Review of Poems from Tino Villanueva’s “Scene from the Movie GIANT”

by: Chuy Ramirez
Posted: June 19, 2021

Tino Villanueva graciously permitted us to publish his book of poems, Scene from the Movie GIANT. We are certainly humbled. A few recommendations to the reader are in order. First, Dr. Villanueva suggests that the reader watch the movie (or watch it anew) and place particular focus on the fight scene. We have included a clip from the movie elsewhere here. Dr. Norma Elia Cantu and Drs. Arturo Madrid (Prof. Emeritus, Trinity Univ., San Antonio) and Dr. Antonia Castañeda, among many others, recently organized the Fourth Annual Arturo Madrid Symposium in Latin@ Art (April 6, 2021). We thank them and Trinity University for granting us access to the Symposium’s program, parts of which we included in this edition of IberoAztlan. Be on the lookout, as Dr. Cantu advises that some recorded sessions from the Symposium may soon be made available. Perhaps we can include some of those in the July edition of IberoAztlan.

Tino Villanueva’s  poems in Scene from the Movie GIANT are based on a single movie scene, occupied for the most part by a fist fight between the protagonist, Jordan “Bick” Benedict, a wealthy West Texas cattle rancher, and “Sarge,” a tough café owner. The poem is specifically about the narrator’s memory of the scene from his adolescence. The extended narrative  collection is told in poems divided into five parts from the point of view of the narrator, as a tale recalled from memory.
In the movie scene, Sarge refuses to provide service to a Mexican American family, and all but physically removes them from the café. Unable, at the time, as a Mexican American boy of fourteen, to frame this experience, the poems’ narrator obliterates the episode from memory (or so he believes). Decades later, the narrator must finally deal with the episode.

Time and space form a critical context for the movie and for the poems. The movie’s 1956 setting is in West Texas, in that vast dry space just north of the Texas Big Bend, around Pecos or Marfa. At the time, segregation of African Americans and Mexican Americans is the norm. When I contacted Villanueva for his permission to reprint the poems from Scene from the Movie GIANT, he agreed and suggested I watch the movie. I assured him that I had, although, frankly, lately, I have only watched parts of the movie on account that it being so long. But the bar brawl I have watched several times. With any luck, this edition of IberoAzltan will have a clip or screen shots of the scene. But we urge the reader to watch the movie, which won an Academy Award for best director.
Bar brawls in cowboy movies which filled the big screen and television screens of the 1950s and 60s were mandatory eye candy. Invariably, while the good guy took his licks, he came out on top – always. But the café scene in Giant is different. In Giant, though, the good guy – indeed, one helluva a good guy – is not only on the receiving end of a beating, he is, in a fair fight, beaten down. In that sense, the movie departs somewhat from the predictable triumph of moral good over immoral evil. The fight comes about arguably because Sarge calls Jordan’s grandson, “Jordy” a “papoose” and (in the poem) wonders whether the child would prefer a tamale rather than some ice cream. Jordan also steps up to defend the Mexican American family in the cafe who Villanueva identifies as the family of Jordan’s former ranch caporal.

By the end of the movie, so many other dramas have played out that the café brawl scene should be all but forgotten. Thus, the subtext of good versus evil portrayed in the café brawl is relegated to a recollection of a fist fight that famed actor Rock Hudson once had. And that is as it should be. But not so for the poems’ narrator of Scene from the Movie GIANT because now, as a man (an older man and a poet), decades after he first watched the movie, the poems’ narrator must finally find his voice to reconcile and resolve what for him became a life’s quandary.
The poem has its complexity, for the poet’s undertaking at a later stage in his life appears to have been to disencumber himself from a sense of total helplessness that he felt upon initially observing the scene many years before. But why should he have this sense of (should I say?) inferiority? To release himself from this overwhelming sense of powerlessness, the narrator will use his words (his poetry) to encode that youthful episode into something meaningful and extricate himself from the effects the episode left in him. Further, in each poem, the speaker revisits the same scene from multiple perspectives. Each visit (or revisit) to the scene reveals the speaker’s different sensibilities. At first blush, the reader may tend to disregard such a focus on one brief movie scene. But it is worth your while to stay with it.

