Adjunct Professor Terry Diggs, who regularly teaches Film and the Law at UC Hastings, is spearheading a symposium to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Francis Ford Coppola’s film, The Conversation.
Released just four days before the House Judiciary Committee subpoenaed President Richard Nixon’s secret recordings in 1974, the film is a probing psychological thriller shot in San Francisco that addresses how surveillance technology affects privacy.
The Conversation at 40: Privacy and Technology, Mr. Coppola and the Courts will feature the film’s editor and sound designer, Walter Murch, and talks from several renowned privacy academics. The symposium, which takes place on Friday, November 7, also includes a screening of the film on the evening of November 6, and an interactive MCLE curriculum online.
While the timing of the film was pure serendipity, Coppola “had his pulse on sociological and legal currents of the time,” said Diggs. Even before campaign operatives were found at the Watergate hotel trying to bug the Democratic Party, Coppola had set out to make this work about the cultural effects of rampant surveillance. The film, which played in theaters while Nixon was going through impeachment and won three Academy awards, was a touchstone for an era in which, Diggs wrote, “speculation about the inevitable collision of privacy and technology preoccupied courts, Congressional committees, legal commentators and popular culture.”
And there are many contemporary echoes. “Now we’re dealing with Edward Snowden’s revelations about widespread NSA surveillance, Google Glass and big data collection by companies online, but the questions are still the same,” said Diggs. “Is there anywhere that you can have a truly private conversation?”
The Conversation centers on private investigator Harry Caul, played masterfully by actor Gene Hackman. He is enlisted by a company director to record and photograph a couple as they walk and talk around San Francisco’s Union Square. As Caul compiles audio-visual evidence to present to his client, he starts suspecting that foul play is afoot, and takes steps to protect the woman, who he believes will be the victim. At the same time, Caul is approached at a surveillance trade show by a competitor who may want to partner with him.
One of the main themes of the film is Caul’s reclusiveness. He pursues his own privacy to extremes, keeping a post office box, a secret telephone line, and insisting on possessing the only key to his rental apartment. When his privacy is violated in various contexts by his landlord, by his competitor and by his client, he erupts with anger. The final scene, following the film’s climactic murder revelation, shows him tearing up his apartment in search of an elusive surveillance bug that he never locates.
“Within these scenes,” Diggs contends, “are the fundamentals of several Supreme Court cases dealing with the Fourth Amendment.”
Much of the symposium will focus on the aftermath of the 1967 Supreme Court case, Katz v. United States, which established that warrantless wiretapping of a public payphone booth violates the unreasonable search and seizure protections of the Fourth Amendment. The Honorable Harvey Schneider, a retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge who argued the case for Katz, is expected to dialogue with Stanford Law School Professor Jeff Fisher, who argued for the defense in the recent Supreme Court privacy case Riley v. the State of California. In the 2014 landmark Riley case, the Court unanimously held that the warrantless search and seizure of a mobile phone’s digital contents during an arrest is unconstitutional.
“Fisher said that he watched The Conversation right before he argued that case in court,” said Diggs, pointing out the film’s ongoing importance to today.
The film is also a fascinating tribute to 1970s-era San Francisco. Bay Area viewers will recognize many landmarks, including Union Square, Embarcadero Center and the grittier parts of Lombard Street in the Marina. Widely regarded as an aesthetic masterpiece, the film’s savvy architectural backdrops underscore how the characters are “dwarfed by the institutions around them and powerless when under surveillance,” said Diggs.
Scholars scheduled to speak about the film and its legal currents include David A. Sklansky from Stanford Law School, Kathryn S. Olmsted from the UC Davis History Department and Christina Nippert-Eng from the Illinois Institute of Technology Department of Sociology. Online materials for MCLE participants will include scholarship from the Katz period by Arthur Miller, Alan Westin, Anthony Amsterdam, Judith Jarvis Thomson, Jeffrey Reiman, Richard Sennett and others. Proceedings from the conference will be published in the Hastings Communications Law and Entertainment Journal (COMMENT). 3Ls Martin Fukui and Henna Choi co-edit the journal and are also helping to organize the symposium.
Fukui said that students will be intrigued by the symposium, which is the first-ever conference on a film at UC Hastings. “The concept of ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’ that was born out of the Katz v. U.S. case has changed for better or for worse,” he said. “It’s important for all students to understand the history of privacy and where it is heading now.”
Thursday, November 6, 2014 -- 7:00-9:30 p.m. (198 McAllister, Classroom A)
Film Screening: The Conversation (Coppola, 1974) provided courtesy of American Zoetrope
Friday, November 7, 2014 (198 McAllister, LBM)
Supplemental information located at the following url"