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Free Fall

[whitespace] Poet Hal Sirowitz ponders hopeless love in 'Niagara, Niagara"

By David Templeton


David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This time around, he meets up with award-winning New York poet Hal Sirowitz to see the obscure art-house love story Niagara Niagara.

"Wow! What a tragic movie," mutters Hal Sirowitz, as he steps from the darkened theater into the bright light of the afternoon. Perched on the sidewalk, blinking--ever so slightly stunned to be back out in the wide noisy open of the city--he spies a nearby bagel shop. Sizing up the flow of rush-hour traffic between ourselves and our destination, we lower our heads and make an energetic dash for it; as we do, Sirowitz continues his on-the-spot synopsis of the film:

"It's a love story, really. A tragic love story, very metaphorical," he says between breaths. "Funny part is, you almost think its going to be Bonnie & Clyde--violence, lots of violence--because you see that the two characters are being pulled, pulled in that direction, and you wonder if they're going to right go over the edge, you wonder if they are going to be pulled right over the edge by the force of their fate, like going over Niagara Falls. Niagara's a force that people try to harness--to get at its energy or to become famous by riding over the falls on the inside of a barrel--but you can't really control Niagara. So in the end it's a tragic story.

"I liked it a lot!" he adds.

Hal Sirowitz has a way of conversing--repeating words, revising and refining his thoughts as he goes--almost as if he's improvising several drafts of a poem as speaks; just like the metaphorical Niagara that his mind is currently swimming in, this undeniably quirky poet does have a way of pulling you right down into his words, and then over the edge alongside him.

It's a talent that has served him well: Sirowitz, who works as a special education teacher by day, has appeared on MTV's Spoken Word Unplugged, NPR's All Thing's Considered, PBS' United States of Poetry and was a hot act when he toured with the traveling Lollapalooza Festival, headlining on that alternative spectacle's all-important Spoken Word Stage. Then there was his sensation-making 1996 book of poems, Mother Said (Crown), which branded him numerous titles and descriptions, including "a young Philip Roth," and which paved the way for his newest book, My Therapist Said (Crown, 1998). Presented as little nuggets of questionable advice from his therapist, these poems are short--seldom more than a dozen lines--but not necessarily sweet; each has a way of being laugh-aloud funny at the same time that it is sad, disturbing, insightful, and, more often than not, kind of wise and wonderful.

Which might also stand as a description of Niagara Niagara, the obscure little art-house flick that has so inspired Sirowitz this afternoon. It's the tale of two emotionally wounded shoplifters, an abused young man (Henry Thomas), and a headstrong woman (Robin Tunney) who happens to suffer from the nervous disorder Tourette's Syndrome. On a whim, they hit the road in search of a black Bobbie styling head (don't ask), which she believes can be found only across the Canadian border, at the edge of Niagara Falls. The farther they get from home and her medication, the less certain is their love--and their destiny.

"Have you ever been to Niagara?" Sirowitz wonders, taking a seat at our table. "When I went to Niagara, there was this museum about the barrel riders, all these poor, poor people who thought that if they went over the falls in a barrel they'd be famous. Only a few of them ever survived, and they never really got famous. Some of them went around in circuses and Wild West shows, but nothing big really ever happened for them.

"But they hoped for it," he points out, "the way we all hope for happiness when we fall in love, the way we allow ourselves to plunge over the edge because of love.

"Love is one of the few things that can change the world," he continues, as the ever-creepy strains of the song Sea of Love begin to play overhead, "because love can change your life. It changes your whole life. In the movie, this guy falls in love with this woman, and she's totally different from him, she's no good for him, yet he stays with her. It reminded me of some of my relationships, trying to make something work even when it's just not possible. There are all these forces against it ever lasting.

"I've fallen in love. But it's never lasted. Love is a beautiful thing, but it's temporary. That's probably why I identify with this movie. He loved her, but he couldn't save her. She was beyond his reach.

"I like the metaphor when they came to that intersection, and the arrows were pointing in all directions," he muses. "See, she was trying to just go forward, in a straight line, toward the goal of getting that toy. But life isn't like that, it isn't a straight line. Life has stops and turns and surprises and decisions. In this case they made a wrong decision. They went the wrong way. But they did it for love."

When I wonder what Sirowitz's now-famous therapist would say about this movie and its tragic heroine, he laughs.

"She'd say I shouldn't go out with her," Sirowitz grins, "because of course, of course, she's exactly the type of woman I'd be attracted to."

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Web extra to the April 23-29, 1998 issue of Sonoma County Independent.

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