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 ezekielyu11@gmail.com.
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A stylized photo of Dylan Thomas, author of Fern Hill and Dawn Raid

Analysis: “Fern Hill”, “Dawn Raid” by Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas might not be a great poet, but he’s a good one, and definitely one of the most famous. He is also a very compelling orator of poetry, as he possessed a marvelous talent for emotive delivery. Before he withered from addiction, he was famed for his speaking tours during which he recited his own poems and those of others – many of which can be found online today. They are wonderful recordings and I encourage the reader to check them out, for they (in addition to being pleasurable listens) clue one into the sort of poet he was/is, and how that particular style reaps certain benefits and downfalls.

Thomas had a number of good/excellent poems, although the one that immediately comes to mind likely isn’t one of them (rage against it all you want, fanboys/girls). I’d argue some of his best are: “Among Those Killed In The Dawn Raid Was A Man Aged A Hundred…”, “The Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” “Deaths & Entrances,” “Love In The Asylum,” and perhaps a few others. His longer poems aren’t terrible, either – just way too long.

Take, for example, “Fern Hill.” It’s another good Thomas poem, and is, along with “Dawn Raid”, one of my favorites, but the prolixity drags its potential down. This is one of the previously mentioned downfalls of his verbose, nigh-bardic style, as it tends to be self-indulgent, and repetitive simply for the sake of rhythm and music. It makes for an entertaining recitation, but on the page? And yet, this is something which must be considered in any analysis of Dylan Thomas’s poetry. […]

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A screenshot from Terrence Malick's "Knight of Cups"

Crisis of Success: On Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups” (2015)

After watching Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups, I couldn’t help but think that, sometimes, the worst thing that can happen to an artist is success. Monetary success, I mean, since there are other metrics to the word than mere financial gain. Well, I suppose I also mean more than monetary success – acclaim, something most artists, in some way, want; perhaps more than just bags of cash (if you’re worth anything, at least). For with acclaim comes validation, and confirmation that the artist’s work means something more than what he or she can prove only to themselves. Even all this, however, comes with baggage: for if you have proved to yourself and others that your work is what it set out to be, and you’ve won your laurels (and your mansions), where else does one go?

One could, of course, retread familiar ground. You see this with Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen, two of America’s greatest filmmakers reduced to feeding off their own reputations, creating movies that certainly look and feel like their golden ages, but with none of the greatness. Their most recent productions (2019’s The Irishman and A Rainy Day in New York, respectively) amount to nothing more than self-mimicry – and why not? Scorsese and Allen, once young and hungry and eager to prove something, have regressed into luxurious waste, canonized as they are in most cineastes’ estimation. When you have nothing to prove, I guess all that’s left is pelf, and the desire for it. This late into their careers, anything Scorsese puts out will get praise solely on the basis of his reputation, and Allen, although his own reputation is mired in scandal, will seemingly continue to pump out trifles until he keels over.

In the case of Terrence Malick, you get some of this, but you also get something more curious. Yes, there’s the self-cannibalization of technique, but – contrary to the prior artists’ approach – along with that comes an opening-up of artistry, rather than mere imitation. For no other American filmmaker has developed their own visual language to the extent that Malick has, for better or worse. His pivotal collaboration with Emmanuel Lubezki has been fruitful, no doubt, and has spawned legions of imitators, both of good-faith and parodistic. You know what I mean: the camera’s whirligig motions, swaying and swooping from arid landscapes into closeups while enigmatic lines are mumbled in voice-over. The impeccable lighting struck through with ruminations on time, death, self and God, or whatever Malick chooses from his grab-bag of philosophies. […]

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Wallace Stegner sitting for an interview

When Everything Was Cresting: On Wallace Stegner’s “Recapitulation”

Who are the people populating our pasts? Are our parents still our parents? What of the lovers we might have shared days of passion with? Old friendships? What is the self, recalled? It is tempting to think of these as fact, carryovers from a spent reality, and this is how most people probably think – it would be, more or less, the truth, in any case. Outside of psychosis, memories are anchored to lived experience; it is only time and bodies that inflict change upon whatever remains. But time nibbles away at the peripheries, always, and bodies are as unreliable as the emotions they produce. Even if memories are proof of life, they are not immutable. We constantly edit, revise, ink out, and suppress memories in order to protect ourselves from their contents. This is either conscious behavior or, at times, some shadowy rearguard action of the subconscious. Trauma is downplayed and/or blotted out, faces meld with other faces, and we enliven certain events with happiness that may or may not have been actual, or make grimmer what may have been, in reality, neutral. Looking back, we find ourselves witness to a parade of things invented, distorted and colored; any future-aimed act of imagination anchored to what’s come before.

