Film Review: Across the Universe

30 06 2009

Kara Bertrand
Humber College Student
Written: March 2008

This article was written for an opinion writing class at Humber College.

Across the Universe illustrates the turbulent 60s through the music of the Beatles, complete with psychedelic colours and chaotic scenes of violence and war. Directed by Julie Taymor, it follows the lives of several characters, all named after a Beatles song. The movie opens with “Jude” (Jim Sturgess) sitting on the beach asking “isn’t anybody going to listen to my story?” Indeed, there will be.

The film is a treat for Beatles fans, offering not only the music and lyrics of many of the band’s most famous songs, but also subtle and obvious references attached to their life and song. All of the characters in the movie are named after Beatles’ songs. Jude (“Hey Jude,”) Lucy (“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,”) Max (“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,”) Prudence (“Dear Prudence,”) Sadie (“Sexy Sadie,”) and JoJo (“Get Back,”) just to name a few. And if it can’t get more obvious, Jude is from Liverpool.

The film moves the viewer through a year in the decade, following the characters through what can only be described as the most “far out” spectacle in their lives. The Beatles’ songs create a soundtrack and dialogue for the characters and their stories. It starts out during “Hold Me Tight,” where Lucy and her boyfriend, Daniel, innocently dance at a high school dance while Jude and his girlfriend Molly grind up against each other in a Liverpool club. The trend of innocence continues throughout the movie, showing the common transition of American families in the 60s: naïveté, chaos, war and finally peace.

A favourite scene is in fact the saddest scene of the movie: “Let It Be.” The song starts off with a boy singing the song sans instruments and it turns out he’s hiding behind a car during the Detroit riots. The scene changes to his funeral and the character of JoJo is introduced as the boy’s relative. This scene is interchanged with the funeral of Lucy’s boyfriend, who died in Vietnam. A strong gospel voice is accompanied by an even more powerful choir. The song, already often used as inspiration during hard times, creates a powerful background to the tears and pain present on the screen.

Jim Sturgess stars as Jude, a British artist living in New York City.Psychedelic overtones are present within the first 30 minutes of the film, with a bowling scene that uses bright colours and flashing lights to enhance the song, “I’ve Just Seen a Face.” The scene is perfectly choreographed, with extras bowling in time. It’s a playful scene, showing the innocence of America and what is counted for fun at the time.

The psychadelia continues as the characters accompany singer Sadie in an industry party of “Dr. Roberts,” played by Bono of U2. Bono’s rendition of “I Am The Walrus” turns an already psychedelic song into a seemingly drug-induced euphoric tune coupled with colourful rainbow scenes and cartoon inspired images. “For The Benefit of Mr. Kite” introduces a new bunch of drug-inspired characters including the blue people, the Hendersons, and Henry the Horse, all with circus drawings in the background. The viewer will soon feel transfixed to a new time and place, possibly followed by a case of the munchies.

Colour plays an interesting twist in the movie, with yellow often showcasing a predominantly innocent point in the plot. For example, yellow tones encapsulate the dance scene with Lucy and her boyfriend, as well as her dreams of him returning from war during “It Won’t Be Long.” Red is used to show darkness, blood and fear. It originally is shown during “With a Little Help From My Friends,” where Jude and Max are drinking and doing drugs in Max’s Princeton dorm room. It is later used during “Strawberry Fields Forever,” when the characters begin to suffer. Max is in Vietnam, terrified and watching as bombs are thrown on the jungles of the country. However, those bombs are in fact deep, red strawberries. In a powerful montage, Jude throws the strawberries around the room, creating juxtaposition against the stark white room he is in. The scene changes between Vietnam and America, showing the similarities of the breakdowns of both places.

Most of the actors in the movie are unknown (with the exception of Bono,) allowing the viewer to be introduced to a new face and voice without being distracted from the music and plot. This seems like a conscious decision made by Taymor, wanting to showcase the music as the highlight. Choreography holds a special place within the movie, often creating dance sequences in which the characters are moved around in time with extras, showcasing the dance of everyday life.

Those who don’t like the Beatles music can take solace in the fact that all of the songs have changed in some way, shape or form. Beats are added and taken away, blues renditions are present in a number of the songs, and some are accompanied with nothing more than a few string instruments and a melodic voice. Music is used as dialogue and background to the characters, often telling an entire feeling or conversation in only two minutes. The soundtrack, needless to say, is spotless.

