaborators and fellow travelers, including George Lucas, editor and sound mixer Walter Murch, and the cinematographer Caleb Deschanel.19 Coppola spent the bulk of the advance money at the Photokina trade fair in Cologne on state-of-the-art editing and sound technology from Keller and Steenbeck. At this point, investing in new technology placed Zoetrope well ahead of the Hollywood studios, whose plant was becoming increasingly dated (as MGM production head Herbert Solow lamented at the time, "Unfortunately, this studio was built 45 years ago and so were all the others in town").20 For the majors, then, another implicit benefit to outsourcing production to innovative small firms such as Zoetrope was that doing so enabled filmmakers to take advantage of technological innovations unavailable in the crumbling studios.
However, the deal with Warners/SevenArts was dissolved after their production executives deemed THX 1138 too uncompromising for the mass market, and in November 1970, the studio demanded their money back. Coppola was forced to make cuts at Zoetrope and transform it from an idealistic filmmakers' collective into a viable business venture, reducing staff and leasing office space and equipment to producers of advertising and industrial films.21 It was not until August 1972, after the extraordinary success of The Godfather, that Coppola was able put together a new deal, this time with Paramount/Gulf & Western. The Directors Company brought together three of the hottest talents in New Hollywood - Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich and William Friedkin - and placed them in an open twelve picture deal with Paramount, who would split the profits with them 50/50.22 For the directors, the deal promised an unusually high degree of creative autonomy; for the studio, it helped provide a steady flow of projects and kept three talented filmmakers under their wing. As Jon Lewis puts it, "The Director's Company recontextualised auteurism within the studio superstructure; although the deal ceded a modicum of autonomy to three famous directors, it did so in exchange for what amounted to the directors' capitulation to the studio's primary goal of producing movies that made money."23 Or, at least, that was the ideal: while Gulf & Western boss Charlie Bluhdorn was in favor, Frank Yablans, then Paramount President, hated the idea.24 This deal set the stage for confrontation further down the line and produced a rift between Coppola and the studio that affected The Conversation on multiple levels.25
The site of the first incarnation of American Zoetrope was some vacant warehouse space at 827 Folsom Street in San Francisco's South of Market (SoMa) district. The premises were a stone's throw from the site of the proposed Yerba Buena Complex, a highly contested redevelopment zone which was stymied by grassroots protests and stalemate in local government and remained little but an enormous empty space throughout the 1970s (though it would later become, in Thomas Hutton's words, "a flagship site of San Francisco's cultural economy and tourism sector").26 It is, of course, now a familiar pattern that artistic movements and high-tech, "creative" industries have emerged in urban locations where they can capitalize on cheap and plentiful space arising from industrial decline. In this sense, Zoetrope was at the cutting edge, combining technological innovation and artistic endeavor in a distinctly post-industrial setting and prefiguring the area's later development as a hotspot for media companies and web startups (it would later be dubbed "multimedia gulch").
The Conversation therefore emerged at a historic turning point or fault line between the modernist city of the planner and the postmodern city of urban design. As I will argue, it participates in a broader, New Left critique of the modernist city as an alienating and abstracting place where unchecked corporate-bureaucratic power threatens the sovereignty of the individual and destroys coherent public space. Yet the film was caught up in a double bind. At the same time as it critiques the planner's gaze and the modernist grid, the film is unavoidably implicated, both in its conditions of production and its textual form, in the emergence of a new paradigm—the postmodern city of urban design, gentrification and flexible labor. In opposition to the top-down planner's gaze, this new model emerges through the narrative of the independent contractor and visually through another persistent trope, the editor's gaze—a horizontal and reflexive viewpoint that the user must incorporate and internalize. As I will demonstrate, The Conversation aligns the planner's gaze and modernist architecture with surveillance, the corporation and the decline of the historic city, which is threatened with violent erasure. But Coppola's film and the American Zoetrope enterprise were implicated in the redevelopment of the city in two interlinked ways. The filmmakers used the redeveloping city as an infrastructural resource for location shooting and post-production, employing empty warehouses, demolition sites, condemned buildings and vacant downtown office space.27 And equally importantly, the film participated in a new logic of production and consumption, both materially (through the working practices of American Zoetrope) and cinematically (whereby the editor's gaze is paralleled in the spectatorial activity of the viewer).
Surveillance and the planner's gaze
The Conversation establishes its concern with the city in general, and the modernist city in particular, from its opening shot, a symmetrically composed, high-angle view of Union Square in downtown San Francisco (fig. 4). Though Union Square itself pre-dates modernist planning, the panoptic, bird's-eye perspective aligns the camera with the totalizing, top-down viewpoint that has been closely associated with modernism and what Martin Jay has called the "scopic regime" of modernity.28 From this opening sequence onwards, the planner's gaze of modernism is strongly associated with technologies of surveillance and control, and by extension, the potential erosion or disappearance of cohesive public space. The trope of the plan recurs several times during the film, particularly through the use of various maps and models, from the scale reproduction of Union Square that Harry Caul discovers at the wire-tappers' convention to the replica of the new downtown and waterfront in the Director's office (figs. 5 and 6). This trope consistently foregrounds the importance of the city to the structure of the film, and it also invokes the notion of planning and the planner's gaze figured in the opening scene. The selection of Union Square is significant too. In its urban design framework, the City Planning Department singled out Union Square as one of only three open public spaces remaining downtown and accordingly set out explicit principles for maintaining its character. Throughout the 1970s, attempts to redevelop buildings surrounding the square became the focal point of struggle between developers and the design panel. From this perspective, Union Square represents an older form of built environment threatened by the advance of urban renewal and corporate reconstruction.
The Union Square sequence opens with a continuous three-minute take, the camera zooming slowly and evenly towards the bustling midday crowds. As Coppola has explained, this scene was intentionally filmed in a way that would replicate the fictional events on screen. Six cameras filmed simultaneously from secret positions around the square, with the majority of non-actors in the scene unaware that a shoot was taking place. Rather than film the actors' movements according to a precise, storyboarded plan, the camera crew were encouraged to follow the action without prior knowledge of how the scene would unfold. While outwardly a realist technique, this improvised camerawork lends a disruptive sensation of contingency and indeterminacy to the action in comparison to the transparent organization of space in the classical film. Rejecting the classical axiom that the film should give the spectator "a constantly optimum vantage point," Mark (Fred Forrest) and Ann (Cindy Williams) regularly walk behind people and objects and obscure our view.29 In this way, the film develops a surveillance-image or surveillance aesthetic, which is further enhanced by foregrounding the technological nature of both image and sound (fig. 7). The extremely slow and even pace of the zoom was achieved using a newly developed programmable electronic lens, which in eliminating the observable human imperfections in the manual zoom, renders the shot as purely electronic. This evocation of technologically mediated experience is intensified by the soundtrack, which repeatedly disturbs the reproduction of diegetic sound with bursts of analogue interference (an effect achieved by running the signal through an Arp synthesizer).
