How could I be so dense? How could I be so deluded? Ever the industrious student, I had read the screenplay in a few hours and then reread and written notes for several more hours, all under the misguided idea my work mattered. I naively believed that I could divert the Hollywood organism from its goal, the simultaneous lobotomization and pickpocketing of the world’s audiences. The ancillary benefit was strip-mining history, leaving the real history in the tunnels along with the dead, doling out tiny sparkling diamonds for audiences to gasp over. Hollywood did not just make horror movie monsters, it was its own horror movie monster, smashing me under its foot. I had failed and the Auteur would make The Hamlet as he intended, with my countrymen serving merely as raw material for an epic about white men saving good yellow people from bad yellow people. I pitied the French for their naïveté in believing they had to visit a country in order to exploit it. Hollywood was much more efficient, imagining the countries it wanted to exploit. I was maddened by my helplessness before the Auteur’s imagination and machinations. His arrogance marked something new in the world, for this was the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors, courtesy of the most efficient propaganda machine ever created (with all due respect to Joseph Goebbels and the Nazis, who never achieved global domination). Hollywood’s high priests understood innately the observation of Milton’s Satan, that it was better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven, better to be a villain, loser, or antihero than virtuous extra, so long as one commanded the bright lights of center stage. In this forthcoming Hollywood trompe l’oeil, all the Vietnamese of any side would come out poorly, herded into the roles of the poor, the innocent, the evil, or the corrupt. Our fate was not to be merely mute; we were to be struck dumb.
Everyone on the crew had been waiting for this moment, the greatest blowup ever in cinematic history. It is the moment, the Auteur proclaimed to the massed crew during the last week, when we show that making this movie was going to war itself. When your grandchildren ask you what you did during the war, you can say, I made this movie. I made a great work of art. How do you know you’ve made a great work of art? A great work of art is something as real as reality itself, and sometimes even more real than the real. Long after this war is forgotten, when its existence is a paragraph in a schoolbook students won’t even bother to read, and everyone who survived it is dead, their bodies dust, their memories atoms, their emotions no longer in motion, this work of art will still shine so brightly it will not just be about the war but it will be the war. And there you have the absurdity. Not that there was not some truth to what the Auteur claimed, for the absurd often has its seed in a truth. Yes, art eventually survives war, its artifacts still towering long after the diurnal rhythms of nature have ground the bodies of millions of warriors to powder, but I had no doubt that in the Auteur’s egomaniacal imagination he meant that his work of art, now, was more important than the three or four or six million dead who composed the real meaning of the war. They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented. Marx spoke of the oppressed class that was not politically conscious enough to see itself as a class, but was anything ever more true of the dead, as well as the extras? Their fate was so inane that they drank away their dollar a day every night, an act in which I gladly joined them, feeling a small part of myself dying with them, too. For I had an encroaching sense of the meanness of my accomplishment, that I had been deluded in thinking I could effect change in how we were represented. I had altered the script here and there, and incited the creation of a few speaking parts, but to what end? I had not derailed this behemoth, or changed its direction, I had only made its path smoother as the technical consultant in charge of authenticity, the spirit haunting bad movies that aspired to be good ones. My task was to ensure that the people scuttling in the background of the film would be real Vietnamese people saying real Vietnamese things and dressed in real Vietnamese clothing, right before they died. The swing of a dialect and the trim of a costume had to be real, but the truly important things in such a movie, like emotions or ideas, could be fake. I was no more than the garment worker who made sure the stitching was correct in an outfit designed, produced, and consumed by the wealthy white people of the world. They owned the means of production, and therefore the means of representation, and the best that we could ever hope for was to get a word in edgewise before our anonymous deaths.
Well, what did you think? He finally looked at me, his gaze a mix of pity and disappointment. You were going to make sure we came off well, he said. But we weren’t even human. A rattling taxi pulled to the curb. Now you’re a movie critic? I said. Just my opinion, college boy, he said, climbing inside. What do I know? If it wasn’t for me, I said, slamming the door shut, there wouldn’t even be any roles at all for our people. We would just be target practice. He sighed and rolled his window down. All you did was give them an excuse, he said. Now white people can say, Look, we got yellow people in here. We don’t hate them. We love them. He spat out the window. You tried to play their game, okay? But they run the game. You don’t run anything. That means you can’t change anything. Not from the inside. When you got nothing, you got to change things from the outside.
I had failed at the one task both Man and the General could agree on, the subversion of the Movie and all it represented, namely our misrepresentation.