Now, only one question remains: What do Paul and Ringo think?

Suicide Coverage Better Left Unsaid

30 06 2009

Kara Bertrand
Humber College Student
Written: March 2008

This article was written for an opinion writing class at Humber College.

Over the past year, 17 young people, between the ages of 15 and 30, have been found dead in Bridgend, South Wales, and all but one had hung themselves. The British media is now under the spotlight in their treatment and coverage of the suicides, accused of encouraging the young people of the area to follow suit.

The direct involvement of the media is up for debate, but the message is clear that increased coverage was followed by further suicides. Covering suicide is better left outside of the public realm, not allowing those most in danger to be pushed towards the same fate, and also respecting the private grief that family and friends left behind are struggling with following a suicide.

The sensitive nature of suicide has left many publications with the decision on what to cover, and more importantly, if to cover the suicide at all. The general guideline was to keep suicide hidden unless it involved a public figure, occurred in a public place, or if it involved a murder-suicide. The coverage of the Bridgend suicides involves none of these guidelines, signaling an apparent depart from the norm.

In Canada, the most recent suicide covered in the media was the February 18 story involving a restaurant owner who recently committed suicide after her family restaurant burnt down the week before. This restaurant owner was not a public figure, did not commit suicide in a public place and did not commit murder-suicide. The only reason her death was covered was because the publication had been following the arson case already, reporting on an interesting turn of events in the story. In any other situation, her reason for death would not have been mentioned even in her obituary.

As journalists, we have an immense power to inform others of events, people and places, and we also have the power to influence the minds of the most vulnerable of citizens. Leaving suicide outside of the public debate prevents copy-cat situations, or what social scientists call “suicide contagion.” A common behaviour by journalists is to explain how the subject killed themselves, focusing on the most newsworthy of facts: the method. Thankfully most suicides receive no media attention. This raises the question of why any suicide should find its way into a newscast or newspaper.

In Canada, there were 3,613 suicides in 2004. While the highest number is for those aged 45-49, young people remain the most likely to be influenced by the media. Journalists must remember that these people will likely take everything said as fact, possibly using raw feelings of despair as signals that they too need to escape. The one instance that reporting suicide might actually help a young person is if they are given numbers for Kids Help Phone or other methods of assistance within the story itself. However, it is more useful to provide help in schools and home for young people, giving them assistance without including those who were successful at killing themselves.

Respecting those who have recently lost someone to suicide should be a number one priority for journalists. However, for an industry whose lifeline often is based around knocking on grieving family homes for a single quote, this sensitivity is not always available. When a large number of suicides happens, as was the case in Bridgend, the coverage leaves some victims unknown and others, most notably the most recent, to be the highlight of the story. These families are often bombarded with the media, erupting what should be a private family time into media frenzy.

For publications that want to include suicide stories to increase readership, wouldn’t it be preferable to write a feature article pointing out warning signs, help for those in despair, and also support for those left behind? It is time to do away with the sensationalism of suicide, stop reporting the heroic and romanticized versions of the deaths, and give support for the most vulnerable of society. Not everything that bleeds has to lead.

For the Love of HGTV

30 06 2009

Kara Bertrand
Humber College Student
Written: March 2008

This article was written for an opinion writing class at Humber College.

I have a confession to make. For someone who doesn’t know me and hasn’t heard this little anecdote about my life, this may be a bit of a shock. I love HGTV. What else that might be a shock is that I also love TLC, the Food Network and Slice.

These reality-based networks offer for me both an escape from my crazy life and at 24 years old, they also bring an educational experience every time I turn on the television. The Food Network especially gives me not only valuable advice in cooking, but also creative ideas on how to expand on what I already know. For example, although my mother is a wonderful cook, she never taught me that allowing oil to start to sizzle in a pan beforehand gives the food more flavour later. Who knew? As in a lot of things in my life, I get impatient when cooking and it takes a lot for me to even, let’s say, wait for water to boil before putting the pasta in. That’s the age of technology speaking loud and clear.