While this surveillance aesthetic is most clearly visible (and narratively motivated) in the opening sequence, it subtly permeates the fabric of the film, collapsing together public and private space across the city. As Lawrence Schaeffer observed in Film Quarterly, though previous films had made use of such technologies, "The Conversation is the first to interrelate a whole galaxy of monitoring devices in such a way that the entire film seems like closed-circuit television."30 The overt monitoring of public space in Union Square is transposed into the domestic sphere of the apartment where a set of cinematic techniques disrupt the implied invisibility of the camera. For example, during the first scene in Harry Caul's apartment, the camera is static, framing an empty space with two doorways. The shot remains fixed while Caul enters, then moves out of shot into his kitchen, leaving an empty, silent room (fig. 8). He then reappears and begins to make a phone call, moving off screen to the left, leaving the camera fixed on an empty space for more than ten seconds. Slowly, the camera readjusts and pans left to frame him sitting on the sofa, its apparent indifference suggesting the movements of a closed-circuit television camera. As Coppola explains, this Antonioni-style temps mort was a specific evocation of surveillance: "I wanted the camera just to be dead, just to be there as if it was just a passive eavesdropping device - if an actor walked out of the frame, and something happened outside the field of view, it would not show it."31
The film's central interest in surveillance has often been linked to wider social trends; as Stephen Paul Miller puts it, "surveillance and self-surveillance were dominant traits, or tropes, of seventies culture."32 But for The Conversation, the technological specifics of snooping were a more local preoccupation. As the scenes filmed at a real wire-tappers' convention make clear, the surveillance industry portrayed in the film flourished on the West Coast in the 1960s and 1970s as a by-product of technological innovation. A Time magazine article reported: "California, with its high divorce rate (half as many as marriages), high incomes and highly sophisticated industries, is the hard-heartland of the U.S. bugging industry. Espionage is so commonplace in oil, chemical and aerospace companies that many California executives begin to fidget if a visitor so much as sets a briefcase beside him."33 The film explicitly refers to this kind of industrial espionage (Caul's Detroit-based competitor Bernie Moran is "the guy who told Chrysler that Cadillac was getting rid of its fins"), which, in turn, alludes to another important facet of the Bay Area's development in the 1970s: the extraordinary expansion of the high-tech industrial complex in the Santa Clara Valley, recently dubbed "Silicon Valley" in 1971. Rapid advances in semiconductors, integrated circuits and microprocessors had produced 400,000 jobs in two decades and turned a previously rural area into one of the most intensive high-technology manufacturing complexes in the world.34 These innovations not only revolutionized consumer electronics, producing the digital watch, pocket calculator, and early home computers, but also later impacted the Hollywood film industry, first through developments in sound recording at companies like Ampex and Dolby (whose noise-reduction techniques are prefigured in Caul's home-made equipment), and later with special effects and other digital postproduction techniques. Above all, companies such as Lucasfilm and Industrial Light and Magic (set up in Van Nuys in 1975, but based in Marin County since 1978) capitalized on these new processes.35 However, this celebrated innovative milieu also had an underside that underscores the dark mood of The Conversation: by the late 1970s, Silicon Valley constituted the largest open shop in North America, routinely employing low-wage, non-unionized migrant workers, and left a damaging environmental footprint that belied its reputation as a "clean" industry.36
The Conversation and urban redevelopment
Prior to editing, The Conversation contained a significant subplot about urban renewal that did not make it into the final version of the film. In these deleted sequences, we discover that Caul is the owner of his apartment block, which he has chosen not to repair because he intends to profit from its demolition under an urban renewal program. While this thread was, of course, excised from the released version of the film, urban redevelopment remains a submerged thread of the film that is often visible in the mise-en-scène. Cross-referencing the coordinates of the film's key shooting locations with a map of San Francisco's contemporary redevelopment programs demonstrates the extent to which the film is defined by the landscapes of urban renewal (fig. 9).
While Union Square represents traditional, pre-modernist public space, the other key locations of the film are clustered around redevelopment zones such as the Golden Gateway, the Western Addition and South of Market/Potrero Hill. The scenes in Caul's apartment were shot in a condemned property in the Western Addition, a residential area subject to a highly contested urban renewal program in the late 1960s and early 1970s.37 Eminent domain legislation was used to clear large areas of housing for redevelopment as public housing, office blocks and hotels, displacing some 4,000 families in the process. As the missing strand of the narrative would no doubt have made clear, the selection of this neighborhood was not happenstance. Images of demolition and rebuilding are visible in the background on several occasions, and the noise of bulldozers is audible on the soundtrack. Working with a condemned building also provided the opportunity to do things with the site that would not normally have been possible, especially in the crucial final sequence of the film, in which Caul destroys his apartment, tearing up the floorboards in his search for the elusive bugging device (figs. 10 to 12).
In unpacking the politics of The Conversation's urban themes, direct comparison with another key San Francisco film of the seventies, Dirty Harry, is especially revealing. From their high-angle, panoptic opening shots (fig. 13), to their examination of surveillance, voyeurism and the politics of space, the two films share many similarities but evince diametrically opposed approaches to the city. Both display essentially anti-urban impulses, but from different ends of the political spectrum, and can be placed within Robert Ray's useful (if rather schematic) division of seventies cinema into "right" and left" cycles.38 Dirty Harry is, of course, an emblematic film of the right cycle. A game of cat-and-mouse between libertarian, individualist cop Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) and the deranged serial killer Scorpio, who is both associated with the counterculture (he wears a peace symbol) yet targets ethnic minorities, Dirty Harry played on political and racial tensions within the city and was widely received, fairly or unfairly, as a reactionary picture. Pauline Kael, for example, explicitly understood the film as a right-wing take on the urban crisis which promoted the Nixon administration's law and order rhetoric against the perceived failure of sixties liberalism. As she saw it, "The film, which was released late in 1971, drew its special force from its overt extreme rightwing ideology; it 'explained' the law-and-order troubles of the cities by blaming them on the liberals - an explanation that Nixon and Agnew, then at the peak of their popularity, had made credible to their followers."39 Though there has been some debate about the political intentions of the filmmakers (Siegel was a liberal, while Eastwood's libertarian politics are well known), Dirty Harry has nevertheless been widely understood by audiences as a critique of liberalism. As Kael suggests, this critique not only encompassed Miranda rights but also broader aspects of social policy that had been touchstones of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs. Declaring the urban crisis to be "over," Nixon cancelled Johnson's Model Cities initiative and reframed the problem of the cities as one of policing rather than structural poverty and discrimination, a shift in political narrative that is undeniably brought to the surface, if not necessarily endorsed wholesale, by Dirty Harry.
This split is also figured and reinforced through visual style and cinematic space. The low-key image of the city in The Conversation contrasts strongly with the representation offered by Dirty Harry. Whereas Coppola favors relatively anonymous and abstract space, Siegel's film accentuates civic institutions and monumental architectural landmarks from City Hall to Kezar Stadium, preferring wide open space (in expansive 2.35:1 Panavision) to the contained style of The Conversation (filmed in the slightly more claustrophobic 1.85:1). Here, the implied "fascism" that Kael diagnosed in Dirty Harry's narrative scheme is also evoked through its spatial characteristics, employing the monumentality of municipal architecture to underpin its discourse on the necessity of interventionist policing. Though Siegel and Eastwood considered other cities for the film, they settled on San Francisco, well known as a left-leaning city, as the perfect counterpoint to their right-wing protagonist. Throughout the film, they consistently play Callahan off against the city's ethnic diversity and sexual subcultures. In one particularly significant scene, which predates a similar scenario in Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976) by several years, Callahan drives past the strip clubs on Broadway at night, expressing both fascination and disgust ("these loonies... they ought to throw a net over the whole bunch of them"). As in Taxi Driver, the pathological sickness of the city is introjected into the life of the protagonist, leading to psychosis in Travis Bickle and Callahan's barely suppressed voyeuristic tendencies (whether this is genuinely the source of his "dirty" appellation is left unclear). Nevertheless, despite some of Dirty Harry's apparent subtleties, the film's has persistently been seen as promoting the necessity of increased police powers and the rollback of liberal legislation in the face of urban social crisis.
Whereas the city in Dirty Harry is explicitly a site of racial tension, The Conversation sidelines the city's famous ethnic and social diversity. The areas most closely associated with the city's alternative and underground subcultures, such as the gay village of the Castro or the countercultural enclave of Haight-Ashbury, are systematically marginalized and excluded from view. This omission reflects the film's intention to produce a highly subjective and interiorized view of the city. Like many left-leaning films of the era, its political stance is relatively vague. As Robert Ray describes, many of these films depicted "depersonalized villains who came to represent the incessant advance of modernity ... whose impersonality seemed to stand in for a historical process."40 The non-specific anti-urbanist slant of the film, which aligns corporate control with abstract modernist space, had a clear counterpart in the political views of the new gentrifying classes who were beginning to emerge in the 1970s. As Suleiman Osman explains, young professionals moving into historic neighborhoods frequently described themselves in opposition to "a modern city that was 'impersonal,' 'abstract,' 'alienating,' or 'inauthentic.' Others referred to an 'organizational bureaucracy,' 'technocracy,' 'papa institution,' 'the system,' or simply 'the city.'"41 These broad-brush criticisms of the modernist city are reflected in The Conversation's intentionally abstract and contained sense of the city. The film carefully avoids the traditional touristic (or cinematic) iconography of San Francisco. Though Union Square is widely (though not by any means universally) recognizable, audiences are given no panoramic vistas or picturesque skylines to anchor them more reliably in geographical space. The city's iconic landmarks, from the Bay Bridge to Coit Tower, are also entirely missing. This universalized sense of city space, courtesy of art director Dean Tavoularis, is a key component in the film's discourse on modernism, which it evokes as threatening the specificities of place.42
This imprecise and politically ambivalent critique of the modern city is reflected by Caul's trips downtown, during which another topography of the city emerges. The unnamed corporation that employs Caul occupies offices in the recently completed Embarcadero Center (John Portman and Associates, 1971), one of the central developments of the downtown reconstruction. In Portman's rather grandiose view, the Embarcadero complex exemplified his vision of "what the emerging city of the future might be."43 Portman was arguably the key figure in the so-called "downtown renaissance" of the mid-to-late 1970s, when a series of high profile, iconic developments emerged in the stricken downtown areas of major cities. The most well known example was the Bonaventure Hotel (1977), famously used by Fredric Jameson as a key symbol of postmodern spatiality.44 Though architecturally modernist on the exterior, their complex and fragmented interior spaces, where inside and outside, center and margin were collapsed, left the disoriented user with no recourse but to submit to control. Their reflective glass surfaces, indoor shopping malls and parking garages suggested a complete withdrawal from and rejection of the city beyond.45
Though the city in The Conversation is disjointed and fractured in a way that Jameson would term postmodernist, it is still modernist architecture that defines the film's representation of downtown. While Embarcadero Center is a key location for the narrative, it functions foremost as a kind of abstracted notion of corporate modernism rather than at the level of an identifiable iconic building. In contrast, the instantly recognizable Transamerica Pyramid (1972) is glimpsed only as a reflection, its image appearing fleetingly in the curtain wall of One Maritime Plaza (SOM, 1964). While these locations have extra-textual meanings (especially within the contemporary context of San Francisco), they also mobilize more general and abstracted functions of space as opposed to the specificities of place. This is especially clear in the establishing shots that open Caul's visits to the Director's office, where geometrically framed compositions of Embarcadero One fill the screen with abstract form (fig. 14). This use of modernist architecture as a cinematic trope was also clearly visible in other conspiracy thrillers of the era, most notably the three collaborations between Alan J. Pakula and cinematographer Gordon Willis: Klute (1971), The Parallax View (1974) and All the President's Men (1976). In these films, as in The Conversation, the late International Style and its reflective surfaces, repetitive gridded structures and curtain walls, took on heightened significance in the mise-en-scene. In The Conversation, Caul's crisis of agency is figured through architectural environments in which he often appears trapped.
These visual tropes of abstraction are reinforced by the film's sound design, which made innovative use of electronic signal processing. The experimental qualities of the soundtrack were the work of Walter Murch, who also edited the film in Coppola's absence while the latter was shooting The Godfather, Part II. A devotee of avant-garde composers Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, key figures in the creation of musique concrète, Murch brought an experimental sensibility to the sound processing that helped established the film's sense of a destabilized and abstract spatial environment. Coppola and Murch also had connections with the San Francisco Tape Music Center, located a few blocks away from Zoetrope, where composers such as Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Pauline Oliveros were exploring new possibilities offered by synthesizers, tape loops and signal processing.46 Aside from the distinctive synthesizer interference used in the Union Square scene, Murch also used electronic techniques to subtly blur the distinction between score and sound effect, and by extension, diegetic and non-diegetic sound.
The idea of modernist urban renewal is also expressed, especially towards the end of the film, as a potentially nightmarish process of erasure that threatens the cultural heritage and collective memory of the city. By the climactic sequences in the Jack Tar Hotel, The Conversation begins to slip into horror film territory, a type of genre fragmentation characteristic of the period. The general sense of indeterminacy and subjectivity in the Jack Tar scenes mark them as especially interiorized in comparison to the outwardly realist style of the earlier parts of the film. This interiorization invites the viewer to entertain symbolic or psychoanalytic readings of details in the mise-en-scène. Caul's schizoid psychic state is articulated through the architectural effects of the hotel, where he is visually isolated in grid-like structures and endless corridors (fig. 15). As the tension builds, Caul sits in a chair in his hotel room. We cut to a full-screen shot of a mural on the hotel room wall, a painted panorama of pre-1960s San Francisco rendered in pastel shades (fig. 16). The mural is shown twice, for a relatively long duration, which suggests more than an incidental detail. Significantly, this nostalgic and romanticized portrait of the city shows it before the intervention of modernist high-rises transformed the skyline. Throughout the film, the historic city is offered only as a two-dimensional, reproducible image, rather than something that can be directly apprehended, and is presented as a knowing counterpoint to the banal and anonymous modernism of the Jack Tar itself. Completed in 1960, it was the first major hotel to be built in the city for 30 years, and it quickly came to symbolize the city's ambivalence towards modernism (the press derided it as "Texas's idea of what Los Angeles looks like").47
As in Vertigo, which also played on the intersecting layers of the city's history and memory, the hotel feels haunted by some kind of unspoken trauma - that its own construction had played a part in the erasure of the city's historic character, displacing populations and dissolving collective memory.48 The next scene reinforces this sense of trauma when, following the overflowing of the toilet bowl - a clear symbol for repressed material returning to the surface - Caul flees the hotel and runs past the demolition site glimpsed earlier in the film. Here, the return of repressed memory is associatively linked to the demolition of the apartment block, further combining Caul's breakdown with the transformation of the city and the disappearance of older forms of public space.