Somewhat grim proceedings, to be sure. However, it fits, since much of Wallace Stegner’s 1979 novel Recapitulation has a dark tenor to its pages, as the past and present merge and contradict in its protagonist’s mind. The book follows an elderly Bruce Mason, an ex-US Ambassador who returns to Salt Lake City to oversee the burial of his aunt, whom he barely knows. Regardless, she is attached (however weakly) to his former life in the city where he spent the better portion of his young adulthood, and so he carries out the obligation. The novel follows his brief stay in the city and contains a rather threadbare plot: he spends a few days attending to the aunt’s funeral arrangements and wandering the city, visiting old haunts. Nothing all that momentous happens…that is, if “momentous” means car chases, shootouts, and other high-octane dramatics. It’s one of those books where “nothing happens” on the outside, and is instead driven by character – specifically, by the emotions and reminisces of Mason as he attempts to reconcile who he was as a boy/young man with who he became.

Throughout his visit, Mason is pelted by memories of an old self, old relations, as well as the old Salt Lake City, which he attempts to resurrect in his mind’s eye many times, only for the present to assert itself and reduce his former stomping grounds to sheer memory. Wallace Stegner sets the book in the 1970s while Mason’s memories are set in the late 1920s/early 1930s. Much has happened in the interim, and Mason is caught in a state of – well, it would be mourning, if it weren’t for his conflicted feelings on the past. One gets the sense that even as he yearns for the city of his youth, there’s too much trauma attached to it that he can’t fully endorse its accompanying nostalgia, as Wallace Stegner implies. […]

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Ursula K. Le Guin portrait alongside his book, The Compass Rose

Cardinal Directions: Contemporary Fantasy vs. Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Compass Rose”

Fantasy is an easy genre to write in, but a tricky one to get right.

I’d wager that most children first catch the bug of obsessive reading with a book that can, however loosely, be shelved under “Fantasy”. After all, it’s perfectly primed for such budding minds: vast, imaginary landscapes, wacky characters with wacky names, surreal events, sweeping adventures, and so on. For a reader like myself, whose love for literature first developed out of a need for whimsical escapism, it’s difficult to shake the genre’s influence on the mind even when one’s taste diversifies outside of the market, and especially when one gets to writing books instead of just reading them. Its allure is undeniable: the author is not straightjacketed by realism, nor is she indebted to any kind of historical accuracy – why, when she can create her reality’s rules, and its past, ex nihilo? This is writing, when in its infancy, borrowed mostly from myths and legends, where fantastical thinking was required to describe and explain away strange phenomena, or to simply make shit up, sans the sort of demarcations our contemporary understanding of literature requires writers to adhere to.

Of course, the moment when one starts waxing poetic about fantasy, cliches start snapping shut around one’s feet. Before I feel the urge to pinpoint what, exactly, “Fantasy” is, or to differentiate its sub-genres and practitioners, I’ll do my best to keep any talk of the genre strictly in terms of craft and leave the rest to scholars. Suffice it to say that writing fantasy is no more or less imaginative than science fiction, horror, mystery, crime, thrillers, and “literary fiction” (a rather bland label for books we’re expected to take seriously, as distinct from the previously mentioned categories), the only real differences being that of flavor, style, and aesthetics – imagining oneself into 19th century Indonesia, or writing about blue-collar workers in Alberta, or writing a free-verse sonnet from the perspective of a government bureaucrat are about as extraordinary a set of acts as creating a dragon, in my view. To write anything in a fictional mode is to fantasize, to morph the world into one’s desired image, and even the most outlandish tales require some mooring to reality. Isn’t anything set in Narnia or Prydain or Discworld or the caverns of Mars essentially set on the most familiar ground of all: the human mind? Even if the characters portrayed resemble none of the organic life on Earth? […]

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A screenshot from John Sayles's "Men with Guns" (1997)

Realism vs. Magic: On John Sayles’s “Men with Guns” (1997)

John Sayles, while primarily known for his committed sense of realism (Matewan, Lone Star, Men with Guns), is no stranger to the realm of the mythic. His most direct engagement (if one doesn’t count his credit on The Spiderwick Chronicles script, or other movies he only wrote for) with the fantastical is his 1994 film The Secret of Roan Inish, in which a girl in a seaside Irish town encounters a legendary selkie. There, he merges the fantasy elements with the experience of childhood to marvelous affect, resulting in not only a wonderful children’s film, but a wonderful film, period – mostly due to the gravity with which Sayles approaches the material, and the total lack of condescension to the viewer.

Stories like this are usually termed “magical realism.” Its most popular manifestation occurred in the books of Latin American authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende, and in cinema, filmmakers as diverse as Hayao Miyazaki and Woody Allen have incorporated magical realism into their works – all to varying degrees of success. The genre’s main weakness is that, more often than not, the “magical” tends to override the “realism,” thus spoiling any genuine relatability to the content. Or (and this is particularly prevalent in Miyazaki) the fantastical elements are overly elaborated to paper over its too-simplistic narrative, which gets you an aesthetically pleasing work, but not a deep one.

Such genre-fusion demands an artist adept enough in both to bring out its potential, but even artists as talented as John Sayles – for my money, America’s greatest living independent filmmaker – can err every now and again. His 1997 Spanish-language drama Men with Guns falls victim, however slightly, to the pitfalls of magical realism. This is not to say that Men with Guns is a bad film. It’s actually very good, perhaps near-great, and one of Sayles’s best. It is also a testament to his curiosity and willingness to diversify (in spite of a rather workaday visual palette) and steep himself in/explore/engage with cultures alien to his own – thus mining universal concerns out of its particulars.

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A scene of the Green Knight from David Lowery's "The Green Knight"

Where David Lowery’s “The Green Knight” (2021) Fails

Despite its canonical status, the long medieval poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is a veritable mixed-bag: its structural sophistication (relative, at least, to other chivalric romances of the period) and genuine charm cannot fully subvert the archaic nature of its plot, characters and symbolism; and, like pretty much every work of surviving early world literature, its importance lies mainly in foundational aspects rather than real artistic quality, which would become more available to writers with the advent of modernity. However, it is certainly an odd tale, and underneath its whimsies one senses something grimmer at play. A danger, even: fatal dismembering contests, the body-horror of the headless, talking warrior, the strange, clandestine games officiated by personages hidden from Gawain’s knowledge, his impotent, not-very-knightly raging at the end, and so on. Plus, the homoerotic subtext in the Gawain-Lord Bertilak interactions point to some authorial mischief, I suspect, although this cannot be proven with any strong degree of accuracy. The story’s opacity, due to historical distance and the anonymity of the poet, simultaneously gestures at these mysteries whilst disclosing them from further scrutiny.

Of course, this has not stopped intense interest in its contents after the re-discovery of the poem’s single surviving manuscript in the early nineteenth century, culminating in reams of academic treatises (thus buttressing its position in the Western canon), a famous translation by J.R.R. Tolkien, and several adaptations into other mediums – with its most recent entry in cinema via writer-director David Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021).

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A portrait of Marina Tsvetaeva, author of "In Praise of the Rich"

Analysis: Marina Tsvetaeva’s “In Praise of the Rich”

Distrusting as she was of the Soviet Union and its adherent Communists (and the Bolsheviks, before them), the great Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva nevertheless wrote some devastating verse that was, at least in part, sympathetic to their anti-bourgeoise principles. Yet, even in her critique, there are unexpected depths averse to easy politicization. Take, for example, the excellent and ironic “In Praise of the Rich” which subtly (and not-so-subtly) effaces its subject whilst taking the form of an ode.

There are a few translations available to read online, and I struggled for a short while to lock one down for analysis. Elaine Feinstein’s book is indispensable, and offers a great selection of the poet’s oeuvre, but I found her translation of “In Praise of the Rich” to be much looser, oddly enjambed, and not as accessible as McDuff’s – even if hers is a more faithful rendering of the original Russian, at least in a literal sense*. Granted, its plainspoken quality has a directness (as if homespun) that McDuff’s more obviously lyrical translation misses, but if English-friendly accessibility is paramount, here, then his version gets the nod.

The speaker is distanced from the rich, and the gap is quite large, but already a paradox emerges since in spite of this distance, the speaker declaims an affection (from the rooftops, no less) for them. More than affection: love. Now, the accoutrements of Soviet agitprop are all present: the poor speaker’s “honest” place, contrasted with the rich, their crushed plight underneath the wheels of excess, and the next two stanzas exacerbate further. […]

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A scene from "Office Space", which was likely influenced by "Clockwatchers"

Dual Doldrums: “Office Space” (1999) vs. “Clockwatchers” (1997)

Shortly before cult classic Office Space (1999) hit the scene, another late 90s critique of corporate American work culture premiered at Sundance and won a handful of festival prizes, only to fade into obscurity – that was Jill Sprecher’s debut independent film Clockwatchers (1997), a drama focusing on a group of female temps at a credit company. Seen as a precursor to, and “female version” of, Mike Judge’s satirical comedy (if anything, it’s the other way around), it was met with some critical acclaim but has yet to receive its due, especially in the light of Office Space’s reputation. Despite being different films, tonally, their manifest similarities in terms of themes and subject matter invite comparison, with the more serious-minded Clockwatchers sometimes hailed as the superior work. Even Roger Ebert, in his review of Office Space, views the two as companion pieces, but does not go into why exactly he rated the drama (he calls it a comedy, but it’s really more of a drama; even the filmmaker herself concurs) a half-star higher. It’s certainly tempting to scale the two in such a way: Clockwatcher’s slower-paced, European arthouse-style aesthetic seems the more highbrow affair, as opposed to the zany, endlessly quotable, hip-hop-tracked Office Space. I can imagine artsy young people coming to Sprecher’s debut for the first time and denigrating Office Space as the lesser film, especially since its male centric POV is out of vogue in today’s cultural landscape. Is it even useful, however, to see the two films in terms of male vs. female perspectives in a soulless work environment? On the surface, it would seem so, but such interpretations skim over the films’ deeper workings and how Sprecher and Judge have their characters resolve – or be subsumed by – their struggles, sex bedamned. Both films, actually, are character-driven, and while Clockwatchers is certainly more introspective and realistic, it’s not without its missteps – the price for its dramatic ambitions, whereas Office Space gets a lot of leeway due to its nature as a satire. […]