My obsession with HGTV stems from a minor interest in real estate and interior designing. While I have no ability or wish to get in to either of those fields, I’ll change the channel almost any time to these shows. One in particular is called My First Home, which is not so peculiar to believe if you know that I have yet to get my first home. So, of course, I think of it as a learning experience to watch this show. Young people go on a search for a condo, two-storey, or even a mobile home, often finding themselves immersed in much more than they signed on for – be it intense indecision, land ownership problems, or a lack of money. My life itself consists of two of these three things on a regular day.

TLC, which stands for The Learning Channel, usually has nothing to do with learning for me. Nine times out of ten, I watch the channel for entertainment. It sometimes showcases different families, such as a family with eight children on Jon & Kate Plus 8 and a family of little people on Little People, Big World. I don’t know if my love of these two shows means I have voyeur-esque qualities, wanting to be inside the life of a less than normal family, but there might not be an explanation anyway.

Slice tends to be a bit racier, with shows like Matchmaker and Newlywed, Nearly Dead. I can’t say I watch this channel as much as the others I’ve mentioned, but hell, why not include it in my confession. It markets itself as a woman’s show, and quite frankly, that’s exactly what it is. My boyfriend would likely not be huddled in front of the TV, immersed in the pink glow of the channel. But as the slogan says, ‘My Vice Is Slice.’

My fascination with shows like this has meant that there is quite literally always something on the television for me – even if it is just discovering a new show on one of these channels. This breed of reality shows has families and individuals doing pretty much nothing and making a show out of it. The funny thing is that for people like me, there really isn’t anything more interesting and entertaining as watching an overly edited, sometimes scripted, showcase of a world that will never actually be reality.

An Underground World of Organ Sale

30 06 2009

Kara Bertrand
Humber College Student
Written: February 2008

This article was written for an opinion writing class at Humber College.

There are over a thousand people in Ontario waiting for organ donations, but Canada has one of the lowest organ donation rates in the developed world. It is estimated that one person dies while waiting every three days.

In fact, a third of patients on the organ waiting list don’t live long enough to finally receive a transplant. Those with extra money may give themselves the option to jump the line and buy an organ from illegal transplant rings all around the world. However, the underground sale of organs should not take place anywhere, especially not in Canada.

Universal health care means every Ontarian has the right to receive equal treatment, regardless of social status or annual income. But when its wealthiest citizens decide to take the reigns and contact underground operations, there is a strong ethical issue at stake.

Inequality is at the forefront in this situation, leaving those without disposable income waiting for much needed organs and operations. It leaves a great injustice and inequality in a country known for its opportunities.

Amit Kumar, the accused leader of an illegal kidney transplant ring, was deported from Nepal to India this week. Authorities allege that the Brampton-based doctor sold up to 500 kidneys over the past nine years to those who travelled in India. Police say victims were forced at gunpoint on operating tables and relieved of their organs. Health precautions that are in place here with organ donation do not exist everywhere in the world. Those who decide to take part in illegal organ transplants take the risk that the organs are not healthy.

Canadian organ donation is the lowest rate amongst developed countries at between 13 and 14 donors per million each year. At this rate, waiting lists are longer than they would be provided more Canadians signed their donor cards.

With the health system in such a situation, many of those needing organs are left without any other option. To many, it’s either die waiting, or collect enough money to buy an organ illegally. This line of thinking almost makes the underground sale of organs justified, if it wasn’t so dangerous and illegal.

The Canadian criminal code lacks legislation on the buying and selling of organs. By leaving this important issue out of the code, desperate people may believe there are no consequences for their actions.

While there are fines, the punishment for this act does not add up to much. The sale of illegal organs would not exist without those who illegally give away their organs, and these means may not be the most hygienic. A Philadelphia nurse admitted recently that he cut body parts from 244 corpses and forged documents so that these parts, some diseased, could be sold to Canadian and American patients.

In poorer countries, such as India, citizens attempt to make extra money by selling their organs to underground operations, promised work at the end of the operation. Other means may include forced operations against indebted victims. The human rights violations involved in this action greatly outweigh the benefits for those waiting for organs.

The buying and selling of organs in Canada, or even outside, shows an incredible decrease in our health care system, and points to a problem that lies far beyond its operating tables. Buying and selling organs through underground operations is an illegal and sad reality in our society, and we can only hope that there is still time to make changes.

