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 what, to me, has become the most vivid symbol of this area's decline:  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, but there is no place by that name--some Googling tells me that it used to be a sports bar, but is now closed.  Someone has left it there, either as a landmark or a sign of the high cost of demolition.

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.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Bat & Man

You can now order my chapbook at finishinglinepress.com! Here is the cover, wonderfully illustrated by Mark Cudd.

It's gotten kind mentions at these places:





Monday, December 13, 2010

Poetics of the Secret Identity TV Show

I don't know how many precedents there are for shows about characters with secret lives, who seem to be family people but are something else, but "The Sopranos" has been one big example of the last decade or so, and "Mad Men" and "Dexter" two current ones. In each show, there are at least three concurrent sources of dramatic tension, all centered in the main character. There's 1) the secret life, that the character is most identified by to the audience--Tony as mob boss, Dexter as serial killer, Don Draper as identity thief and impoverished war hero, plus ad man with philandering as integral part of his corporate identity. There's 2) the domestic life, that maybe aligns the character most with tv as a cool, family medium, presenting the normative family zinging briefly away from normativity and back again by the end of most episodes. Then, there's 3) their overlap, which is repeatedly presented to the viewer, and may be the main tension-enhancing threat in each show--that the main character's secret self may be exposed to those on the domestic side. The tension surrounding this one seems to return ritually, maybe not each episode, but as the one where the music really rises, maybe, where other shows would show the main character almost dying.

It's tempting to think that there's a character-death implied by that overlap being exposed, but it gets exposed in each of these shows--Tony's kids eventually find out that he's in the mob; Don Draper's secret past gets wicked up into the light by his blood kind returning from out of it; and Dexter, who may most wholly embody that secrecy, brings someone into it each time he kills someone who recognizes him from his other life. But there's a post-metanarrativity at that point of access that gives it the excitement of watching or reading a murder mystery--having the tension be such that the performance of the text gets pushed into my own mind more overtly than with less gripping stories. In this case, the revelation that the character I am watching is only a character can happen within the storyline itself, and keep that dramatic tension, as the people that the character has kept in the dark join the audience where I am, and/or I join them, with the chance to pick at the narrative weave, but, no, to have that unravelling taken out of my hands, and put into those of the wife, the cop, and whoever else might stand for the one who can't, and has to, find out.

One character that Aristotle doesn't mention in Poetics, when he's going through examples of different characters, is Odysseus-as-old-man, when he's returned to his homeland in, not just disguise, but an acting job thorough enough to hide him as long as the narrative needs it to. It's interesting to think that he might not just have left it out because he didn't need it to demonstrate any aspects of epic that he had to discuss, but also because that is an example of the epic not ennobling the person. We could say that it shows Odysseus' genius at work again, but he's not the one who transforms himself; it's a divine event. But the maybe-implicit agency of the audience in Aristotle gets its apotheosis as metaphor in Vico's depiction of Homer, as many different voices that the poems hold together; and I like to think that it offers a figure for that mix of tension and revelation in these tv shows. I watch the character move back and forth across that line where he plays different characters for different audiences within the show, and know that somewhere, by some then-invisible network of ratings, focus group abstraction of my taste, and capital, his secret is safe with me.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Shakespeare's Epic Reliquary

The following is a part of the preparatory essay written for my comprehensive exams, exploring the conception of epic that can be applied to Shakespeare; this question seems intriguingly underexplored, with the one extensive example that I found going kind of Derridean and arguing, basically, that his use of epic is to foreground its absence. This was an enjoyable thought, but one that my own, still-brief exploration of this question argues against. It follows (and sorry for the weird lineation; it's something in the translation between Word and blog):

There are at least two senses in which Shakespeare can be considered an epic playwright: his use of techniques that Aristotle assigned to epic rather than tragedy, and his unique, reliquary way of engaging epic poems. His multiplicities of plot can be seen in the plays that comprise the Henriad, sometimes thought of together as a British historical epic. Richard II weaves the narrative of King Richard into Bullingbrook’s. Both of the Henry IV plays work against the neat
raveling together of narratives, though, since the two main threads have as their figureheads characters who don’t meet economically or in personality—Henry IV and Falstaff. The second, with its climactic fight between Harry and Hotspur, shows another epic trait that Northrop Frye sees in Shakespeare, “warfare of the Iliad: physical prowess by individual heroes fighting in pairs” (25). These loosely raveled narratives carry other subplots along with them, and pave the way for Henry V, in which an epic multiplicity of plots is prefaced with another epic convention
that also functions metadramatically, the invocation: “O for a Muse of fire . . ..” (Prologue.5). The prologue asks the audience’s pardon for the “unworthy scaffold” of the theatre (Prol.10), directing their attention to the physical theatre space. The three primary plot threads that follow, of Henry, the French court, and Henry’s
former friends, are only brought together in the fundamental figure of

Hamlet , believed to have been written in the couple of years following Henry V, is one of the plays in which Shakespeare uses parts of epic texts for an effect that can be called reliquary. As a reliquary holds the remains of someone whose life testified to the divine, and in that preservation of a fragment show the eternal manifested where the present falls away rather than present decay, so Shakespeare’s distanced, fragmented presentation of epic can be seen offering a kind of allure that engages the audience with epic tradition in glints that make it seem able to be both adored and handled. This effect appears most strikingly when Hamlet, rather
than asking the Players to demonstrate their talent for visually moving work that will stir the king to show his guilt, asks for the speech “never acted, or if it was, not above once” (II.ii.435), of Aeneas’ narration to Dido how Troy fell. Hamlet has nothing to gain from the performance that follows; it is a moment sublimating Shakespeare’s mastery of plot to a scene that points to an epic past rendered present long enough, with enough power, to “have made milch the burning
eyes of heaven, / And passion in the gods” (517-18). With King Lear, the epic reliquary functions as passing but pivotal invocations of gods long gone from the play’s world, and Gloucester’s resounding condemnation, extracted from Homer and delivered from his own, Homeric blindness: “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods, / They kill us for their sport(IV.i.36-37)."

Looking at Shakespeare's use of epic as reliquary also helps to unravel the mystery of Troilus and Cressida, which centers on whether it was actually performed; the printers of the 1609 edition began a title page saying that it had been performed, then withdrew it in favor of another claiming it as a play “never stal’d with the stage” (qtd. in Riverside Shakespeare, 477). The medieval story adapted
by Chaucer has no precedent in Homer, but Shakespeare’s version weaves that story together with the Greeks’, making Homer’s heroes some of its main characters. The play doesn’t flatter its heroes; Achilles’ vanity lets him sit the battle out, but demand “Know they not Achilles?” of the men who slight him (III.iii.70). But, if Shakespeare did distance the play enough from the public that it could only be read, making the page reliquary to his work of epic drama, then it’s also possible that its characters are flat to better point to the epic that birthed them. They are
relics of Homer’s characters, blending epic and drama in a way that puts both into the audience’s hands, quietly and in the light of print.