The pathos of the independent contractor: Harry Caul and immaterial labor
However, The Conversation's concern with the modernist reconstruction of the city was hardly new to American cinema in the mid-1970s. As Ed Dimendberg has shown, film noirs of the 1940s and 1950s had also frequently been preoccupied with the "loss of public space, the homogenization of everyday life, the intensification of surveillance, and the eradication of older neighborhoods by urban renewal and redevelopment projects."49 But what distinguishes The Conversation is the extent to which it symptomatically reveals and helps to bring into being an emergent paradigm that was fast replacing the city of the modern planner. In this sense, the melancholic affect of the film elides its real relationship to an ascendant urban middle class and a new logic of production, labor and spectatorship that was also central to post-studio Hollywood.
The scenes at Caul's workshop were filmed in similar post-industrial warehouse space to the Zoetrope premises, just a few blocks south in Potrero Hill. As Walter Murch recalled, "The warehouse that Harry Caul works in is very similar to the warehouse in which we were making the film. All of them were disused warehouses in the South of Market area, circa 1972, where light manufacturing had gone on, and were now empty."50 The decline of these neighborhoods south of Market Street provided the filmmakers not only with affordable studio space but also what was effectively a new type of Hollywood location, an environment that had previously only been seen in avant-garde films such as Wavelength (Michael Snow, 1967) (fig. 17).51
Accounts of the Zoetrope offices in this period describe it as a prototypical creative industry space which anticipates the kind of blurred boundaries between work and leisure now associated with the dot-com firms that have proliferated in SoMa since the 1990s:52
Zoetrope is a cozy, jazzy place... that resembles a collision of Creative Playthings and Paraphernalia - red, white and blue brick walls, bubbly chairs, blowups of famous old directors and zebra-stripe slashes of color. The reception area is dominated by an antique wooden pool table and a gleaming silver espresso maker and shelves displaying early movie gadgets...53
This slippage between work and play was not only a sign of the times, but also indicated an emerging shift in the way cultural industries understood the nature of labor itself. In a contemporary newspaper article, Coppola mused on his reasons for moving to San Francisco, which he summed up as "to bask in the cultural-political climate, to take advantage of the terrific orchestration of terrains in the Bay Area, and to negotiate a sane union contract."54 As Coppola suggests, the Bay Area was attractive not only for its visual environment, but also for what he perceived as a more conducive creative milieu than Hollywood. Furthermore, Coppola also viewed San Francisco as an opportunity to negotiate new kinds of flexible agreements with the unions. Variety records that by September 1969, he had established a new accommodation with local craft unions that worked to the benefit of small filmmakers and multitasking crew, a move that the local IATSE rep acknowledged as "the first of its type" in the business.55 From one perspective, there were perfectly valid artistic reasons for preferring non-union labor: for Coppola, as for many New Hollywood directors, union crews represented the entrenched conservatism and conformity of the Hollywood studios, and enforced what often seemed like unreasonable restrictions on working hours and filming practices.
However, on other occasions Coppola's dealings with labor were less consensual and more problematic. As Peter Biskind has detailed, Coppola's anti-union stance was not limited to over-the-hill Hollywood journeymen, but extended to employees of all kinds at Zoetrope: "'The feeling from working for Francis is tough shit if you don't think you're getting paid enough or if you don't think your working conditions are good enough,' said Deborah Fine, a former Zoetrope librarian. 'There's a million people out there that would kiss the ground to work for him for nothing.'"56 Either way, Zoetrope was at the cutting edge of a new conception of cultural production and flexible labor which helped define the trajectory of the industry and, as I will explore below, provided a central theme for The Conversation.
The spatial context for this new paradigm was former industrial areas such as SoMa, which have generated what the economic geographer defines as "cognitive-cultural capitalism." Allen J. Scott describes how such areas have become home to dense clusters of specialist firms that, like American Zoetrope, operate within high-tech manufacturing, neo-artisanal production and media. Labor has tended to split into two disparate layers, with low-paid service workers at one extreme and at the other, a new higher stratum that Scott defines as a "new core labour-force elite, whose work is concentrated on high-level problem solving tasks."57 While American Zoetrope and its workforce were clearly based within this emerging paradigm, these shifts in the nature of production and labor not only resonate in the fictional world of The Conversation but also have implications for the cinematic spectator more generally. From this perspective, Harry Caul is not a detective in the noir tradition, but instead represents the new information worker or "immaterial" laborer, whose work primarily involves processing information, manipulating sound and image, and "high-level problem solving."58
Like Coppola at Zoetrope, Caul runs a small firm that relies on specialist expertise and technological innovation to compete with other operators on the market (as the trade magazine has it, Caul is "pre-eminent in the field"). His position as a subcontractor is also essentially unstable, an instability that is passed on to his employee, Stan, who later leaves to join the closest competitor, Bernie Moran (Allen Garfield). Caul's work is contracted by corporate clients, though his task is primarily technical and should not involve developing a wider political or ethical framework in which to comprehend it (as he puts it, "I just want a nice fat recording"). However, he is unable to disregard the implications of the Union Square recordings. Caul is haunted by a previous job, the 1968 welfare fund case that led to the brutal murder of a Teamster accountant and his family. Despite his efforts to the contrary, the Union Square recording expands not only into his personal time but also into his memories and dreams. This reflects another facet of immaterial labor: its use of cognitive and affective processes may envelop the worker's life more fully and in a more subtle fashion than physical exertion. As Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri put it, "When production is aimed at solving a problem, however, or creating an idea or a relationship, work time tends to expand to the entire time of life. An idea or an image comes to you not only in the office but also in the shower or in your dreams."59
The repetition of the material at the editing table and the gaze of the editor is a cinematic trope that has resonances across the sixties and seventies. While The Conversation echoes both the Watergate tapes and the Zapruder footage, its most immediate cinematic relative is arguably not Blow Up (Antonioni, 1966) but rather the Maysles brothers' documentary Gimme Shelter (1970), which had been shot using equipment borrowed from Zoetrope and counted Lucas and Murch among its camera operators. Gimme Shelter had inadvertently recorded a murder at the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont, an event that quickly became shorthand for the end of the 1960s. The final sequences of the film, in which the Rolling Stones replay the grainy footage over and over on an editing table - as if attempting, through repetition, to grasp its significance or their own barely comprehended moral implication in the violence - anticipates the later scenes in The Conversation of Caul in his workshop (figs. 18 to 20). While the editing scenes in Gimme Shelter have a specific function within the direct cinema tradition, they nevertheless help to establish the visual trope of the editor's view, which takes on a new relevance in The Conversation.
