Tino Villanueva’s poem, “Scene from the Movie, GIANT,” is 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. Actually, the poem is about the speaker’s episodic memory of the scene from his adolescence. The narrative poem is told in five subparts from the point of view of the narrator, as a tale recalled from memory.
In the 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 phenomenological experience, the poem’s speaker obliterates the episode from memory (or so he believes). Decades later, the speaker must finally deal with the episode.
Time and space are critical context for the movie and for the poem. The movie’s 1956 setting is in West Texas, in that vast dry space 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 some of the poems from A Scene from the Movie GIANT, he agreed and suggested that 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 is 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 the reader is urged to watch the movie, which won an academy award for best director.
Bar brawls in the 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. For in Giant, 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 arguaby 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 presumably steps up to defend the Mexican Americans in the cafe, whom Villanueva identifies as family of Jordan’s ranch former 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 the recollection of a fist fight that famed actor Rock Hudson once had. And that is as it should be. But, not so for the poem’s narrator of A Scene from the Movie GIANT. Because now, as a man (an older man, a poet), decades after he first watched the movie, the speaker 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 become 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 extricate himself from this powerlessness, the speaker 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, the speaker revisits the same scene from multiple perspectives. Each visit to the scene reveals the speaker’s different sensibilities. Upon first blush, the reader may tend to disregard such focus on one brief movie scene. But, it is worth your while to stay with it.
So, the initial setting for the poem 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
The speaker meticulously breaks down the movie fight scene frame by frame several times. This is necessary, for the poem is in large part how an otherwise ordinary episode in one’s life (here, for instance, a mere movie scene) has become a phenomenological episode for the speaker. The poem is a retelling of a tale and reveals great insight into the speaker’s consciousness. But equally important is the revelation of the consciousness of the minor, voiceless, and otherwise insignificant Mexican American characters in the movie.
The 8 O’Clock Movie
The initial subtle action in the café which foreshadows the fight scene, and, which for the speaker, commences his episodic memory that evening in his Boston room, 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 speaker’s television set revives the speaker’s memory, for it
Had brought the obliterated back. Not again (I said, “From my second-floor room)…let this not be happening.” But “memory would not dissolve”.
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 acceptability 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…”
Precisely at the same time, a Mexican American family led by Benedict’s former ranch caporal enters silently, meekly, and sits at one of the booths. As a scene for Villanueva’s poem, 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 human-kind will soon be on display. Jordan intercedes with Sarge asking that the Mexicans be allowed to stay.
For poet, the front door of the café serves as a threshold for admission and acceptance of Mexicans and the variants of class, phenotype and race. The space represents
“prejudice toward neighbors different from themselves”
Notably, there is no prior bad blood, debts or revenge, or prior rivalry to settle here between Jordan Benedict and Sarge. In fact, Benedict mistakenly believes that his family name carries some weight in these parts. He is certainly mistaken. There is a visceral hatred of Mexicans 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 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 Mexicans have no place in this joint. They have to leave, since the proprietor has the right to refuse service to anyone.
Silence follows. Sarge’s (the café proprietor) silent hatred of Juana’s “skin” is nonetheless palpable. Skin being the metaphor for Mexicans. 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 speaker begins to identify with the Mexican American characters.
At the time of the episode (1956), the speaker was a helpless onlooker (observer) at a scene of violent repression. On initial viewing of the movie at the Holiday Theatre in San Marcos, Texas, the adolescent speaker is symbolically alone, and is but another impotent and helpless victim to Sarge’s violence.
It is not the pain visited upon Jordan (the white savior) by Sarge’s blows that takes center stage in the speaker’s episodic memory. Rather, it is the sad results of a test of the extent to which in 1956 Texas simple white folk tolerate Mexicans as equals. One gets the sense of the speaker’s youthful ambiguity and must wonder whether in the interlude between his first viewing of the 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 speaker 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, Juan, Jordy and the ranch’s caporal. But he can no longer avoid not taking a stand. As a “changed man,” he can now — must –resolve the quandary. How?
Sarge’s racist insults to Jordan’s grandson and to the caporal’s family are painful to the speaker. More importantly, he feels the violence visited upon Jordan’s caporal 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 [ing] almost nothing to say”. Which brings me back to the lengthy interlude.
