My “plan” for this post was to compare and contrast “The Killing Fields” and “Platoon,” which are part of my back-looping through Netflix to pick up movies I never saw or really considered when they were first issued. Both are famous, high-impact, “true” stories. So suddenly they ran into the constant discussion about “memoir” that buzz like flies around Tim’s head. Many definitions, typologies, and moral arguments, almost all of them self-serving. Political testimony is esp. hot. And these two movies are indeed exactly that. As the character in “Platoon” says, “It’s all politics, man. All politics.”
I saw “Platoon” in Saskatoon when I was candidating for their Unitarian pulpit. The congregation was so nice they were totally out of politics. They considered themselves above it, dividing their interests between therapy and mysticism, except for a dedicated sub-group that had their teeth set deeply into environmental protection and were marginalized within the group for their pains. Anyway, during “Platoon,” a row of farm boys sat right behind me, shouting the “f” word three times every time one of the characters used the word, which was mighty often. I had a hard time concentrating.
I was much aided this time by two DVD voice-over back-through viewings, one from Oliver Stone and one by Dale Dye who played “Captain Harris” as well as running the actors through a two-week jungle boot camp and checking all details for accuracy. This movie was a right-up-front memoir, written and directed by Oliver Stone, endorsed as “real” by Dye. It was made twenty years after the events and some characters were composites, esp. the polar opposites played by Berenger and Dafoe, who drove the narrative around the Stone character (Charlie Sheen) as he tried to make sense of what was happening. The problem is complicated because Berenger is NOT unmitigated evil. That honor goes to the character named “Bunny” who is a type very familiar to me: kid testosterone-on-a-stick, unrestrained, mindless, sneering at consequences. Berenger, most of the time, is disciplined, the ideal controlled warrior, lethal and demonic when off the leash. Dafoe, on the other hand, has a conscience, humanity, intelligence. In war that cuts both ways. But the character called Rhah (well-cast in Anthony Quinn’s son) is farther out into the juju stuff than Dafoe’s character and still not into the REALLY supernatural bloodthirsty weirdness. Just a pothead.
“The Killing Fields” (1984) is also much aided by the DVD voice-over of Roland Joffe, the director. The success of this movie made “Platoon” (1986) possible, even though it’s not quite the same subject. Both are considered “anti-war” movies, really, but “Platoon” in all its awfulness merely titillated the Saskatoon farm boys, who had spent most of their lives on the dry prairie trying to make huge machines go in straight lines well enough to satisfy their dads. “The Killing Field” pitches the highest values (friendship, family) into the jaws of the Khmer Rouge.
Joffe said that Haing Ngor broke and could not go on without persuasion only once. It was not when he fell into the pit of decomposed murdered people. It was when he was faced by an eight-year-old girl acting the part of a Khmer Rouge child who has just uprooted his little tomato plant. When you see her face, you understand. It’s not so much that she was a true ethnic Khmer girl, it was that her face showed the same amoral unyielding viciousness of Bunny and the whole Red Chinese anti-success, anti-elite, anti-education child’s mind. Later we see this little girl arbitrarily choosing a worker in a rice field, taking him (with adult help) behind a tree and killing him by holding a blue plastic bag over his head. The half-skeletons in the Killing Fields have blue plastic bags on their heads. Lethal, banal, quiet, nothing so dramatic as Auschwitz or cavalry riding down on a smallpox camp. The number of victims was huge.
“The Killing Fields” was, of course, originally written by journalist Sydney Schanberg and is his story. The shooting murder of Haing Ngor in LA by his own apartment has just been reopened, so the story has not ended. The central message of “Platoon” is friendship, or at least affinities, and that is the same as “The Killing Fields.” Both are about the fragility of life -- anywhere, anywhere.
Tim and I have been talking about S/M, since the label showed up on him again in a New Yorker article on memoir. He says, “It is far, far more a place for people to enact their internalized dramas in a safe landscape versus enacting out those conflicts in their real, or personal lives. Trust me. You don't want these people enacting out their dramas for real. This S/M backdrop gives them a PLACE where they can then leave it when they walk out of the playroom. This was my entire focus as a whore. SAFE meant more than an exchange of bodily fluids. Safe means learn how to keep it in the land of make-believe. I have worked with Vietnam vets in S/M playrooms. It kept them out of the hospital.”
That, of course, is for grownups and the reason S/M is for grownups is what I just said about Bunny and that little Khmer girl. One hopes that movies and written memoirs and friendships with their exchanged stories can in the end civilize us all enough to prevent such stupid and unending vengeances as shooting Haing Ngor twenty years after it was all over. The police claim it was drug gangs who shot Ngor, and then one has to wonder whether they were like a row of Bunnys sitting in front of a TV, watching “Platoon”, swilling beer or puffing pot, and driving it all deep into their brains, down to the reptile level.
Both movies illustrate the changes in men under the hard pressure of dislocation, delirium, and death. Some got better and some got worse. Some just got wiped. It doesn’t happen only to them. The rest of the culture comes along. In my neighborhood in the Forties and early Fifties, we played “guns” constantly, girls against the boys, crawling through the shrubbery and around the house foundations with our squirt guns and cap guns, screaming “I gotcha!” and “Did NOT!” My brothers were both volunteer seventeen-year-old Marines just before Vietnam. Neither saw combat. Neither would talk about it. I don’t even know whether they saw these two movies.
Movie “memoirs” have not been discussed alongside written memoirs. As we shift over to videobooks and vooks, I think it’s time.