The notion of high-level problem solving is also reproduced in the cognitive work expected of the spectator, where decoding the audio-visual conundrum of the Union Square sequence is the primary task required. Indeed, in its narrative complexity and ambiguity, The Conversation can be seen as an influential precursor to the "puzzle film" or "mind game" film that became a successful Hollywood niche in the 1990s and 2000s.60 The film's central sequences of Caul examining the evidence in his editing suite also prefigures a new kind of spectatorial relationship with the text, whereby film can be replayed and re-examined to reveal its hidden complexities.61 As Thomas Elsaesser has argued, the deeper significance of this characteristic of the puzzle film is that it reproduces the logic of post-Fordist labor in the cognitive processes of the spectator.62 In such an analysis, films do not only "reflect" such changes but have actively been involved in training audiences in new paradigms of labor. In the visual economy of these films, then, the top-down view of the planner's gaze in the opening of The Conversation and Dirty Harry is superseded by the editor's gaze, a reflexive and horizontal view that establishes a new logic for the post-classical spectator at the dawn of the video era.
"These tapes are dangerous, Mr. Caul": final cut, authorship and industrial reflexivity
The film's evocation of the pathos of the independent contractor and the editor's "pre-eminence in the field" could hardly be kept from reflecting back on the film industry itself. As I have argued, The Conversation is not just a film produced by subcontracting; it is fundamentally a film about subcontracting. In this regard, through its engagement with new configurations of production and labor, The Conversation is also a complex, self-reflexive text that projects a view of the auteur's ambivalent and shifting position in the emerging corporate Hollywood of the mid-1970s. The central procedural sequence, in which Harry Caul repeatedly plays and analyses the audio recording to clarify its meaning, has often been understood to generate a variety of possible metacinematic interpretations for the audience. For Noël Carroll, this sequence (and its acknowledged debt to Antonioni) constituted a "modernist" allusion through which the film reflected on the nature of cinema and the cinematic apparatus. However, recent work by Jerome Christensen and J.D. Connor on the concept of industrial reflexivity provides another perspective through which to apprehend the allusive nature of these scenes. As Thomas Elsaesser summarizes, these theorists view Hollywood films as "allegories of their own conditions of production, as parables of their studio's self-projection, and as commentaries of how Hollywood writes and rewrites its corporate history."63 In this light, The Conversation's narrative of a high-tech San Francisco entrepreneur pitted against downtown corporate interests has more than coincidental resonances with Coppola's own status within the industry: rather, it can be understood as an active allegorical tool for projecting and maintaining an image of "independence" in the shifting ground of seventies Hollywood.
In America's Corporate Art, Jerome Christensen argues that studio-produced films should be understood primarily as the product of corporate rather than individual authors. By viewing films as privileged examples of "corporate speech," Christensen demonstrates how the Hollywood studios used films as vehicles for advancing the strategy, aims and values of the organization. From this perspective, films contain narratives, images, ideas and dramatic situations that allegorically represent and advance the interests of the individual studio. As he describes, the intended audience of such self-representations might vary widely: "A studio may use allegory to admonish its employees and punish its stars; it may exhort the President of the United States to alter policy; it may allegorize its formidable institutional power to appease its creditors and dismay its competitors."64 However, during the industrial crisis of the early 1970s, the fragmentation and decentralization of the production process weakened the studios' control over the corporate identity of their output. The struggle between individual and studio authorship, always present but relatively suppressed in the classical era, therefore became intensified as package production became the norm. The question of who was able to maintain control over authorship in the era of outsourcing became a particularly vexed issue.
During the industrial crisis of the 1970s, the film text itself was therefore one important site where this struggle played out. This uncertainty or anxiety over authorship and ownership is the central allegorical thrust of The Conversation. Compressed to its most diagrammatic form, the film allegorizes the process of recording and post-production for a feature film. The audio-visual content is first captured in the Union Square sequence, a clear stand-in for principal photography on location. Though only sound is recorded in the diegesis, the film frequently and persuasively aligns the camera with gun microphones on numerous occasions and the link between sound and image is underlined by providing a visual counterpart almost every time the audio is subsequently reproduced. While Harry Caul is a soundman, the key editing sequences replay the film footage of Union Square, encouraging us to see him not just as a sound editor but as a filmmaker more generally. The workshop also functions as a proxy for Zoetrope itself, which is reinforced by photographs and accounts of the studio premises at the time. As Michael Goodwin and Naomi Wise describe, Zoetrope's cutting-edge facilities paralleled Caul's laboratory: "Zoetrope's advanced Keller sound system could record, play back, mix and transfer sound from any one of seven strips of film to any other, and run that sound in sync with any image from 70mm down to Super-8 and video."65 As production takes place off-site, the process only becomes complicated on Caul's delivery of the materials (the dailies) to Martin Stett (the studio executive). From this point onwards, the film dramatizes the post-production process and the struggle over ownership and authorship that is inherent (if not always explicit) in every package production. Caul's struggle with Stett for ownership (and the "correct" interpretation) of the material he has recorded then corresponds to the perennial battle between the studio and the director for the right to final cut (a struggle which would play out many times as Zoetrope, from THX 1138 onwards). The film's final twist is also central: the real villain of the piece is not, of course, the figure of the "Director," but rather Martin Stett (a clear representative of the new generation of studio executives, if not specifically Frank Yablans himself).
The focus on post-production and final cut is significant: as Jon Lewis has argued, post-production became a key battleground for control between studio and creative during this period.66 The high-tech turn in post-production pioneered by Coppola and Lucas, first at Zoetrope but later at Industrial Light and Magic, then became an important aspect in renegotiating this balance. For Lewis, a valuable by-product - or even a strategic aim - of making post-production reliant on high technology and specialist technical expertise was that it moved the balance of power away from the studios. What is worked through in The Conversation, then, is a specific set of anxieties around the move towards flexible specialization, which created new areas of conflict between filmmakers and management and opened up problems for the regulation and cohesive corporate authorship of the film text.