The Setting

The initial setting for the poems is Boston, in the speaker’s apartment, one evening, in 1973:

“there came into [the]…room images
In black-and-white with a flow of light that
Would not die.  It all came back to me in different
Terms…”

The speaker meticulously breaks down the movie fight scene, frame by frame, in each of the poems . This is necessary, for the poems are in large part about how an otherwise ordinary episode in one’s life (here, for instance, a mere movie scene) has become a traumatic episode for the narrator. The poem is a retelling of a tale and reveals great insight into the narrator’s consciousness. But equally important is the revelation of the consciousness of the minor, voiceless, and otherwise insignificant Mexican American characters in the movie. Dr. Villanueva’s poems from Scene from the Movie GIANT have been included in their entirely in this edition of IberoAztlan. Enjoy.

from “The 8 O’Clock Movie”

The initial subtle action in the café which foreshadows the fight scene and which, for the narrator, commences his episodic memory that evening in his Boston apartment, is that “at the end (of the movie):

“the Hamburger joint brought into existence (again)…
Juana and her child the‘ Color of dark amber,
foreshadowing the Mexican-looking
Couple and their daughter, all in muteness, wanting to be served…”

The “light” from the narrator’s television set revives the narrator’s memory, for it

“Had brought the obliterated back. Not again (I said, “From my second-floor room)…let this not be happening.”

But the narrator’s “memory would not dissolve.”

from “The Benedicts (up-close)”

The Benedict family is out to dine at Sarge’s café: Old man Jordan, his wife and daughter, and daughter-in-law, Juana, and Juana’s half-Anglo, half-Mexican son, “Jordy.”

The front door of the café serves as a threshold for admission and acceptance of members of the public to this otherwise special space. Over time, not everyone has been welcomed here. But perhaps times have changed. Perhaps the norms of belonging or of tolerance have been relaxed? Probe then, to find out. What could possibly come of it?:

“Juana, who is
Here with her child trying to cross
The burning threshold… gets caught in the vast unwelcome…”

fromClaiming the Air”

Precisely at the same time, a Mexican American family enters silently, meekly, and sits at one of the booths. As a scene for Villanueva’s poems, the café characterizes a reality greater than the limited physical space of the segregated restaurant and the characters therein trying to get a meal. A test of good versus evil is about to take place here: the humanity of humankind will soon be on display. Jordan intercedes with Sarge, asking that the Mexican American family be allowed to stay.

For the poet, the  café represents ”prejudice toward neighbors different from themselves”.

Notably, there is no prior bad blood, debts, revenge, or prior rivalry to settle here between Jordan Benedict and Sarge, the café’s proprietor.  In fact, Benedict mistakenly believes his family name carries some weight in these parts. He is certainly mistaken. There is a visceral hatred of Mexican Americans in this place, in this space, in this world dominated by the likes of Sarge. And Jordan Benedict has done the unimaginable by bringing his half-breed grandchild and the child’s Mexican American mother to this space. His grandson may have gained admission somewhat by being Benedict’s grandson. Still, Sarge will denigrate the child. But these other Mexican Americans have no place in this joint. They must leave since the proprietor has the right to refuse service to anyone.

Silence follows. Sarge’s silent hatred of Juana’s “skin” is nonetheless palpable, skin being the metaphor for Mexican Americans and otherness. Sarge’s gesture is telling: There is no

“kindness [sweeping]…into the eyes of Sarge.
Stout and unpleased…[he
has it out for dark-eyed Juana
the dark-jowl gaze of Sarge against her (Juana’s) skin.”

All that the “Mexican types” desire is not necessarily acceptance, but tolerance. That longing is visible in their eyes and in their gait: a “longing that comes with rejection.” The narrator begins to personally identify with the Mexican American characters.

At the time of the episode (1956), the narrator was a helpless onlooker (observer) of a scene of violent repression. On his initial viewing of the movie at the Holiday Theatre in San Marcos, Texas, the narrator, as an adolescent, is symbolically alone and is but another impotent and helpless victim to Sarge’s violence.  The narrator will describe himself in “Fight Scene Part II” as physically weak (a “no-thing” and “weightless,” but also voiceless: a “flickering light” thus weaponless in the fight).

