Author: Ezekiel Yu

Ezekiel Yu is a writer based in North Texas. He graduated from the University of Texas at Dallas with a degree in Literary Studies. His main focuses are in literature, cinema and culture. He may be contacted at [email protected]
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A shot of Tom Noonan and Karen Sillas in "What Happened Was..."

Where They Want To Be: On Tom Noonan’s “What Happened Was…” (1994)

This is a small, understated film about power. One particular power dynamic, and the exchange(s) therein, but specific enough to be drawn out across many relationships and individuals who attempt to justify their own existences to themselves and to others, and end up misleading, and being misled, by said justifications.

What Happened Was… stars Tom Noonan and Karen Sillas, and was written/directed by Noonan based on his Off Broadway play of the same title. Having been only marginally aware of Noonan from his appearances on TV shows like The Blacklist and 12 Monkeys, I knew he cut a striking figure (who can forget such an imposing, nigh-skeletal frame?) and wasn’t a bad actor, but came away from this film doubly impressed by his acting skills and newly appreciative of his talent as a writer. And as a director – an all-around artist, really.

Of course, Noonan’s been around a long time, and has starred in some big-name flicks (Manhunter, Robocop 2, Synecdoche, New York among them), with a credible background in the theater, as well. In What Happened Was…, though, Noonan really asserts himself as a legitimate auteur – and in his debut, no less! The film won a few prestigious awards in the wake of its premiere, including the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, but since then has sunk into relative obscurity. I’m thankful to the Criterion Channel for streaming it, as I’d never even heard of the movie before I discovered it by chance on the site. […]

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A scene from Richard Linklater's "Boyhood"

Time Relaxes: On Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014)

he opening of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood – a cloud-crowded sky and the stare of a boy – is one of vast possibility. Here is a yet-to-be shaped visage (with Coldplay crooning about stars and how they shine for you) captured in one of those indelible moments, no doubt, when time relaxes into some afterschool daze, and no other obligation exists save to lie down, dampened by grass, and to look around, thinking.

It is a moment most of us have felt, and probably longed for, if our childhoods were as frequently troubled as Mason’s (Ellar Coltrane), the young boy whose face will change over the course of the film, over the course of twelve years, but whose eyes will still somehow retain that same lingering sense of possibility.

This is a film about moments. About time, certainly, but really about how moments build up, over time, into people, relations, and everything else. Linklater’s decision to tell the story in a series of vignettes (partly a consequence of how the film was shot, I imagine) was a wise one, for it captures this process of moment-accrual in efficient bursts, letting the viewer make the appropriate connections in the intervening elisions. […]

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A winter castle, ostensibly where Rainer Maria Rilke wrote some of his best poems.

Rilke’s Late Winter

Earlier this year, exactly one century ago, holed up in his tower at Muzot, Rainer Maria Rilke was besieged by an onrush of creativity that resulted in all fifty-five Sonnets to Orpheus as well as the long-sought-after completion of the Duino Elegies. An auspicious season for the poet, certainly, and one immortalized in poetic legendry – and I use that word on purpose, for while its historical occurrence is undeniable, Rilke’s constant invocation of the seemingly divine presence that inspired him (who first arrived to him in Duino Castle twelve years before, whispering that unforgettable opening line) wreaths this vital period in semi-mythic air.

Of the 20th century Great Poets, surely Rilke is one of, if not the most, beloved. His poetry is an outpouring of spiritual open-ness, rendering it generously receptive to believers of all creeds, although Rilke had rejected the religiosity of his childhood in favor of a mystical awareness or sensitivity to all things. […]

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A stylized shot of coal miners from John Sayles's "Matewan"

Gathering Storm: On John Sayles’s “Matewan” (1987)

In the wake of the recent unionization victories within/against corporate titan Amazon in New York, I got to thinking of the great John Sayles film Matewan, about a community of West Virginian coal miners and their families who unionize to protect themselves from Stone Mountain Coal Company and their hired guns, the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency. It is a dramatized re-imagining of actual historical events, complete with a gallery of fictional and non-fictional characters, that brought a certain level of class-consciousness to the big screen, despite years in development purgatory and a tight budget with only seven weeks of shooting. It was positively reviewed by critics for its quality writing and performances, but flopped at the box office (what else is new?), and is only now resurging into public attention – generously assisted by a Criterion Collection DVD/Blu-Ray edition in 2019.

Smart writing, good acting, low budget, poor-to-modest box office performance: these are sine qua non to a John Sayles picture. In his invaluable book Thinking in Pictures: The Making of the Movie Matewan, Sayles makes the distinction between the sort of characters a good number of moviegoers satisfy themselves with and the sort he wants to write. […]

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A stylized screenshot of the protagonist in Jane Campion's "An Angel at My Table"

All Sweet Things: On Jane Campion’s “An Angel at My Table” (1990)

One of the key exchanges in Betty Smith’s great novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn involves the young protagonist, Francie Nolan, and her schoolteacher. Francie, a budding writer, is being upbraided by the older woman for reasons the girl cannot yet make perfect sense of.

