Page 3


opposite of that ultimate lack of imagination, that ultimate lack of empathy, that, simply, allows us to kill.” Karlin’s empathy is evident not only in his willingness to participate in the first film to portray the Vietnam War as the War Against the Americans, if not the Vietnam-American War; he worries that the determination by Binh and Hanh to tell stories that American movies leave out might not extend to telling stories that Vietnamese leave out. He visits a neighborhood in Hanoi where, during a single day in 1967, about 3,000 people were killed by B-52 bombers, devastation comparable to what befell a neighborhood in lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001. At Son My, the real name of the village usually known as My Lai, he challenges the NYU students to consider whether, as soldiers in Charley Company on March 16, 1968, they would have followed orders to massacre hundreds of villagers. Mindful how a sudden reassignment during his last three days in Vietnam spared him the fatal bullet that hit a fellow Marine, Karlin grieves over the 50,000 American lives lost in southeast Asia. But he also mourns the 3 million Vietnamese, from both sides, who died during the conflict. Karlin includes a fictionalized account of a Marine gunner’s anxious efforts to provide cover during a medevac operation. But some of his most vivid writing is found in short narratives that portray Vietnamese as independent moral agents, not just human targets. In one, he tells the story of a six-year-old girl named Lanh whose parents send her to the countryside when the bombing of Hanoi becomes most intense. When they eventually come to visit her, Lanh’s mother and father are both immediately killed in a freak attack, and the child returns alone to haunt the streets of Hanoi. Another story recounts the prodigious career of a sniper named Son who collects various body parts from his American victims, including a soldier who is in the act of making love to a Vietnamese woman when Son sneaks up and slits his throat. Karlin calls these vignettes “out-takes,” as if movies were the model for giving form to war. Among a group of Russian extras hired to play American soldiers in Song of the Stork, one seems incapable of speaking to Karlin except by echoing lines from American films about Viet namH a mb urger Hill, Rambo, Full Metal Jacket. Not only is Karlin’s book, called War Movies, in part a novelization of the Vietnamese film that he worked on \(shortly before the crew of The Quiet American arrived to use an account of the making of the NYU documentary, but it is itself saturated with cinematic references. Part of Karlin’s eagerness to make a film, as well as a book with the flashbacks and crosscuts that mimic the other medium, is that he shares the widespread belief that, “Nothing was real until it was .a movie.” Overlap dissolve is the cinematic technique most evident in a book that is a palimpsest of movies superimposed on memories superimposed on stories superimposed on memories, ad confusionem. One of the central characters in Song of the Stork, a Vietnamese filmmaker named Vinh who goes into combat to document the war, is based on a Vietnamese filmmaker, Tran Van Thuy, who went into combat to document the war. Back in Vietnam, Karlin, mixing memory and movies, feels, “as if I am experiencing everything through a series of lenses whose edges overlap and blur what they frame into each other.” He has produced an untidy package of fiction and nonfiction that aspires to the moral ambiguities he finds missing from most talk about war. A film about what happened in Vietnam, says Karlin, requires chaos. It “needs to touch the contradictory complexity which is the breath of truth.” War Movies emits that stench. Steven G. Kellman teaches comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio. APRIL 15, 2005 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 23