Monthly Archives: August 2009

District 9 and the homegrown arts

I don’t usually talk about movies here on the blog. My usual shtick is to link everything back to a Syracuse-centric POV here, and with most movies that’s kind of hard to do. But this isn’t difficult to do with a discussion of the new sci-fi movie DISTRICT 9, a South African-made film that helps me express my feelings of disappointment with the lack of a local arts vision in the Syracuse area (as opposed to “an arts scene”).

I saw the film last weekend and liked it a lot (with reservations), enough to want to see it again in a theater at some point. It isn’t the greatest movie ever made, and is sometimes so unconventional as to be disorienting (quite a few people have reported walking out on it for various reasons). But I think in years to come, it will be remembered among a select group of recent sci-fi such as ALIEN (the original), BLADE RUNNER and THE TERMINATOR and also non-Hollywood notables like MAD MAX (the original). If you haven’t seen it, go in with an open mind, a lot of patience and a strong stomach, and you may be rewarded.

The movie is also attracting a lot of attention because of its resonance with past and current events in South African society. The Canadian director grew up in S.A. and the lead actor is South African; the movie was filmed on location in the worst slums of Johannesburg. Although no explicit parallels are made, the commentary on apartheid and refugees is unmistakable. (There are even some controversial elements involving Nigerian characters which seem to have their roots more in modern-day South African xenophobia about newcomers than in overt stereotyping of Africans, but your judgment on this may be different.) What you have here is a sci-fi action movie that is completely informed by its real-life setting — passionately crafted by people who know and love their country and its great questions and struggles, confidently sharing what they know with the rest of the moviegoing world.

Why can’t Syracuse’s arts be more like this?

Every nation, society or even city, is cursed (or blessed) with some great unanswered question or complexity it is trying to work out in its own way. The greatest questions have to do with how we treat each other. Syracuse is also unique in that sense. Aside from the more familiar questions of what to do with a declining city and its people, a question many Rust Belt cities share, we also have our fingers more firmly on the faint pulse of America’s real original sin – the tragic relationship between Natives and the West. I can’t think of any other American city, large or small, that really does. We’re hardly close enough, but I believe we are the closest.

I sometimes think that public art in Syracuse is, as Isaac Newton said, more about “playing by the seashore [with] a few pebbles while the whole vast ocean of truth stretches out almost untouched.” I wonder where the muralists, sculptors, playwrights and filmmakers are, why we don’t seem to have an artistic consciousness that actually expresses who WE are, where we’ve been and where we are going in a non-generic way – a way that the rest of the world might actually sit up and take notice of. I don’t blame anyone for this – just expressing frustration.

Am I missing something going on here in Syracuse? I possibly am. But I worry that we are so obsessed with being cool that we’ve forgotten to be real.

Rip van Winkle moment

There’s a story in the NY Times this weekend about the rise and fall of a California cul-de-sac, a victim of the economy. It’s an interesting read but what jumped out at me was the following:

But as always in California, boom times came again. During the 1990s, Moreno Valley became one of the fastest-growing cities in America, and it now has 190,000 residents.

I have never even heard of this place, and it’s about 50,000 people bigger than Syracuse. It’s just another one of those Rip van Winkle moments where you get a comprehension of how full the West has become while you were sleeping. In decades past, the West was a place where nearly everyone had a past residence or ties (within a few generations) to the East. But now we have entire generations of Americans who live in the West who know nothing else, their parents know nothing else, they don’t know anything besides low-density suburban development and “cities” that have no center.

We’re not all living in the same America.

Dying to be seen

I can’t believe the news today: yet another CNY motorcyclist is the victim of a driver who turned into his path. This comes on the heels of two fatalities last week. If you know someone who rides a motorcycle, you might have had the experiencing of reading the breaking news about one of these accidents – where the rider is not yet identified – and worrying if it’s your loved one.

One morning last week, I clicked on to read yet another report about an unidentified cyclist who didn’t survive such a crash. I got a nervous call from my mom about it. I reassured her that there was no way my father would be on Route 11 in Hastings at 7 in the morning. After I hung up I suddenly had terrible second thoughts. I remembered that he had been anxious to take his bike in for an inspection. Maybe his inspection shop was in Central Square…? Coming from Mexico, where he lives, he would have to take Route 11. Maybe he wanted to get an early start…? Feeling silly I called his phone. It went straight to voice mail. And kept going there. Was his phone just being recharged, or…?