It is not the pain visited upon Jordan (the white savior) by Sarge’s blows that takes center stage in the narrator’s episodic memory. Rather, it is for the narrator the sad result of a test of the extent to which, in 1956, simple Texas white folk tolerate Mexican Americans as equals. One gets the sense of the narrator’s youthful ambivalence  and must wonder whether in the interlude between his first viewing of the movie scene and years later in his Boston room, he intentionally avoided coming to grips with the matter. What was the underlying motivation for “obliterating” memory?

As an adult, the narrator re-experiences the scene from a mature perspective, mildly chastising himself for his initial impotence. But, with each recurring memory of the scene, he finds his place in this complex social setting. Back then, he was but one of the many victimized, meek and powerless, a nobody just like the inconsequential minor characters, Juana, Jordy, the Mexican American family desiring to have a meal at Sarge’s cafe.  But he can no longer avoid not taking a stand, can no longer dissimulate as he has throughout his entire life, avoiding even disclosing an opinion when the movie comes up in a social conversation. As a “changed man,” he can now – must now – resolve the quandary. How?

Sarge’s racist insults to Jordan’s grandson and to the Mexican American  family are painful to the narrator. More importantly, he feels the violence visited upon them personally upon his own body and senses it in his psyche. But as a young boy, he could only “[make] a fist in desperation” … (and) “experience almost nothing to say,” which brings me back to the lengthy interlude. How could the narrator have avoided an eruption for so long?

In response to the “arrogance in a gruff Voice, coming…[from] …the screen, the speaker is

“Locked into a back-row seat—I am a thin, flickering,
Helpless light, local-looking, unthought of at fourteen.”

Because of the complexity of emotions  he feels, the adolescent young man is unable to compartmentalize them. For all these years, he has been endowed “dumb misery with speech.” Did the narrator disavow some inherent duty, obligation, or covenant to or with himself (or to others) to have earlier raised a challenging hand or uttered some objection to the injustice?  Does not the narrator speak for those who observe and yet remain on the sidelines?   What is their obligation?  When does obligation to speak truth arise?

Some of us may remember movies which incorporated a stereotypical Mexican or Mexican American.  Consider The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Or, how about The Magnificent Seven? Surely you recall the The Lilies of the Field. The Mexicans or Mexican Americans in those movies—or rather, those who portrayed Mexicans or Mexican Americans in those movies—offered only two archetypes: bad or meek (sometimes, ugly) So, in the end, the Mexicans and Mexican Americans either righteously got punished, or they were mercifully saved through the intervention of good and moral white men. In these morality plays, Mexicans and Mexican Americans typically had nothing to say, no lines to speak. They were relegated to little more than props. One is reminded of the nameless and faceless thousands of Africans portrayed in the Tarzan movies as grunting beasts of burden (they were allowed to utter one word, “Bwana”).

From “Claiming the Air”

The doorbell clinking announces the beginning of the scene and the poems’ commencement:

The little bell on top of the door is heard as the door opens.

It may be the allegorical striking of the bell to commence a prize fight or the sound of the chime to commence the morality play at Scene I, Act I.

For the poems’ narrator, the brief fight scene between Sarge and Jordan has been the essence of an existential battle between good and evil in which evil triumphs. For the narrator, there has been no other way to characterize it. That was the perception of a mere boy of fourteen as he sat in the movie house at the Holiday Theater in San Marcos, Texas. And yet, there is so much more in Villanueva’s poetry. Because of the complexity of emotions the adolescent young man felt at the time, he “experienced almost nothing to say”. In retrospect, the mature man now has much to say:

“What I have from 1956 is one instant at the Holiday Theater, where a small dimension of a film, as in A Dream, became the feature of the whole.”

As both observer and observed, the narrator (and the scene) has a “stark desire see itself once more.” It is that memory, or rather, “the heart you carry in memory for years” that draws the poet into a memory loop. The movie scene will be reactivated, and frame by frame of the scene will be revisited, revisualized and reconstructed until the pieces of the puzzle will tell a story in the poet’s triumphant voice. But the narrator will not revisit the scene anew, embodied as a meek and helpless patron sitting in one of the theater’s back row seats.  He has regained his voice.