Something similar occurs more than once in Jane Campion’s 1990 film An Angel at My Table, an adaptation of a three-set memoir by New Zealand author Janet Frame. Like the Smith novel, it also follows the childhood and maturation of a young girl who is a budding, and then famous, writer. The first scene is when Janet is a child, and, after first acquiring a taste for poetry due to a kind teacher’s instruction, she is trying her hand at it at home. One of her older sisters peeks at her paper and asks: […]

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Chardin's painting, Le philosophe lisant, which may have served as inspiration for Wallace Stevens's poem, Large Red Man Reading

The Spirits Drawn Down: On Wallace Stevens’s “Large Red Man Reading”

The above painting is by Chardin, and it is titled Le Philosophe lisant. I first came across it not in a gallery, but in an essay. It was written by George Steiner, and in it he attempts to unpack its meaning via the symbols Chardin assembles on the canvas and make larger commentary on the act of reading: its history, its presentation in the painting, and its state in contemporary society. It’s not a bad essay, and Steiner is clearly learned, but the main and immediate impression I got from it was how, after looking the painting up on the Internet, it may have been the inspiration for Wallace Stevens’s great poem “Large Red Man Reading”. Stevens seemed to have an abiding interest in French culture (sprinkling words and phrases of the language in his own poetry) and it would not surprise me if the poem was an ekphrastic one, based on Chardin’s famous painting. Anyway, that’s just a little curio, to start things off. Steiner focuses intensely on the silence of the painting (and silence’s importance in concentrated engagement with a text) but Wallace Stevens’s poem veers away from silence, philosophizing even further than Steiner’s rather staid scholarship. […]

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Stylized photos of Ruben Dario and W.B. Yeats, who wrote versions of the Leda and the swan myth.

Leda And The Swan: Rubén Darío vs. W.B. Yeats

Poetry is as much about the choice of one’s perspectives as it is about more technical matters like diction, rhythm, music, rhyme – meter, too, if one cares to deploy such archaisms. Sometimes, the difference between a so-so poem and a good one is vantage point. No, not the physical location of the speaker (although this could be at play), but the abstract place from which a poet directs the flow of image and idea to the reader. For example, if one wanted to write a poem about Hannibal crossing his army over the Alps, one could take a simple scoped-out view of the ordeal and wax lyrical about its militaristic importance, but this is one step removed from the contents of any old history textbook. It’s also possible (and possibly more fruitful) to, say, write from the perspective of a weary, homesick infantryman, or one of the elephants, even, or just refer to the moment obliquely from an altogether separate occasion/mindset; anything, really, that does not operate from what immediately comes to mind and is thus most obviously interpreted.

This is all very vague and general, of course; so, to see this in clearer action, let us compare two poems on the same subject matter: the myth of Leda, the Greek princess raped or seduced by a swan-manifested Zeus. The most well-known poems on the topic are W.B. Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” and “Leda” by the Nicaraguan Modernist Rubén Darío, the latter of which I’ll tackle first. […]

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A stylized shot from "Poetry" by Lee Chang-dong.

Flowers and Odd Things: Lee Chang-dong’s “Poetry” (2010)

In the same way that Steve McQueen’s Shame uses sex addiction merely as one avenue into deeper issues, Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry takes a similar tactic with its protagonist’s malady (Alzheimer’s) in order to play upon its own – not just deeper, but insidiously so – concerns. For all the film’s talk about beauty, and its genuinely poignant moments of personal confession and aesthetic consideration, there is a sense of pervading cruelty which is under constant subversion, from the opening moments of a uniformed girl’s corpse floating face-down in a river – the title “Poetry” almost demurely phasing in beside its stillness – to Yang Mi-ja’s persistent self-deceit, which she both helplessly suffers and, in a way, actively (and selfishly) utilizes.

What do I mean by this, exactly? Of course, Yang Mi-ja (or just Mi-ja; played by the pitch-perfect Yun Jeong-hie) is not to blame for her sudden cognitive ailment – such is common enough for a sixty-six-year-old. And, at least outwardly, she is a kind, beautiful, somewhat genteel woman, with an almost precious comportment in her dealings with others. She has raised her divorced adult daughter’s son in her stead (the daughter, without a voice or body for most of the film, lives in Busan) and also works as a caregiver for a partly-paralyzed old man, Mr. Kang (Kim Hee-ra). All worth at least some admiration, surely. Lee Chang-dong introduces her in a doctor’s visit: Mi-ja’s complaints about arm pain quickly turn towards the more concerning issue of memory loss. She has begun to forget common words, which embarrasses her, but also becomes something she quickly learns to charmingly deflect from. When, in a phone call with her daughter right after, she neglects to mention this troubling issue, the viewer knows something is awry – indeed, this seems heralded by a grim scene outside the hospital: the floating corpse has been found (suicide, apparently), and the girl’s mother is in a mournful daze, creating a spectacle where several bystanders watch in mute fascination as the disheveled woman mutters and groans and collapses on the street. Nothing is explicitly stated – the event occurs matter-of-factly, with little dialogue. It’s a good scene, playing into the idea of a public’s inability to sufficiently deal with its darker elements, and will have deeper relevance for Mi-ja, later on, for this will not be the first time she encounters the dead girl’s mother. […]