Though The Conversation's reception in the press was largely defined by the strong echoes of the Watergate scandal, the industrial allegory embedded in the film was not entirely unnoticed by contemporary critics. In Pauline Kael's estimation, Paramount had intentionally under-promoted The Conversation precisely because it didn't project the studio's values, but rather Coppola's. As she saw it, blockbuster logic was already beginning to dominate studio thinking about marketing (certain projects were tagged as hits from the outset and given large publicity budgets; others, like The Conversation, were left to wither on the vine). Despite its success at Cannes, The Conversation did not receive the high profile publicity campaign lavished on The Great Gatsby and Chinatown. As Kael saw it, Paramount were not merely cutting their losses with an non-commercial arthouse film but explicitly asserting studio power: "Gatsby and Chinatown were their pictures, but The Conversation was Francis Ford Coppola's, and they're incensed at his being in a position (after directing The Godfather) to do what he wanted to do; they're hurt that he flouts their authority, working out of San Francisco instead of Los Angeles." Even more significantly, she diagnosed another layer of complexity to the film's subterranean political nuances that reflected back critically on Hollywood itself: "Maybe the reason the promotion people didn't try to exploit the Watergate tie-in was that they suspected the picture might also be saying something about movie companies."67
The Conversation was far from the only film of the era to paint Hollywood as what Kael dubbed "a paranoia-inducing company town." For the British critic Alexander Walker, such an allusion was palpably present in another key movie released in the same year, Alan J. Pakula's The Parallax View. As Walker observed in his review for the Evening Standard:
I find the most compelling feature of the movie is how it indirectly reproduces all of the paranoid characteristics not of a national conspiracy but of a Hollywood film studio. Even the title, with its reference to filmmaking, is a stark clue. The agent who recruits Beatty talks of a "finders-fee" for his trouble, just like Hollywood wheeler-dealers do. The quiz Beatty is set even asks, "do you want to be an actor?"68
From the close phonetic resemblance between Paramount/Parallax, to the darkened screening room in which the protagonist Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) is subjected to an extended training film (fig. 21), the political conspiracy of The Parallax View persistently loops back to Hollywood itself (while the orientation of actor/producer Beatty—another key player in New Hollywood—is necessarily different to that of the director/producer Coppola, the effect is similar). From this viewpoint, the canonical seventies sub-genre of the paranoia film can be seen as a fertile ground for self-reflection on the state of the industry. In particular, these films' abiding interest in agency/structure dynamics and their persistent visual tropes of the modern corporation make them not so much critiques of the bureaucratic Cold War state as telling diagnoses of a new business climate. Though the Parallax Corporation notionally manipulates political power through assassinations, its real function is, like that of the Hollywood studios, the production of subjectivity via marketing, branding and the management of human capital.69 In addition to their more or less transparent political signification, the emblematic films of the seventies paranoia cycle therefore actualized a secondary, but no less important, level of industrial and economic signification: an aestheticized anxiety about the full induction of post-studio Hollywood - and its audience - into the age of the corporate conglomerate and the post-industrial economy more generally.
The industrial allegory of The Conversation is best viewed as part of Coppola's maintenance of an apparently paradoxical position within Hollywood. Through public self-fashioning and masterful media manipulation, Coppola has frequently sought to cultivate the image of both insider and outsider, indie maverick and industry player. However, while Coppola and Lucas may have begun as small-scale filmmakers, their roles soon expanded to those of entrepreneurs and industrial innovators, and their hits of the seventies, The Godfather and Star Wars, famously defined the blockbuster logic of the new era. Yet both still repeatedly fall back on the discourse of independence, a position that J.D. Connor convincingly demonstrates has become a commonplace, though highly significant, piece of rhetoric for directors who are patently central to the mainstream.70 This projection of independence and its discourse of auteurism characteristically masks or elides their position and influence within the industry and problematically blurs the lines between differing conceptions of independence.71
San Francisco has performed a significant role in this projection of autonomy. For Coppola and Lucas, two of the most influential players in the second wave of New Hollywood, San Francisco (and the Bay Area more generally) not only provided cheap space, infrastructure, flexible labor, and a creative production culture. For these filmmakers, the city also functioned discursively and ideologically. In interviews, books, press releases, promotional featurettes and not least the films themselves, San Francisco has been consistently evoked to maintain an ideology of "creativity" and "independence," projecting the notion that despite being central to the revived success of the Hollywood mainstream in the 1970s, they were at the same time "independent" filmmakers with artistic integrity.72
The American Zoetrope story has often been mythologized, not least by Coppola and Lucas themselves, as a struggle between independent auteurs and the corporate machinations of the Hollywood majors. For example, Michael Sragow writes in the introduction to his book on San Francisco filmmaking, Cinema by the Bay, that Zoetrope was emblematic of San Francisco's role as "a lodestone for alternative creativity"; stacked with the "seminal talents of their generation," it sparked a "creative explosion"73 The city's role as the alternative counterpart to Los Angeles was emphasized by Coppola at the Zoetrope opening party, where he declared that: "In San Francisco, movie makers have total control and total freedom. The difference is that in Los Angeles, you talk about deals, and here you talk about films."74 Here, San Francisco is clearly evoked as the cornerstone of Coppola's public image as a maverick entrepreneur, where it represents art and creativity in opposition to finance and marketing. For Sragow, it merits a classical allusion: San Francisco is Athens to Los Angeles's Sparta (though perhaps a more apposite and contemporary formulation would be Apple, itself headquartered in the Bay Area, versus Microsoft). As the title of Gary Leva's hagiographic documentary Fog City Mavericks makes clear, this discourse of independence has become central to the image of San Francisco filmmakers, whether genuinely so (John Korty) or those demonstrably at the heart of the mainstream (John Lasseter).
Though Paramount did not own premises in San Francisco, the parent company of United Artists, Transamerica Corporation, had indeed recently moved into new flagship headquarters in the Transamerica Pyramid at 600 Montgomery Street (its creator, William Pereira, had form as Hollywood's architect of choice: after designing a new building for Paramount in the 1940s, he was hired temporarily as an art director for the studio and even went on to produce two of his own films).75 As former UA executive Steven Bach has chronicled in his book Final Cut, the relationship between UA and Transamerica was especially important in the mid-to-late 1970s in defining the direction of the "new" New Hollywood.76 In particular, the fallout from two spectacularly excessive auteur productions, Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) and Heaven's Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980) effectively bankrupted UA and decisively shifted the balance of creative and financial control from the director to the producer and studio management, calling time on the "Hollywood Renaissance" and ushering in the new corporate era of the eighties. During the fraught production of Apocalypse Now, Coppola made a gift of a telescope to Transamerica president Jim Harvey. Positioned at the window of his office on the 25th floor of the Pyramid, it looked down directly at Coppola's new premises in the Sentinel Building and came accompanied with the inscription: "To Jim Harvey, from Francis Coppola, so you can keep an eye on me."77 This is, of course, pre-figured in The Conversation, where Caul briefly looks through a telescope in Martin Stett's office (fig. 22). More than an insider joke, this detail highlights how the self-reflexive industrial commentary of The Conversation reflected back into real world negotiation between personal and corporate control.
For Coppola, Lucas and others, San Francisco became an active, functional symbol of authorial control, maintained through discourse both inside and outside the film text. Using the city's left-wing, bohemian reputation, these filmmakers deployed San Francisco as a key component of the projection of creativity and independence, highly ideological keywords that often elided their real function as auteur brands and outboard research and development units for the studios. Though the industrial allegory of The Conversation played in an uncharacteristically melancholy and introspective key, it carried out the groundwork that made possible the ongoing projection of San Francisco's independence, an ideology that has retained demonstrable currency in the industry since. While Coppola's blockbuster success with The Godfather arguably saved Paramount (and in Jon Lewis's estimation, Hollywood itself), The Conversation set an alternative blueprint for the industry. Rather than understanding the film as the swan song of a paradoxical arthouse Hollywood project, we might consider it as pioneering the symbiotic relationship between the mainstream and a constellation of semi-independent filmmakers and firms. For the auteur/entrepreneur, this relationship must be partly disavowed, and independence maintained; San Francisco has played multiple roles in establishing this physical and ideological distance. Far from dying out with the "Hollywood Renaissance," the puzzle film and the self-reflexivity of the editor's gaze have become central parts of the contemporary Hollywood landscape. Despite American Zoetrope's crises and rebirths, a version of the company still operates in the present, and its early story provides an important starting point in understanding the specific function of the Bay Area for significant players in post-classical Hollywood, from Industrial Light and Magic to Pixar.