A poet’s intimacy can be fully or partially shared or reserved for the self. Here, the poet shares his intimacy. Seventeen years after the movie’s episode is witnessed, the narrator has “assumed a Different life.” The scene plays out on the screen again. What he had long ago discarded from memory, presumably “obliterated,” had remained in the “heart you carry around in memory for years.” And words spoken and unspoken have brought the obliterated back.

from “Fight Scene Beginning”

The poet (as “observer” and “observed”) is viscerally

shaken by Sarge

“plop[ing]…the Hat heavily askew
Once more on the old Man’s hat,” (and)
“lifting his slight body like nothing, A no-thing, who could have been any of us,
Weightless nobodies bronzed by real-time far
Off somewhere, not here, but in another
Country,”

The memory of the scene, which for the poet was a realistic episode he experienced, has remained imbedded in the deep recesses of his heart and memory:

“Never shall I
Forget, never how quickly his hand threw my
Breathing off –

from “THE SERVING OF WATER”

The waitress’s silent serving of water to the Benedicts- grandpa, grandma, daughter Luz, daughter-in-law Juana, and grandson, “Jordy,” named for his grandpa Jordan reveals

The measurement of water is a ritual
That isolates the face from the many colors of the
Day, and she does so with her (the waitress’s) eyes aimed at
Anyone she has given a harsh name to—like Juana,

And her child, half-Anglo, who is Juana’s womb
Became all Mexican just the same.

The waitress silently eggs Sarge on to address the breech of their space, to defend it against the intruders/others :

“[her] eyes quick
Flee back to Sarge and now call out in silence.”

The speaker has believed that by refusing to remember the event, he has “obliterated” all recollection.   To his surprise, many years later, as the café scene reappears on his late night television screen, the puzzle which had perplexed him as a young man, explodes into a panoramic range of vision.   So acute is his perception of the component elements of that one movie scene that he is finally able to make sense of the scene’s impact on his heart:

“So the mind becomes involved again with
after sight, with frames  as large as screens…and
and without wearing it as too much knowledge, something
out of reach gets underway and the two-sided act of
myself (in the available light) behaves into words….

The scene is transformed from a small and insignificant café in a small and insignificant West Texas town into a space which one may fairly allegorically categorize as INTOLERANCE.

For the narrator, the fight scene jumps out of the screen, like a live theatrical performance.  The narrator is  enveloped  in the  experience:

“out
Of the anxious blur of the backdrop, like
Coming out of the unreal into the world of
What’s true, down to earth distinct..”

The narrator identifies himself as a victim in the movie scene, along with the Mexican Americans, experiencing in real time, through memory, being

“seized [by] two fistul of shirt and
Coat and lifted  his slight body like nothing,
A no-thing, who could have been any one of us,
Weightless nobodies….”

The narrator’s sympathies are no where as strong for the protagonist — who is being beaten like a rag and embarrassed as a man in front of his wife, daughter, and daughter-in-law, Juana, the Mexican American—as they are for the “nobodies” in the film.  The narrator’s affinity is with the muted, meek and minor, characters. 

from “FADE OUT FADE IN”

In “Fade Out Fade In,” the speaker has triumphed. His vehemence and strength lies in his poetic voice:

what I took in that afternoon took root and a
quiet vehemence arose.  It arose in language—
the legitimate deduction of years thought out.
Now I am because I write.

from “The Telling & The Slow Weight of Time”

Villanueva’s poem, “Voice Over Time,” (from Primera Causa/First Cause, 2010), parallels the poet’s sense of life as journey which can be understood (and told) from memory, and which can triumph over time:

Slow, so slow, this process of clear recollection,
of shifting back through the shadows of memory—
there, too, is life.
Oh memory, my memory,
give me back what is mine and guide me
in the very telling of everything that stayed behind –may my voice win out over time.