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 felt, the adolescent young man is unable to compartmentalize them. For all these years, he had been endowed “dumb misery with speech” . Had the speaker disavowed 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?
Some of us may remember movies which incorporated a stereotypical Mexican: The “Good, the Bad and the Ugly”. Or, how about, “The Magnificent Seven”? Surely you recall the “The Lillies of the Field”. The Mexicans in those movies—or rather, those who portrayed Mexicans in the movie—offered only two archetypes: bad or meek (sometimes, ugly) So, in the end, the Mexicans either righteously got punished or they were mercifully saved through the intervention of good and moral white men. In these morality plays, the Mexicans 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”), or of the portrayal of the martyr Christians in the Bible epics.
CLAIMING THE AIR
The doorbell clinking announces the beginning the scene and of the poem’s 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 poem’s speaker, the brief fight scene between Sarge and Jordan has been the essence of an existential battle between good and evil, and in which evil triumphed. 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 Theatre in San Marcos, Texas:
“Locked into a back-row seat—I am a thin, flickering,
Helpless light, local-looking, unthought of at fourteen.”
And yet, there is so much more in the poem. Because of the complexity of emotions felt, the adolescent young man “experienced almost nothing to say”:
In retrospect, the mature man has much to say: “What I have from 1956 is one instant at the Holiday Theatre, where a small dimension of a film, as in A Dream, became the feature of the whole.” As both observer and observed, he (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 scene will be reactivated and frame by frame of the scene will be revisited until the pieces of the puzzle will tell a story in the poet’s triumphant voice. But the speaker will not revisit the scene anew embodied as a meek and helpless patron sitting in one of the theatre’s back row seats.
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, the speaker 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.
Watch: Scene – Fight Scene Beginning
The poet (as “observer” and “observed”) is viscerally shaken by Sarge
Watch: Scene – The old Man forcibly being removed
“plop[ing]…the Hat heavily askew
Once more on the old Man’s (the caporal) 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
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 –
THE SERVING OF WATER
Before the epic brawl between good and evil (Benedict and Sarge) 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 in 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 Mexicans :
“[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 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
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 a phenomenological experience:
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, along with the Mexicans in the scene, experiencing in real time, through memory, being
“seized [by] two fistful of shirt and
Coat and lifted his slight body like nothing,
A no-thing, who could have been any one of us,
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, as they are for the Mexicans as they are for the Mexican nobodies in the film. The narrator’s affinity is with the muted, meek and minor, characters.
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.
The Telling & The Slow Weight of Time
In Villanueva’s poem, “Voice Over Time,” (from Primera Causa/First Cause, 2010), life as journey can be understood (and told) from memory, and its telling 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 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 one episode in his life—his voice, his poetry.
Slow 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 reminds me 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 Scene from 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”.
At the poem’s end there is an interesting use of terms similar to the ending soliloquy in King Lear’s tragedy that is 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 in Lear that is that we (individuals and society) must learn from the times (sad times weigh heavily); that truth (rather than just going along) is important to avoid tragic errors and cruelty. Edgar may have been referring to Lear’s rejection of her daughter Cordelia, who spoke what she felt, not what she out to say. Villanueva’s use of “the slow weight of time,” in a stanza in Scene from the Movie GIANT em> by the same name is equally as elucidating as Edgar’s silologuy:
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) extricated himself from the past (drifted out of the journey), albeit slowly (through the slow weight of time)?
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 Villanueva’s 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 Mexicans through a uniquely Euro-Anglo lens. In my own consciousness, however, the movie and poem are now inextricably fused, and the scene is now the whole.
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. But Villanueva’s Scene from the Movie GIANT is similarly exemplary.
Watch: Scene – The grandson being denigrated
In the JUANA is meek and silent even thought her son is denigrated by Sarge. But in the poem, 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 poet, she lacks weapons to defend herself. The same is true for the ranch’s caporal who places his family risk to test Sarge’s humanity. One is reminded of Ghandi’s passive and non-violent resistence. And it is not too far fetch to infer that the poet is doing something here: his strength is his words, not his physical power.
Finally, the poet, as subtextualist, 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 speaker in Scene from the Movie GIANT, the poem, must turn to the minor characters, and they must speak through him, through his poetry. 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.
The speaker thus embodies the characters, Juana and Old Man Polo, the em>caporal at the Reata Ranch, in ways which the movie’s director would never have imagined.