Well, after a horrible half hour of this he finally left a message on my phone (yes, his was being recharged). Unfortunately, some other guy’s family got terrible news that day.

My dad is 70 and has been riding since he was a teenager. He still rides several times a week and considers his Kawasaki Ninja to be his primary form of transportation. He went out to Seattle on this bike a few years ago and recently rode it back from Florida. Obviously, you don’t live to be 70 after decades of riding if you don’t strive to be a safe and sensible rider. Despite the bad reputation of a relatively few bikers (speeding, popping wheelies, antagonizing cops and the like), there are many more guys (and gals) who are just trying to get around efficiently. Why some people believe that motorcycle riders are second-class citizens is beyond me. The average motorcycle rider is very likely a safer and more serious driver than your average car driver.

Despite this, my dad is pretty fatalistic and he believes that if he is going to die while riding, it will happen exactly as it happened earlier this week to the two unfortunate riders who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Someone will turn in front of him. If chance is involved, after decades of riding the odds of it finally happening to him are getting bigger too. You can have the best safety gear, be completely alert and have a flashing neon bike the size of a Gold Wing on steroids, but there is not much you can do when an SUV driver decides to pull out in front of you. The sad part is that nobody wakes up in the morning and says “I’d like to kill a motorcyclist today.” They just don’t take that extra 2 seconds to make sure there isn’t one there. (Do any of us?)

I am not a bumpersticker kind of person but I am now making an exception. If even one person sees the message while stopped behind me at a red light, and remembers to take those extra 2 seconds, someone’s life might be saved.

Middle of everywhere


This past weekend I took a camping trip down to Bowman Lake, a remote state park in the middle of Chenango County. There really isn’t much to see at Bowman Lake, which makes it the perfect place to relax and do nothing. Nowhere is usually a challenge to get to, however, and Bowman is the epitome of “you can’t get there from here” (and even more so when you are stuck behind a slow-moving manure truck). Even if you take the more direct route out, toward Route 12 (rather than 81), you are still going through an awful lot of “nothing.”

Stopped on top of a big hill outside of a small, lonely cemetery on a foggy morn, it really struck me how nature has us surrounded everywhere, even though we may assume otherwise. Even our bigger cities and towns in relatively civilized Upstate NY are merely smallish island outposts surrounded by vast fields of chirping crickets, nodding wildflowers, and untended shrubbery. And you will get very wet, dirty and itchy very fast if you venture even a few yards away from the pavement.

All of it going on day and night, year after year, not caring one bit about anything good or bad that goes on in Syracuse, Albany or even way far away in powerful New York City.

Here there be dragons

An article worth reading, although it’s not a new complaint: Manhood for Amateurs: The Wilderness of Childhood.

Though the wilderness available to me had shrunk to a mere green scrap of its former enormousness, though so much about childhood had changed in the years between the days of young George Washington’s adventuring on his side of the Potomac and my own suburban exploits on mine, there was still a connectedness there, a continuum of childhood. Eighteenth-century Virginia, twentieth-century Maryland, tenth-century Britain, Narnia, Neverland, Prydain—it was all the same Wilderness. Those legendary wanderings of Boone and Carson and young Daniel Beard (the father of the Boy Scouts of America), those games of war and exploration I read about, those frightening encounters with genuine menace, far from the help or interference of mother and father, seemed to me at the time—and I think this is my key point—absolutely familiar to me…

The sandlots and creek beds, the alleys and woodlands have been abandoned in favor of a system of reservations—Chuck E. Cheese, the Jungle, the Discovery Zone: jolly internment centers mapped and planned by adults with no blank spots aside from doors marked staff only. When children roller-skate or ride their bikes, they go forth armored as for battle, and their parents typically stand nearby.

I’ll cut to the chase – past the arguments about crime statistics – and say that I think this trend is going to somewhat reverse, for some. As some American families and towns fall out of affluence over the coming years, there will be less time and energy to keep the kids away from the Wilderness — for better, or for worse.