A Plea to End Celebrity Obsession

30 06 2009

Kara Bertrand
Humber College Student
Written: October 2007

This article was written for a magazine class at Humber College. Please note this was my first attempt at opinion writing.

They’re everywhere: on the TV; on the internet; on the radio; and if you’re in the right place at the right time, at the corner café. The best of the worst and the worst of the best are captured on video, picture and sound byte. The majority of its audience is gripped by the lives of the rich and famous. And it’s lasted long enough.

Keeping up to date with the recent celebrity gossip is a pastime for many people around the world, and it can be an entertaining way of interacting with other people. However, when the obsession is taken to the extreme, the results are more often than not damaging.

Gossip websites such as feed the obsession machine, making it easier for the gossip monster to grow. Magazines and tabloids such as People, In Touch, Hello, and US Weekly supplement TV shows like Access Hollywood, Extra and Entertainment Tonight. Paparazzi capture the rich and famous dressed up for a gala or awards show, or in sweats taking their dog for a walk. They are seen as glamorous, or to the surprise of readers and viewers, seen as ordinary people just like everyone else.

The problems arise when the obsession is taken too far, when a person becomes consumed with finding out everything they can about a celebrity. They will check websites every five minutes, essentially live their own life through the celebrity, and often forget to live life in reality. Depression and low self esteem may arise when personal accomplishments seem to dwindle in comparison to the favoured celebrity’s accomplishments. Not only will they see themselves as inferior, but also those around them. Friendships may fail because of comparisons to stars, because who can be as fun as Lindsay Lohan must be at a club? The obsession may go as far as wanting to become the celebrity – such is the example of the MTV reality show I Want a Famous Face.

“By dint of extensive plastic surgery, ordinary people are made to look more like their famous heroes,” said Carlin Flora in the article entitled ‘Seeing by Starlight: Celebrity Obsession’ published in the July/Aug. 2004 issue of Psychology Today. Drastically changing their appearance to resemble a star is an extreme example of celebrity obsession.

The blunt truth is that not all stars are good role models and idolizing the bad role models is never a good idea. Take poor Lindsay Lohan for example. She’s been in and out of rehab, been caught drinking and driving and essentially made a mess of her life. Britney Spears is also a recent train-wreck, losing custody of her children to ex-hubby Kevin Federline, and erroneously shaving her head. These two stars, however, were both made famous early on, and Britney, in particular, was made a sex object at 16. The effects of stardom on a young actress or singer have been seen time and time again, and these two women are no exception.

It may be time to tell the other side of the argument, to tell of how following celebrity lives may be helpful. A young girl can usually not go wrong when she idolizes an actress or musician who emanates strong values and healthy life choices. Girls may also look up to stars who have been through a lot and rose to the top. Oprah Winfrey is an example of one of these stars.

Flora cited Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey in saying, “celebrities motivate us to make it. Oprah Winfrey suffered through poverty, sexual abuse and racial discrimination to become the wealthiest woman in media. Lance Armstrong survived advanced testicular cancer and went on to win the Tour de France five times.” Celebrities can be a healthy and positive influence in life, especially those who help others, as Angelina Jolie has done in recent years. Colette Bouchez expanded on this in her article entitled ‘A New Age of Celebrity Worship’ in the WebMD section of in March 2006. “They can be very helpful in terms of increasing awareness and decreasing stigma about many problems.”

While these points are valid and may aid to the other side of the argument, the main problem is that there are more examples of celebrities doing reckless things with their lives, and these mistakes are put on display for all to see. They promote drug use, promiscuous sex, drinking and driving, and a reckless disregard for their own self-respect and dignity. None of these qualities should be idealized or promoted through the media. Many people have a sick fascination when dishing about celebrities. The sad reality is that it may also seem more important to these people to know what the latest celebrity is doing than it is to know who won the recent political election.

One point has yet to be brought up in this discussion: stalking. This is the inexplicable need to be as close as possible to a celebrity, often tracking the daily routine of their idol to the point of lurking outside their Hollywood window, waiting for any sign of movement. There is a line with celebrity obsession, and these people crossed it a long time ago.

Next time the latest gossip about Lindsay, Britney or Paris comes on the TV or internet, do yourself a favour: look away! It will be better for your health, for the celebrity’s health, and for the health of future generations.