Lawrence Webb is Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Sussex.
- Abel Green, "Mad, Mod, Moody, Miserable - That Sums Up Year of 1970," Variety, January 6, 1971, 1, 52, 54. [↩]
- Louise Sweeney, "The Movie Business is Alive and Well and Living in San Francisco," Show, April 1970, 82. [↩]
- Susan Christopherson and Michael Storper, "The city as studio; the world as back lot: the impact of vertical disintegration on the location of the motion picture industry", Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, vol. 4 (1986): 305-320. See also Phyllis Funke, "How You Gonna Keep 'em Down in Hollywood Once You've Seen the Sticks?" New York Times, September 22, 1974, 135. [↩]
- On New York, see James Sanders, Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003); Stanley Corkin, Starring New York: Filming the Grime and the Glamour of the Long 1970s (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); Carlo Rotella, Good with Their Hands: Boxers, Bluesmen and Other Characters from the Rust Belt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002); McLain Clutter, "Imaginary Apparatus: Film Production and Urban Planning in New York City, 1966-1975," Grey Room no.35 (Spring 2009), 58-89. On the geographical dynamics of New Hollywood more generally, see Lawrence Webb, Seventies Cinema and the Urban Crisis: Filming the City from Recession to Renaissance (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, forthcoming 2014). [↩]
- Reinhold Martin, Utopia's Ghost: Architecture and Postmodernism, Again (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 4. [↩]
- See "Alioto Wants Frisco Filming," Variety, January 5, 1974, 8; "Tapping S.F. film potential," Los Angeles Times, April 30, 1967; Mel Gussow, "Movies Leaving Hollywood Behind," New York Times, May 27, 1970, 36; Gerald Nachmans, "Coast's Bay Area is Lure for Filmmakers," New York Times, August 12, 1971, 28; Philip Hager, "Background for Films? Often it's San Francisco," Los Angeles Times, December 9, 1973. [↩]
- Bill Steif, "Statistics Cut Fancy Figures as Goldwyn Suit Resumes in Frisco", Variety, September 18, 1957, 16. [↩]
- Michael Goodwin and Naomi Wise, On the Edge: The Life and Times of Francis Coppola (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1989), 98-99. [↩]
- "San Francisco Manual for Filmmakers," Back Stage, July 5, 1974, 24. [↩]
- Dirty Harry was followed by four sequels: Magnum Force (Ted Post, 1973), The Enforcer (James Fargo, 1976), Sudden Impact (Clint Eastwood, 1983) and The Dead Pool (Buddy Van Horn, 1988). Sidney Poitier also reprised his role as detective Virgil Tibbs in The Organization (Don Medford, 1971). [↩]
- Other examples include Freebie and the Bean (Richard Rush, 1974) and High Anxiety (Mel Brooks, 1977). [↩]
- David Gosling with Maria Cristina Gosling, The Evolution of American Urban Design: A Chronological Anthology (Chichester: Wiley-Academy, 2003). [↩]
- See R. Varkki George, "A Procedural Explanation for Contemporary Urban Design," Journal of Urban Design, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1997, 143-161; Richard Hu, "Urban Design in Downtown San Francisco: A Paradigm Shift?" Papers of the 15th International Planning History Society Conference; Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris and Tridib Banerjee, "The Negotiated Plaza: Design and Development of Corporate Open Space in Downtown Los Angeles and San Francisco," Journal of Planning Education and Research (13:1), 1993, 1-12. [↩]
- The best general account of San Francisco's postwar redevelopment is Chester Hartman with Sarah Carnochan, City for Sale: The Transformation of San Francisco (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002). See also John H. Mollenkopf, The Contested City (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983); Brian J. Godfrey, "Urban Development and Redevelopment in San Francisco," The Geographical Review vol. 87, no. 3 (July 1997), 309-333; Manuel Castells, "City and Culture: The San Francisco Experience," in Manuel Castells, The Castells Reader on Cities and Social Theory, ed. Ida Susser (Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002), 130-252; Susan F. Fainstein, Norman I. Fainstein, P. Jefferson Armistead, "San Francisco: Urban Transformation and the Local State," in Susan S. Fainstein et al., eds., Restructuring the City: The Political Economy of Urban Redevelopment (New York and London: Longman, 1986), 202-244. [↩]
- Bruce Brugmann, Greggar Sletteland, The Ultimate Highrise: San Francisco's Mad Rush Toward the Sky (San Francisco: San Francisco Bay Guardian, 1971). See also "Skylines vs. Skyscrapers," Time, March 8 1971; "Feeling Runs High on San Francisco Skyline," Los Angeles Times, May 25 1969. [↩]
- Kevin Lynch, Managing the Sense of a Region (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1980). [↩]
- Kenneth Halpern, Downtown USA: Urban Design in Nine American Cities (New York: Whitney Library of Design, 1978). [↩]
- R. Varkki George, "A Procedural Explanation for Contemporary Urban Design", Journal of Urban Design, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1997, 143-161. [↩]
- On the early history of American Zoetrope, see Michael Schumacher, Francis Ford Coppola: A Filmmaker's Life (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999). [↩]
- "Hollywood: Myth, Fact, and Trouble," Newsweek, June 30 1969. [↩]
- Schumacher, Francis Ford Coppola. [↩]
- "Paramount Forms a Directors' Unit", New York Times, August 22 1972, 54; Abel Green, "Yablans Builds Directors Co. with Bogdanovich, Coppola, Friedkin; Recall Liberty and First Artists," Variety, August 23, 1972, 3. [↩]
- Jon Lewis, "If History Has Taught Us Anything...Francis Coppola, Paramount Studios, and The Godfather Parts I, II and III" in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather Trilogy, ed. Nick Browne (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 23-56. [↩]
- Bernard F. Dick, Engulfed: The Death of Paramount Pictures and the Birth of Corporate Hollywood (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2001), 154-158. [↩]
- Michael Schumacher, Francis Ford Coppola: A Filmmaker's Life (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999). [↩]
- Hutton, 179. For an early account of the Yerba Buena Project, see Chester Hartman, Yerba Buena: Land Grab and Community Resistance in San Francisco (San Francisco: Glide Publications, 1974). [↩]
- Coppola was also making direct interventions into San Francisco's architectural heritage: in 1972, he purchased and began to restore the historic Sentinel Building, which had been threatened with demolition. [↩]
- Martin Jay, "Scopic Regimes of Modernity," in Vision and Visuality, ed. Hal Foster (Seattle: Bay Press, 1988). On planning and the aerial view, see Anthony Vidler, "Photourbanism: Planning the City from Above and from Below," in A Companion to the City, ed. Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), 35-45. [↩]
- Robert B. Ray, A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985), 33. [↩]
- Lawrence Shaffer, "The Conversation," Film Quarterly 28:1 (Fall 1974): 54-60 (59). [↩]
- Francis Ford Coppola, director's commentary for The Conversation, Paramount DVD, 2004. [↩]
- Stephen Paul Miller, The Seventies Now: Culture as Surveillance (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), 2. [↩]
- "Electronics: Bug Thy Neighbor," Time, March 6, 1964. [↩]
- "Peter Hall, Cities in Civilization: Culture, Innovation, and Urban Order (London: Phoenix, 1999) [↩]
