What follows is a lengthy summary of an 86-year-old man’s life for the review of a 45-year-old movie.
Recently, this blog lost a dedicated reader. This reader wasn’t our typical audience, he was an older man who likely lived a more interesting life than most of the characters in the movies we write about. However, he preferred to keep these stories to himself. Most likely due to a mix of his humility with a dash of fear of facing old demons.
This man caught onto the blog way back when Jesse and I had no clear idea what we wanted to write about (truth be told, we are still working through that). He stuck with us as we wrote about people dying in the zombie apocalypse, as we explored becoming a daily site for our local sports teams, and even the one or two video game posts that we have since buried. And as far as I could tell, he never missed a post.
I remember feeling embarrassed when I found out about this reader. Would he enjoy my writing? Would he understand what the hell I’m talking about? Would he bring it up at Thanksgiving?
Yes, like I said, this was no ordinary reader. This man was my grandfather, my ‘papa’ if you will. He was your typical curmudgeon of an old man. You couldn’t hold it against him because he was a marine and he fought for our country in the Korean War. He was also a cop, starting off small time and eventually working his way up to work on some harrowing sexual abuse cases as he worked on what you Law & Order fans might call the Special Victims Unit.
Eventually Red, as he was called his whole life due to his shocking color of hair, found a love of technology as he worked his way into wiretapping. He worked undercover, befriending perceived bad guys like he was a regular Leonardo DiCaprio (I like to imagine him having to say, “I’m not the fuckin’ rat, okay?” at some point in his life) while tapping their phones, houses, offices, etc. Oh the stories he couldn’t tell me out of fear of repercussions, those stories and secrets are now lost to time.
You can understand my concern when I discovered him to be a reader. How I live my life, in comfort, and my bitching of fictional stories on a screen never felt important enough to share with a man who, in my perception, lived a life full of unimaginable and real hardships.
And yet, this hard-ass of a man never made me feel that way. He had a huge heart for his family and a great sense of humor. Due to the former I think he felt it his duty to encourage me to follow my dreams and to write. Due to the latter I believe he found actual connection to my writing because he saw his smartass ways in my words. Hell, he would even tell me, “That Jesse kid ain’t bad either”. And that’s probably the highest compliment he is capable of giving to non-kin.
I received nothing but positive feedback from this man that I respected and feared. And yet I never found the courage to sit down with him and interview him thoroughly. It was out of both of our comfort zones to have these real, intentional talks, even when we knew he was on death’s doormat. Everything I have written about him above was gathered slowly, over the course of 29 years as I would peel away at his stories.
Of course I was never good at telling him about my life either. One thing I never confessed to him was the impact he had on my love of movies. My papa loved keeping up with technology so he would always buy whatever was the hot, new thing. He would buy it as soon as possible, knowing the value was sure to go down, just to show that he could afford it and that he was hip enough to know what was going on.
This desire to burn money led to him purchasing a brand new DVD player at the beginning of the format’s craze. In addition he built a collection of DVDs that Blockbuster would have been jealous of. In fact, he lovingly called his office Blockbuster and would MAKE me borrow a handful of movies whenever I came over.
This is where I watched the classics. Spartacus, History of the World: Part I, Blazing Saddles, King Kong, Twelve Angry Men, Spaceballs. (Okay so lots of Mel Brooks, where do you think he and I developed our sense of humor?)
Much like his life, we never spoke about the movies. In fact he hardly even ever watched them with me. But that didn’t matter, he helped introduce me to what would turn into a passionate hobby and along the way he always encouraged me to write, to follow my dreams.
Recently I was digging through an old scrapbook that his mother, my great-grandmother, put together. The scrapbook followed Red’s career through newspaper articles. She would cut out any mention of him, his second wife (also a cop), or anything to do with his area of expertise. It was here I stumbled upon a film review of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 thriller The Conversation. The story follows a surveillance expert named Harry Caul, played by Gene Hackman, who is focused on his craft and yet passive about the people’s lives he invades.
Being that my papa’s name was Henry, often called Harry (he had many nicknames) who later in life ran his own surveillance company outside of the police force, I immediately stopped skimming and read the review. Out of nowhere I then berated my poor sister, “DID THEY MAKE A MOVIE OUT OF HIS LIFE?”
Alas, Francis Ford Coppola did NOT write his masterpiece about my granddad. IMDb explicitly states that Harry Caul was inspired by a surveillance technology expert named Martin Kaiser. I suspect the clipping in the scrapbook was just an example of a mother trying to connect with her son by saving a review about a film he might like.
I will never know if my papa ever saw the movie that eerily echoes his life. Nevertheless, after a month of mourning I finally sat down to watch the film myself hoping to further understand a man that kept his secrets close.
The Conversation, cited as both Coppola’s and Hackman’s favorite film they were involved in, is a deep dive into the ethics of the world of surveillance right as technology was allowing the lines between privacy and publicity to be blurred. It’s a haunting reminder of the dangers of allowing technology, and even other people, into our lives. A fear that today, in 2019, is omnipresent as we surround ourselves with AI connected devices that run everything from our calendar to our homes.
It follows a determined man named Harry Caul, cited as the best surveillance man in the country. Caul keeps to himself in every aspect of his life. He shuts out his neighbors, his lovers, and even his most trusted employee. He is singularly focused on technology and getting the best quality of his recordings. He cares neither for the people he is spying nor their conversations saying, “All I want is a nice, fat recording.”
His desire to separate himself from his subjects stems from an incident in his past. Specifically, his role in a job that ended with a murder of three people. As a devout Catholic his guilt is amplified and his way of dealing with the guilt is by focusing on his work.
As he focuses more and more on getting an accurate and clear recording for his current job, the guilt overwhelms him as he realizes this is another recording that could end with murder. He ends up confronting the person who hired him, as much as the meek mild Harry Caul can confront someone. The end of the film follows Harry as he attempts to save the people he has helped put in danger.
The film is a masterpiece and holds up as such. The themes of the dangers and paranoia of surveillance are as prevalent as ever. And Hackman as a passive, helpless man who is just doing his job is haunting and unforgettable. Plus Harrison Ford is there and he brought cookies.
Most importantly, to myself, the film gave me a theoretical view into my papa’s life. It reminded me of stories he told me in the past that I had long forgotten. Particularly a lighter, albeit unethical, scene that saw a bunch of surveillance experts out on the town, drinking and having a good time offering to pick locks to impress a girl and using their surveillance power to look up the name and address of a reckless driver on the road just to freak him out. That scene gave me possible insight into the youth of a man I have only ever known to be an old man.
It helped me understand why he was so secretive about what he did. Whether it was shame or fear or just a desire to not bring up old demons, the man had a lot going on that I would never be able to understand.
It also confirmed what my sister and I would always joke about. Growing up we always accused him of tapping our phones much like the accusation of Harry’s lover Ann, “sometimes I even think you’re listening to me on the telephone”, she says laughing, “It just feels like you’re there”. Of course my papa always denied this but he seemingly always knew what was going on in our lives. Maybe he was just paying attention to his young grandchildren, using our parents to catch up on our lives to impress/spook us. Or maybe he was listening to every inane conversation, unable to break old habits.
I miss him dearly every day but his impact still lives on. Every time I sit down to watch a movie or write a post, I will remember his encouragement and, most importantly, his willingness to read and to listen.