James Leroy Wilson's blog

Monday, April 10, 2006

The French Connection

While we were watching The French Connection tonight, my brother-in-law suggested a theory behind these ridiculous smoking bans. In Washington State, even bars can't allow smoking - no indoor place of business can. But they do have one effect: people can now stand around outside without raising eyebrows. In other words, it makes it easier for cops to stake out a joint. You'd probably have to see the movie to understand the difficulty of the stake-out. It ain't easy.

In any case, while I'm no film critic, buff, or historian, it seems to me that The French Connection has to be among the fifty most important movies of all time. It set the standard for the "gritty crime drama." I don't even know how many such flicks predate it (1971), or how many focused on a major drug deal. But I know there weren't many.

One thing that impressed me about the movie is that it reminds me of the musical compositions I'd play the French horn for in high school concert band. It starts quiet and slow, and then builds and builds in intensity, so that even after the most riveting part is over you are totally engrossed right through the end.

And as a movie, I think it set the tone for what Roger Ebert has called a Golden Age for Hollywood that ended when Star Wars (1977) changed the rules. And I appreciate The French Connection as a time capsule, capturing the look and feel of New York City of the early '70's. And what's striking about the movie is that, while it isn't a bloodbath, innocent people die as a result of the police's attempt to catch drug dealers.

But more than that, I gather lessons from The French Connection probably unimagined by its makers. It's a throwback to another time, before cell phones and video cameras. Yes, with a warrant the police could tap phone wires, but otherwise it took some effort to track "suspicious characters." And the bad guys catch on.

It made me think of the trade-offs we've made. Back then, one had to go to a library and ask a reference librarian to track down an obscure piece of information, and had to go through the risk of being recognized to get access to porn. You were legally free to get the porn, but there was social pressure against it. Now, both are immediately accessible with a few keystrokes. But back then, nobody was watching, or at least most people would have confidence that they weren't being watched. In that sense, they were free to do whatever they wanted. The reference librarian wouldn't have batted an eye if you wanted to find out about, say, anarchist movements in the late 19th century. Just another research topic. Today, we don't know who's tracking our Internet activities, and which keywords or sites provoke "alarm bells" that would get the attentions of Homeland Security agents. Or what sites people may visit - even inadvertently - that government agents can use as blackmail.

I will admit that even in a society without government intrusion our public movements could still be caught by other people's cell phone video cameras. And we would definitely want to read the fine print on all Internet "terms and conditions" we'd come across. But government wouldn't track our movements and activities, and we'd have no fear of mandatory "Big Brother" tracking of our every movement, through national ID cards, RFID tags, or whatever means. Privacy may be the inevitable price we pay for convenience. If that is the case, the least we should demand is that the decision to pay it be left to individual choice.


  1. the government has a lot of catching up to do with business in the area of spying on us. even 50 years ago, privacy was always a joke, some neighbor was always watching everything you did. dance naked in the streets, might as well.

  2. now anybody can pin anything on anyone and create the proof. ordered anarchy for the 'connected', ordered order for the sheeple. but, life is a clancy novel - do what you can or will while you can.

    did you like the young gene hackman? contrast that to his enemy of the people character.