- On Silicon Valley, see Peter Hall, Cities in Civilization: Culture, Innovation, and Urban Order (London: Phoenix, 1999), 423-454; Christophe Lécuyer, Making Silicon Valley: Innovation and the Growth of High Tech, 1930-1970 (Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 2007). [↩]
- Mike Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the US Working Class (London and New York: Verso, 2007); David N. Pellow and Lisa S. Park, Silicon Valley of Dreams: Environmental Injustice, Immigrant Workers, and the High-Tech Global Economy (New York and London: New York University Press, 2002) [↩]
- Locations for the film are discussed by both Coppola and Walter Murch in their respective audio commentaries for the 2011 DVD release. [↩]
- Robert B. Ray, A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985) [↩]
- Pauline Kael, "The Current Cinema," The New Yorker, November 12, 1973. [↩]
- Robert B. Ray, A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980 (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1985), 303. [↩]
- Suleiman Osman, The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 57. [↩]
- Tavoularis briefly describes the location selection in Michael Schumacher, Francis Ford Coppola: A Filmmaker's Life (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999), 144. [↩]
- "Rockefeller West Proposed for S.F. Embarcadero Area," Los Angeles Times, February 19, 1967. [↩]
- Fredric Jameson, "Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism," New Left Review, I/146 (July-August 1984). [↩]
- This reading of Jameson draws on a film made by Edward Soja for the Open University (UK). This collapse between interior and exterior is also implicitly figured in the film through its use of the Embarcadero exterior in several scenes as an interior reception space. [↩]
- David W. Bernstein, ed., The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008), x. Aside from this local influence, The Conversation was an early example of the transformation of cinematic soundscapes in 1970s Hollywood. [↩]
- Carl Nolte, "End of Line for San Francisco's infamous Jack Tar Hotel," SFGate, http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/End-of-line-for-S-F-s-infamous-Jack-Tar-Hotel-4992130.php [↩]
- In this sense, it points forward to The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980) where the hotel is also haunted by the erasure of history. [↩]
- Edward Dimendberg, Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2004), 7. [↩]
- Walter Murch, DVD Commentary for The Conversation. [↩]
- Lofts would only later become popular, for example, in films such as After Hours (Martin Scorsese, 1985) and Desperately Seeking Susan (Susan Seidelman, 1985) as gentrification moved into a new key in New York neighborhoods such as SoHo. [↩]
- See Thomas A. Hutton, The New Economy of the Inner City: Restructuring, Regeneration, and Dislocation in the Twenty-First Century Metropolis (Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2008). [↩]
- Gerald Nachman, "Coppola of Zoetrope - Older, Wiser, Poorer," Los Angeles Times, November 7, 1971. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- "SF Craft Union Gives Coppola Full Control in Return for 55 Hour Week," Variety, September 4, 1969, 22. [↩]
- Peter Biskind, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (London: Bloomsbury, 1998), 93. [↩]
- Allen J. Scott, "Capitalism and Urbanization in a New Key? The Cognitive-Cultural Dimension," Social Forces, volume 85, no. 4 (June 2007): 1455-1482 (1467). [↩]
- On immaterial labor, see Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 280-303. On immaterial labor in cinema, see Michael Goddard and Benjamin Halligan, "Cinema, the Post-Fordist Worker, and Immaterial Labor: From Post-Hollywood to the European Art Film," Framework 53:1 (Spring 2012), 172-189. [↩]
- Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude (London: Penguin, 2006), 111-112. [↩]
- See Warren Buckland, ed., Puzzle Films: Complex Storytelling in Contemporary Cinema (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009). [↩]
- VHS was introduced three years later in 1977. Laura Mulvey has written extensively on this new "pensive spectator" in Laura Mulvey, Death 24 x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image (London: Reaktion, 2006). [↩]
- See Thomas Elsaesser, "The Mind Game Film," in Puzzle Films: Complex Storytelling in Contemporary Cinema, ed. Warren Buckland (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 13-41. [↩]
- Thomas Elsaesser, The Persistence of Hollywood (New York: Routledge, 2012), 334. See Jerome Christensen, America's Corporate Art: The Studio Authorship of Hollywood Motion Pictures (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012); J.D. Connor, "The Projections: Allegories of Industrial Crisis in Neoclassical Hollywood," Representations, No. 71 (Summer 2000), 48-76. [↩]
- Jerome Christensen, America's Corporate Art: The Studio Authorship of Hollywood Motion Pictures (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012), quotation p. 7 [↩]
- Michael Goodwin and Naomi Wise, On the Edge: The Life and Times of Francis Coppola (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1989), 99. [↩]
- Jon Lewis, "The Perfect Money Machine: George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Auteurism in the New Hollywood," Film International, volume 1, no. 1 (January 2003), 12-26. [↩]
- Pauline Kael, "The Future of Movies," The New Yorker, August 5, 1974, 43-59. [↩]
- Alexander Walker, "The Parallax View," Evening Standard, October 3, 1974. [↩]
- This analysis is indebted to Fredric Jameson, The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System (London: BFI, 1991). The Parallax View's interest in the developing area of human resources can be read in tandem with the ideas of management theorist Gary Becker, author of Human Capital (1964). [↩]
- J.D. Connor, "The Biggest Independent Pictures Ever Made - Industrial Reflexivity Today," in The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film, eds. Cynthia Lucia, Roy Grundmann and Art Simon (Blackwell, 2012), 517-541; Thomas Elsaesser, The Persistence of Hollywood (New York: Routledge, 2012), 329-340. [↩]
- Derek Nystrom has also established how the discourse of auteurism was often implicitly furthering the interests of the "professional-managerial class" against organized labor, which illuminates the disjunction between Coppola's own working practices and the film's allegory of independence. Derek Nystrom, Hard Hats, Rednecks, and Macho Men: Class in 1970s American Cinema (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). [↩]
- See, for example, Steve Chagollan, "Bay Area a respite from the gray suits," Variety, August 6, 2001, 44, 48, 50, 51. [↩]
- Michael Sragow, introduction to Cinema by the Bay by Sheerly Avni (New York: George Lucas Books, 2006), 18. [↩]
- Michael Goodwin and Naomi Wise, On the Edge: The Life and Times of Francis Coppola (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1989), 98. For example, see Sheerly Avni, Cinema by the Bay (New York: George Lucas Books, 2006). George Lucas has been actively involved in promoting and to an extent mythologizing the role of American Zoetrope and LucasFilm and the development of Bay Area film production more generally. See also the film A Legacy of Filmmakers: The Early Years of American Zoetrope (Gary Leva, 2004). [↩]
- Douglas Frantz, From the Ground Up: the Business of Building in the Age of Money (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993). [↩]
- Steven Bach, Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of Heaven's Gate (London: Faber and Faber, 1985). [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]