A map is not the same thing as the place it represents. The globe is not the Earth. The map is a way of systemizing an indescribable whole. When I look at Chicago on a map, I’m not looking directly at the city where I live, but I’m looking at a reference, a sort of text that uses measurements to give me a rough idea of where this city is in relation to other cities. The dot is a variable that stands for the city; if I get a magnifying glass, I won’t be able to discern any more than what I see right now.
Raoul Coutard’s Hoa Binh opens with a map. I’m getting a little ahead of myself here—let’s talk about Coutard for a minute. Why, for example, is he the greatest cinematographer? Answer: because, in making his moving pictures, he’s aware that he isn’t capturing the image of something, but an image of it. Free of having to define, he instead describes. A photograph of a thing, like a map, is not the thing itself. So Coutard has a certain freedom: he can use the wrong film stock, shoot under the wrong lighting conditions, use the lenses you’re not supposed to be using because he knows that the people who follow all of these rules make images just as subjective as his. Let other cameramen worry about science and mathematics: he can be a dramatist, a journalist or a poet. Coutard always points out that he has no style, and that the camerawork is different for every director he worked with. This is partly true; Coutard’s style is the ephemerality of images. The feeling that, say, a camera movement, even if duplicated for every take, will, on some level, never be the same twice.
So Coutard opens the film, which was his first as a director, with a shot of a map. There is a voice, helicopter noises, etc., etc. But let’s talk about the image, which, like all of Coutard’s greatest images, has a disposable quality. It could be any image, but it’s this one and we have to deal with that decision. So disposable, in fact, that the credits are shown over it, identifying the producer, the title of the film (and in classic French style, the title of the source novel and the names of its author and publisher) and, finally, the name of the director. All of these bits of text take precedence over the image under them in our viewing experience. As the credits roll, we get closer to the map, which we at first see as consisting of Asia, India, the Middle East, the horn of Africa and a bit of Australia. As we get closer, the frame becomes dominated by Cambodia and Vietnam. This is not a zoom; a zoom changes our view while maintaining the same position. The slight changes in perspective and lighting along the edges make it obvious that the camera is slowly dollying towards a map. We are physically getting closer; even this subtle movement is a physical experience—not of the world, but of a map.
Eventually, this specific image of a system (a false image) dissolves it into a specific image of something ephemeral: a helicopter pilot’s head, a reflective visor covering his eyes. A dissolve is always a struggle: one image conquers the other one. There is something deeply dramatic to dissolves, especially in older Hollywood films, which would often dissolve in the middle of an action. That action became the dying breath of a scene as the next one stood victorious over it. So we begin with the system of Vietnam: the map. Vietnam as a place on a globe, as a place in relation to other places. And slowly this image is overpowered by a real, fleeting experience—looking directly into a man’s face. His visor even reflects the cameraman.
Coutard was once a war photographer. He was in the French Indochina War and lived in Vietnam for 11 years. So imagine Coutard sitting down at his home in Paris or at some café and opening up a newspaper. Or maybe he’s watching television. He sees a map with arrows and lines and explanations. And as he looks at the map it becomes overpowered by his own specific experiences. He remembers the smell of Vietnam, the climate, the people. He knows war and he knows what war feels like in that region. He looks at this map, this empty system designed to give people with no specific experiences, no memories of a place a way to itemize it. And whereas others can toss it aside, turn to the next page to look at the sports section, this map, meaningless to them, is in a quiet struggle with an image in his head.
A fleeting, disposable image becomes beautiful through its disposability. It could be any image, but it’s this one. The first memory. The film editor is often in the act of remembering, of searching for a moment that has now passed but an aspect of which has been recorded, and creating something out of that aspect, that shadow. Movies are a shadow world, in that every action casts its shadow—every decision has an infinite number of counter-decisions. The image of the helicopter pilot’s head is only on the screen for a second after it finishes dissolving in. It is followed very quickly by other images—also of masked, helmeted heads, of an airfield and of smoke. From the stand point of production, they are identical: a cameraman is told to get footage of a helicopter crew, maybe to focus on their heads. From the point of planning, any of the first four images after the map could be the one that the map image dissolves into. But each attempt at creating the same image results in a different image. One image is chosen: the helicopter pilot’s head, staring at the camera man is the image that overpowers the map.