Lancaster University, 1993. I’m in a class. It’s the creative writing MA. My tutor is Alan Burns. He wrote Europe After the Rain, Babel, Dreamerika! He was one of a group of experimental writers knocking around in the 1960s which included BS Johnson. Alan used to talk about cut-ups a lot. And he was fond of this exercise: choose a word and don’t say anything but, all day. See how it makes you think. See what it does to the word. How does it change your perception of what words mean. Fishpaste. He spent all day walking around saying nothing but fishpaste. He had a dream once, in which he was playing in an orchestra and he was sweating because he didn’t know what the hell he was doing. But then he looked to one side and there was Picasso on the cello, so then he knew everything would be fine. Interesting guy, Alan Burns.
3 – THE CONVERSATION (1974)
I loved the rash of paranoid thrillers that came out in the 1970s, particularly The Parallax View, All the President’s Men, Three Days of the Condor and The Conversation. Sandwiched between the first two Godfather films and Apocalypse Now, this was Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘quiet’ project, but it was no less gripping for that. Prescient too, in the way it warned of a society in which every movement, every conversation, every action on a computer can be tracked and traced.
Harry Caul, a professional ‘bugger’, complete with grubby flasher mac, is commissioned by a shadowy client to record a couple as they prowl around a busy park one lunchtime. It’s no easy job. The two are furtive, suspicious, clearly trying to keep their conversation private. Caul’s genius is in being able to cover every angle, no matter where they might decide to go. He’s got supersensitive microphones on roofs, and a bunch of employees on the ground, some so skilled they can record their quarry while walking in front of them. The only problem is that the mics pick up all the ambient noise too, causing much of it to be unintelligible. The way Caul feels his way to their words through the static, using his state-of-the-art tape decks, is an engrossing sight, especially when he uncovers more than he bargained for.
Gene Hackman is brilliant as the socially awkward, intensely private Caul who, like Martin Sheen a couple of years later, endures a shattering descent into his own heart of darkness.