Alphabetical Index of Column Topics

Click here for index.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Death of Privacy (originally published 12/98)

One of the most fascinating aspects of filmmaking is the way in which one film will spark the creation of another film, which in turn provides the inspiration for still others. Naturally, the most obvious examples of this are sequels and remakes, such as Gus Van Sant's remake of Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho." Sometimes, however, there is a more subtle connecting thread between otherwise unrelated movies. Consider, for example, "Enemy of the State," the current Will Smith vehicle. Although it is neither a sequel nor a remake, I would suggest to you that in order to fully appreciate it you really ought to look at a couple of its predecessors first. Despite the lack of any formal connection between these films, there is nevertheless a continuity that binds them.

The trail begins with "Blowup" (1966), a British production by Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni. The film centers around a photographer named Thomas (David Hemmings) who chronicles the contemporary scene in London. Thomas is a dispassionate professional, snapping pictures of the bored and decadent Beautiful People without a trace of emotional involvement. Then, while taking some idle snapshots in a park, he happens to capture a couple embracing on the grass. He is spotted by the woman, who catches up with him and demands that he hand over the film. He refuses, but her insistence has aroused his curiosity. When he scrutinizes the developed picture in detail, he is alarmed to see what appears to be a man in the background pointing a gun at the man whom the woman was embracing. Returning to the park to investigate further, Thomas finds the body of the unfortunate man. Presumably, he has been felled by the assassin in the photograph. For the first time, Thomas has taken an actual interest in the content of his photography, and it has landed him in the midst of a case of homicide.

The second film to look for on video before going to see "Enemy of the State" is a Francis Ford Coppola film called "The Conversation" (1974). Gene Hackman plays Harry Caul, an expert surveillance man who prides himself on being able to bug any conversation anytime, anywhere. Regardless of the circumstances, if the price is right Harry guarantees to turn in an audible covert recording. Like Thomas in "Blowup," Harry never concerns himself with the content of his recordings. By maintaining a professional distance, Harry is able to distance himself from any sense of responsibility if his recordings should ever be used for sinister purposes. On one particular occasion, however, he hears something that he cannot ignore. It sounds as if his recording may become the linchpin in a murder plot. Unable to buffer himself by maintaining his customary professional indifference, Harry finds himself in the unaccustomed position of having to make a moral choice.

That brings us to "Enemy of the State," in which a young attorney (Will Smith) becomes the focus of an awesome array of cutting edge surveillance technology. Just as Thomas's ability to intrude on people's privacy with his camera is dwarfed by Harry's ability to pry into private conversations, Harry's high-tech listening devices seem downright primitive by comparison with the satellite-linked, supercomputer enhanced surveillance brought to bear on Smith's character. The three films therefore form a kind of trilogy in which the illusion of privacy is progressively stripped away while the parallel problem of the moral culpability of those who intrude on privacy becomes ever more acute.

Interestingly, Gene Hackman also appears in "Enemy of the State" as an aging freelance surveillance specialist. Is he perhaps meant to be Harry Caul? The film makes no move to suggest that he is, beyond the suggestive casting of Hackman, but the point is that it doesn't matter. The world is full of Harry Cauls and Thomases, but they have long since been rendered obsolete by a monolithic culture of surveillance that never troubles itself with the moral issues with which they wrestled. "Enemy of the State" can therefore be read as the final point in a progression defined by Antonioni and Coppola, the point at which the moral component of surveillance is finally extinguished. Although "Enemy of the State" is perfectly capable of standing on its own, for that reason alone I think you'll find that seeing it in the context of the two earlier films will necessarily make it a richer experience.

No comments: