Monday, August 18, 2014

The Protests in Ferguson

Over the last week, I've been reading headlines and looking at photos of the situation in Ferguson, and also noticing just how many people around me seem to be following it, too.  A friend who doesn't talk much about the news brought the situation up to me, and my first thought was, "but this is western New York," as if what's going on there is a local problem.  

Clearly it's not, and the discussion of using National Guard forces illustrates that strongly.  Before that came up, though, the different headlines, the timeline of events on Buzzfeed, the discussion of whether the president would comment, the fact that he did, and a lot more showed that the situation there affects a lot of people, in a lot of places.  Maybe it's partly that the pictures of police in military-looking gear and vehicles dovetails with the discussions of government power and control ramped up by the Snowden leaks, and partly that the townwide clash between police and, I think, mostly peaceful protesters just hasn't happened very often in a long time.  But some of it, maybe the heart of it, comes back to the situation brought forcefully home by the Facebook-shared line drawing of Michael Brown's body with the six bullet holes--an African-American kid shot by a police officer, again, and the strong possibility, again, of nothing being done about it.  

I say "again," but I actually know almost nothing about the history of police brutality, aside from it being an ongoing problem with a very strong racial component.  But I tend to stick with statistics, to scroll down headlines, to shy away from the stories and the portraits that might make these situations hurt more.  And that has a numbing and distancing effect, as the Ferguson police might have known when they ordered media out of the city, and as the Bush administration must have known when they tried to ban images of flag-draped coffins coming back from the war.  The portraits, even of symbols like those, the bodies under them hidden, and the stories behind them, get us, or at least me, to feel for the situation and the people in it, to identify with it to some extent, and to want to do something to change it.  

That also has brought me up short in the last week--the pictures of people, in a time that can feel so dominated by distance, by the hand-held device, and by the safety and convenience provided by both, actually protesting in the actual streets.  And the question of whether that can still have an effect, in a time when distance and convenience are easy to come by, gets answered, for me, by how much it unsettles certain people.  The Fox News anchor interviewing Jesse Jackson suggests that the protests are a distraction from figuring out what really happened to Brown, and what should be done about it.  The predictable depictions of the protests as flimsy covers for looters come up.  And, again and again, images come of the cloudscapes of tear gas, the one with the figure crouching against their billows and the ones of the police as cut-outs, gas-masked silhouettes, marching through them.  The protesting works because it's face to face, because the protesters are leaving their screens behind.  

It's easy for me to get that distance and that convenience, not just from stories far away, but ones closer to home, but, this week, I'm also reminded that the technology in my life has no inherent effect on that, one way or the other.  I can use it to step back from things, but also to move in closer.  I notice the difference when, like the protesters, I feel like I have to reach across to someone, say something, ask why if need be, and make that contact, bring that intimacy that has and needs no screen.  

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Six Months of Sundays at the Falls

At some point during the long winter, it hit me that I could either spend each of those mostly gray Sundays in front of the tv, which didn't seem to help the winter blahs much, or I could head ten minutes down the road and see if I could see Niagara Falls.  A lot of crotchety, weather-based objections came to mind, but then it hit me that I would rather be watching the falls in that kind of weather than doing just about anything else, and a little cold and wet wouldn't make much difference. 

Since then, just about every Sunday, I've gotten to drive over the bridge from Grand Island, head a mile or so down the Robert Moses Parkway toward the curtains of mist that the spatter of the cataracts casts up, and park on the road that's closed to through traffic by the upper rapids, or just pull into the lot right by the falls.  At night, there's no charge for parking there, and, during the winter, there was almost no one there.  Even when I've gotten sort of used to the spectacle of it, the white water itself and the steady pounding of it, plus how it stretches from close to my feet into another country, it still gets louder than my mind, and I'm learning what a gift that is. 


Also, that quote from Heraclitus comes to mind sometimes when I'm there, that one about never stepping in the same river twice, because the space around the falls, and then the falls within it, seem different to me each time I go.  The sky never has quite the same shapes or shades of cloud, trees change their number and color of leaves, and I can't remember ever seeing the same people there. 

Logically, I also know that I must not be seeing the same shapes, or shattery sorts of patterns, in the water itself, that it must not run the exact same way maybe ever, that each week I come it has a different volume from freezing or thawing or summer storms, and that it has worn a little more on the cliff that makes its shape, to rush with more ease.  All of that seems to trigger the basic recognition that I'm not the same me, either.  But it's easier to see in the falls. 


In the winter, there were at least two or three times when, for at least a couple of minutes, I was the only one standing there, by the rail beside the bridal veil falls, and the park benches and other spaces now flooded with people were only covered with snow.  It did take some wading through slush that ran into my socks, past all of those white-pelted empty spots, and trying with some frustration to take phone photos of the way the snow slanted into and through the fuzzy spheres of light the lamps cast, which, again, something in me reminded me were tiny compared to what I was walking toward. 

Being alone with it, knowing that I was the only one seeing just that fanned path of the rapids the lamps made a kind of luminous gray, and hearing just that hushed rumble from its hurtle and hurtle and hurtle onto the car-sized stones below, I felt held.  I know faith can't just come from the evidence in front of me, but I got some from that.  Of course it couldn't be a moment made just for me by any objective measurement, but if no one else could see or hear or feel it, didn't that make it a special gift?  And who else for? 


Since then, more and more people have poured into that part of the park, and I've been surprised to find myself feeling some kind of ownership, a "what are you doing at my falls?" kind of feeling that makes no sense at all, and that goes away when I think how far some of them have travelled just to see what I get to live by.  There are a lot of women in saris, and people of seemingly any nationality holding up tablets to take pictures over everyone else's heads that remind me of Moses with the ten commandments, plus more and more and more people I might never remember. 

A few weeks back, I was up on the observation deck, waiting to get to the railing so I could take a picture of the falls without anyone in the way, and the man in front of me, who seemed to me to be taking forever, had a yarmulke and a long gray beard that looked like steel wool or something else too strong for a human form, and his wife would come up in her shawl to talk to him with language I knew I probably couldn't understand, even if I could have heard it.  No one seemed to be moving, and my social anxiety was climbing, along with my list of things I could be doing if I had my obligatory picture and was out of there by then. 

Then, because I'd been delayed there, I got to see, along with maybe two hundred other people on the observation deck, and who knows how many along the falls themselves, in New York and Ontario, one burst of fireworks, the kind that really does burst open to show a circle of smoke stalks with sparks at their tips, the reflection bursting even further apart and reforming and maybe shimmering for a moment more than it did, in the falls. 


Each Sunday, I get to go there, and take pictures, and, like Susan Sontag and many others talk about, there's that anxiety that the picture will take the place of my actual experience, dampen it, get between me and it.  And it feels like proof of that that I can't remember many actual moments, other than the ones I've shared above.  But some do come back, which tells me that more are there, and my phone photos help fix them in my memory.  Of the many seagulls that circle in the waves of spray like giant flies or tiny fighter jets, and settle wherever people won't, I got to see one perched right on top of the white sphere on the light pole closest to the bridal veil falls, one Sunday, almost the same color as the light, as if he or she had found and claimed a tiny sun. 

Of the many other visitors I've seen there in whatever weather, I remember the three women who stood right along the rail closer to the gift shop than the falls, each with a different-colored umbrella, bright colors that I want to say were red and yellow and blue, but can't remember for sure.  They stood there not seeming to notice anyone around them, not putting on a show, just holding up those bright spots that matched because they did not. 

Of the many wedding parties I must have missed there, I remember the helicopter I saw rise above the falls a couple of weeks back, that might have held a bride and groom and pastor, since that's one way people get married there--it rose straight up, like it could just keep rising forever, like the falls seem like they will, and won't, but remind me of lasting things, that I can, and must, place my faith in. 

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Reasons I've Heard for the Poverty in Niagara Falls

I hope to do more research on why the city of Niagara Falls doesn't look like I'd expected, like a bright tourist destination, if and when I have the time and attention span.  When I'm not driving through it or thinking to google it, I'm afraid I tend not to think much about how things are there; even when I'm at the falls themselves, the city beside them seems like an afterthought, a few rough rectangles of steel and glittery light that are the tops of buildings cut off by trees.

But it seems to come up in conversation, mostly brought up by me, as something that finally occurs to me after a few minutes of talking to someone who might know.  It popped up the other day in a comment thread from one of my Facebook friends, who was in the area, and seeing the same contrast, of city versus wonder of the world, that comes to mind for me from time to time.  That brought back the few things I've heard here and there, which are totally anecdotal, but interesting.

There's the business angle, that one friend mentioned.  Since the falls themselves stretch across the border between Canada and the US, with the maybe-more-breathtaking horseshoe on the Canadian side, tourists tend to go there as a priority, unless they can't or don't want to go over the border.  Even what falls there are on the American side can be seen more clearly from over there.  According to this friend, this Niagara Falls mostly made money from industries that are now gone, moved overseas.

Closely related but not quite the same, there's the corruption angle.  One former mayor went to prison for it, and there are maybe the same hazards that can come with any place where large amounts of money, in this case from tourism and the casino, are there to either be spent honestly, or not.  There may still be some lingering traces, or impacts, of the city's corrupt past--the funeral parlor formerly owned by an organized crime figure stands not far from downtown Niagara Falls, still unbought.

Then there's the one, again just passed along anecdotally, that, not from corruption but from disagreement, casino money owed to the city has not been paid.  It might not seem like a big reason on its own, but Niagara Falls is a relatively small city where it seems like targeted redevelopment would not have to cost too much.  Some investment here and there could attract residents, and the ball could start rolling.  More young families might move in, and it could look like I imagine a city by the falls looking.

But, with all of this speculation, I'm, first, immediately aware of not knowing anything specific about the city's situation, then recognizing that I have absolutely no expertise to say anything about it, and, finally, realizing that it might be, more than anything, a tendency in me to want to fix places I'm only passing through, which really is a way of avoiding an intimate connection with them.  If I say, "oh, I know what this city's problem is," maybe I intellectualize my experience here, in addition to probably being wrong.

Here's what I know:  there's a nice ice cream stand called Sullivan's, on Buffalo Avenue by the Niagara River.  It's a little bit of a bumpy, potholed ride to get to, maybe, but, if you're driving away from the bridge and in the direction of the airport, you can pass under an overpass and see it, the pale yellow of a few different great flavors, with light pouring out from under the awnings and just a couple of tables right by the street, so getting one feels like getting treated.  I hope to go there again soon, now that it's warm out.  

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Driving Through the City of Niagara Falls

Before I moved here, and was looking for places to live, I was told by a couple of people who knew the area to steer clear of Niagara Falls.  Not knowing the city at all, I was surprised, and thought they might just be comparing a fairly nice part of the state with far nicer parts that they'd come to see as normal.  It seemed, and still seems, strange that the city that shares one of the wonders of the world would be struggling.

My first visit into the city to look at an apartment said to me that it was.  I went down a road, maybe Highland Avenue, and saw mostly that gray kind of post-industrial landscape that's edgy metal plus crushed gravel, with not many other colors to go along with that--wrecked cars in a junk yard, fences inside of fences, and then the apartment complexes that seemed to be barely holding on.  The building I looked at was one of those.  The realtor who showed it to me looked like she wanted to leave.  Soon, I did, too.

After a year and a half or so working right next to the city limits, and living not much further away, I've gotten to do a lot of driving around and through it.  There are parts of it that still seem to be thriving, and none of it fits that sensational urban jungle my suburban mind tries to project on anything with a skyline higher than two stories, when I don't know my way around it yet.

But there are lots of parts that clearly are not doing as well as they used to economically.  Pine Avenue is a great example.  There's a nice, new sign reading Little Italy that spans the street, with painted metal grape leaves climbing its arch, and, at that end, the three or four Italian restaurants help validate that name.  The Como has a sand-tan facade free of graffiti, wide windows showing customers and pedestrians to each other, and, in the entryway right by the street, pictures of the celebrities who have stopped there, with the scribbles of their autographs giving an old world kind of charm, and sense of benediction, to the whole area.
Not far down from there stands a pink elephant, maybe twenty feet tall, its trunk raised, a space for its eyes that you can see the sky through, not advertising anything that I can see.  It holds a white metal cylinder on its head, with "Shorty's" painted on it.

Past it is the part where I tend to drive faster, and, if someone walks too near my car, try to lock my doors without making them think I've done it on their account.  Whatever was there before has been turned into the kinds of stores that my mind associates, automatically, with urban blight--a pawn shop, the kind of dollar store where everything probably really is a dollar, and those stores that I never seem to see for what they sell, that have windows filled with different things too bright to be bought.

But I also know my tendency to sensationalize places, like I do people, when they may be a lot more garden variety, and are certainly a lot more varied, than my judgment makes them.  Pine Avenue seems like the many parts of the city that I've gotten to know, at least somewhat, by now:  probably safe during the day, probably safe to drive through, at least fast, at night, and just obviously best to avoid on foot at night.  It's like many parts of many cities, in that way.

But it wasn't that way a few decades ago, from what friends here say.  And, for some reason, I find myself really wanting to know why.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Living by Niagara Falls

Happy New Year!  A couple of friends have mentioned blogs in the last few days, reminding me that I haven't posted on mine in quite awhile, for some reason.  I think it's a combination of busy-ness, fatigue, and being thoroughly devoted to Facebook.  But blogging always helps me to do, and I've got plenty to blog about these days, when the time and energy allow.

One of the interesting things to me about moving to this area has been living so close to Niagara Falls.  I'm so fortunate to be within a few miles of this natural wonder that people come from all over the world to see.  I can drive 15 minutes and see it from the New York side, which is fantastic.  The upper rapids start before the hotels do, and they have this exquisite way of foaming and roaring along, but in the same pattern, keeping to the same, humped and rippling shapes, colored and roughened a little bit like the muscles of horses.  They pass under the bridge to Goat Island, a low stone arch past which you can see them simply disappear, no hint of the Falls, just a sudden absence, with an edge of the world look except for the mist billowing up and dissipating in the wind.

That wind glazed my face numb the other night by the time I got to the edge, but it was more than worth it, as it always is, to see, first, the verge where the water all turns white, blossoming and tattering into foam and the remnants of current, sweeping everything with it for that thousand feet between me and the island on the other side.  The lights from Canada made it a rose pink, a daffodil kind of yellow, and then such a bright white that the water's translucence rendered brilliantly silver, that all seemed accepted and immersed in the falls themselves, that looked, in their pouring over the stones below, not as sheer and forbidding as I would have thought, but more like an enormous shoulder, an outcropping that faithfully, relentlessly, thoughtlessly let its 150,000 gallons a second down that misty space.  That it's done so for 10,000 years now, with only some disruption along the way, I could completely believe.

Somehow that, and the spectacle of it, and the surprisingly comforting, hushing of its roar, dampening other sounds, fit with the small crowd along the railing, from who knows what countries, there for the same reason, maybe thinking, briefly, the same things.  Or, like the falls, thinking of nothing, in that space and that hush so much greater than thought.


Friday, April 05, 2013

During the last couple of years, this poem has helped me as much as any:

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Melies, Magic, and Aristotle

David Cook mentions, in History of Narrative Film, that Georges Melies was a magician. That may be neither here nor there when it comes to his contributions to cinema--the fade, sequencing of scenes to make a narrative, et. al.--but it does seem linked with the one illusion that his films seem to feature almost ritually, as a key element in the action--the object or character that's suddenly there, or suddenly gone.

In "The Haunted Castle," there is no castle, or a clear story beyond a series of disappearing things and characters. They are suddenly there, and suddenly gone, therefore haunting, and the setting, one room with some features that add a provisional sense of grandeur, becomes the castle. Gunning's discussion of cinema of attractions, the possibility that early film was more about the spell cast by the technology than any narrative, makes this kind of narrative seem like less of a story than a show, made to display what cinema can do. Cook's argument with Gunning, that writing of the time makes story seem like a vital part of what filmmakers, including Melies, were trying to display, suggests that the show really is the story. This makes a film like "The Haunted Castle" seem like a magician's illusion, part of that illusion being that there is a narrative for the audience to see. Melies' films existed to extend his magic into new technology, maybe.

The difference is, maybe, that magic shows are defined by hiding how they do what they do, and film effects are presented as finally unmysterious, even demystifying if they can occupy that space that illusions carried out on a stage used to. There's still that gap between knowing that they did it and knowing how they did it, but the rush may come with taking the mystery apart, instead of sitting a little apart from it, and finding some seeming inner space in sympathy with it, where an unknown-ness glows.

What makes a conduit between the magic trick and the cinematic effect, though, that Gunning points to and successive decades of effects-heavy Hollywood cinema seems to point to, is spectacle as a fundamental constituent of film, making Melies, and a lot of subsequent films and filmmakers, anti-Aristotelian in the manifestation of their priorities. For Aristotle, the spectacular can't hold an important place in the work, compared to character, plot, and action. For Melies, it's possible to say that spectacle acts as the foundation. There is no character, plot, or action in his haunted castle without this ritual spectacle--the vanishing thing, the vanishing man who must be a phantom because he is part of the vanishing act, and the characters who are haunted rather than haunting, whose only meaningful action is witnessing this illusion like us, but, unlike us, experiencing it as reality.