I suppose it was the effect that An-My Lê’s work had on me at the Saatchi on Saturday that I watched The Quiet American again. I am a fan of the book, set in Vietnam in 1952, which I have read a couple of times, but I was struck in the film by something that the main character – Thomas Fowler – who works in Saigon for the Times – said in response to a question by the titular Quiet American. Fowler says “I am not a correspondent, I am a reporter. I merely report what happens.” I am likely to be paraphrasing now*, but the intent of this piece of dialogue was that as a reporter he watches what happens in front of him and merely reports it. This notion is something that harks back to this post earlier on truth. And of course Fowler, whilst ‘reporting’ also has direct and indirect effects on the narrative in the story. His presence alone, integrated as he is, directly affects the locals – the prostitute whose life he changes, the American who is killed because of Fowler’s direct intervention – whatever the motive he espouses. There are echoes of what the effects the FSA photographers had when they photographed ‘what was in front of them’ is an interesting afterthought.
Also of interest is the camerawork in the film, alternating between direct engagement with the viewer with a lot of shots directly into the lens and oblique angle shots that enable the viewer to become a bystander – which I thought was perhaps a comment by the director on the twin roles both the American administration and the French colonialists roles at the time. It was 1954 when the French conceded that they could no longer control the North and ceded it to the communists. In the early ’60’s the Americans formalised their intent with direct action, after over a dozen years or more of covert blundering.
* The full quote from the novel:
“My fellow journalists called themselves correspondents; I preferred the title of reporter. I wrote what I saw. I took no action – even an opinion is a kind of action”. The Quiet American – Graham Greene, Vintage Classics – pp28