In the final two poems of A Scene from the Movie GIANT, the poet characterizes and sums up his youthful episode, placing it in perspective within the greater journey that is life. One episode does not a life make:

At this moment of being human
(when the teller is tale being told),
the ash of memory rises that I might speak,
that I might tell what I tell with words,
which are the past falling from my mind,
Let the script reveal: that in the telling
I am cast in time forward, wherethrough runs
The present –one track of light triumphant….

The speaker has finally reconciled with himself, redeeming himself with something of greater value than a mere episode in his life—his voice, his poetry.

fromSlow weight of time”

“(O conscience that accentuates
a history full of ways to know the
heart) at what not long ago did happen,
you turn back to when your offended
little world was unresolved).”

The speaker’s soliloquy  in the first two stanzas of Slow Weight of Time is reminiscent of the many times when grown men have shared their never-ending psychological pain at being punished by teachers for speaking Spanish (typically, during the period of time when the movie Giant was on the screen).  It is a memory pain they share as adults with a community of other adults “at what not long ago did happen….[and] their offended little world was unresolved”.

Consider the ending soliloquy in King Lear’s tragedy spoken by Edgar:

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

Perhaps what Edgar meant was that we (individuals, society and states) must learn from the times (sad times weigh heavily); that truth (rather than just “going along”) is important to avoid tragic errors and cruelty.   Villanueva’s use of “the slow weight of time,” in a stanza in A Scene from the Movie GIANT is equally as mystifying as Edgar’s soliloquy in King Lear:

Now: in the conquered vigil of your
Days, all distance weeps for you as you
Drift out from the journey through

The slow weight of time, and you claim

That you are safe forever in the
Very words you have chosen to become.

Has the speaker, at long last, with the benefit of hindsight, and his voice (poetry), as Edgar had encouraged, spoken what he feels, and not what he ought to say, and thus extricated himself from the past (drifted out of the journey), albeit slowly (through the slow weight of time)?

Postscript

When watching the movie and reading Tino Villanueva’s poetry from Scene from the Movie GIANT, one must be mindful that the movie scene is a characterization of reality perceived from the lens of a traditional Euro-Anglo perspective.  I note this for no other reason than to help explain Villanueva’s poetic perspective. That is, the scene, the action and characters in the movie were not designed to evoke the consciousness that the poem does. The director of the film could go only so far in his portrayal of the meek. That is understandable, for he saw the world of Mexican Americans through a uniquely Euro-Anglo lens.  In my consciousness, however, the scene as depicted in Villanueva’s poetry is the whole and the two – movie and poem- are inextricably intertwined.

Undoubtedly, the poem is not the genre in which the narrator could elevate minor and insignificant movie characters to the levels Tom Stoppard does with  Rosencrantz and  Guildenstern in Rosencratz and Gildenstern are Dead.  But Villanueva’s Scene from the Movie GIANT is equally exemplary.  In the movie, Juana, has no voice, even when her mestizo child is denigrated by Sarge. But in the poems she is hardly unaware of that necessary first and rebellious attempt to cross the “burning threshold” into the prohibited space.  Despite her fear, she has agreed to face the consequences, knowing that, like the narrator, she lacks weapons to defend herself.

The poet, as sub-textualist, is always acutely aware of the minor characters in the movie scene, of the unspoken word, of the subject’s gaze or nuanced gesture.  And so, the narrator must turn to the minor characters, and they must speak through him, through his poetry. The narrator thus embodies the characters, Juana and Old Man Polo, the Mexican American family, in ways which the movie’s director would never have imagined.  Only through his intimacy with them, can the poet give them a voice and thus humanize them.  But in so doing, he can finally speak for himself.  He will resolve the matter and extricate himself from the quandary by giving himself and them a voice.

Chuy Ramirez is an attorney practicing law in the Rio Grande Valley since 1983, and dabbles in writing.
FTP-Logo-Original-1

Ibero Aztlan, a digital magazine, is published by First Texas Publishers, Inc.
PO Box 181 San Juan Texas 78589 | contact@iberoaztlan.com

Copyright © 2021 Ibero Aztlan | Powered by Aldus Pro

SUBSCRIBE

Receive alerts when new content is available.  All we need is your name and email address to get things started.


    
     
   
Ibero Aztlan Logo