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.

Little Furry Paws

30 06 2009

Kara Bertrand
Humber College Student
Written: November 2007

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

His big, brown eyes peer out from behind the cage doors, the eyes of a soul that has seen too much pain for someone so small. Slowly he lifts his paw towards you, in the hopes of reaching out to something he’s never actually had before. When you reach out to reciprocate, he recoils, repelling to the other side of his cage, now only peering at you with his head on the ground. His face is speckled with white fur, and you know he doesn’t move as fast as he used to. Across the hall is someone much younger, and he watches in sorrow as it receives all the attention.

An older dog in a shelter, such as the Humane Society, is a common thing. Many times, these dogs have been passed over numerous times in exchange for a puppy. It is estimated that older dogs spend triple the time waiting for a home in a shelter than a puppy. Some of these dogs have spent their entire life moving from home to home, with regular shelter intervals in between. More often than not, these animals just ended up getting the short end of the luck straw. Shelter workers know the reality that faces every mature dog that is brought in, oftentimes putting in a great deal of effort to find a great home for the animal.

“When an older dog comes in, we think ‘how can we get this animal out of here to a good home,’” says Kathy Innocente, community relations and fundraising representative at the Kitchener-Waterloo Humane Society.

The Humane Society, be it in Kitchener or in Toronto, has a lot of roles.

“We are here for the basic animals needs of Kitchener-Waterloo,” says Innocente. This covers injured and stray animals, adoption centres, and even holding dogs for women’s shelter families. “If a family is displaced and a woman and children have to leave their home, we’ll hold them and wait until they can provide a home on their own,” she says.

For Innocente, education is at the top of the priorities list for the role of the Humane Society in the community. Trips to schools are a common event for the Humane Society to attend. Proper dog care and teaching children to be responsible is a key cornerstone for an educational trip to a school. Teaching against animal cruelty is saved for when the children are a bit older.

There are other options for those wishing to adopt an older dog in Ontario. Adopt-A-Dog/Save A Life, Inc. is a registered non-profit charity serving Toronto and Southern Ontario. Instead of providing shelter for animals, they provide foster services for dogs without homes. These fostered animals are then adopted out for a more substantial fee than the Humane Societies – tending to range around $275 for a dog. Mary Anne Marcuz, a volunteer with Adopt-A-Dog/Save A Life, Inc., has a different view on shelters.

“Shelters play a great role in the care of dogs but it is a stressful place for a dog. So we like to avoid shelters,” says Marcuz.

Marcuz estimated that the percentage of older dogs (over 4 years old) in foster homes with Adopt-A-Dog/Save a Life, Inc. is 80 per cent. She mentioned that these numbers are due to the charity being a rescue and not a shelter – older dogs are more likely to be picked up through a rescue such as this.

The adoption process is quite different for the Humane Society versus Adopt-A-Dog/Save A Life, Inc. At the Humane Society, an animal can go home immediately after the application process and an interview; at Adopt-A-Dog/Save A Life, Inc., there is a bit longer of a waiting period. The charity starts off with a phone call in response to an interest in getting a dog.

“If it sounds like a certain dog would be a good match for them, a volunteer would do a home visit – we like to meet them in person – to make sure there are no obvious problems that would cause trouble for the dog,” says Marcuz.

This includes holes in fences, broken gates, issues with other members of the family, plus more. The charity also does vet references if the family has had a dog in the past, further making sure the home is a great match for the animal.

After the adoption takes place, Adopt-A-Dog/Save A Life, Inc. will even follow up to make sure everything to going well with the new dog. “We feel very committed to the dogs, and we, of course, like to follow up after the adoption,” says Marcuz.

The Humane Society, in contrast, begins its adoption process when a family takes interest in a dog at the shelter.

“The vast majority of the people that come in here, it isn’t the first time we’ve seen them. So we know they’re serious,” says Innocente.

The family can then go in to a ‘Quiet Room’ in order to spend more time with the animal and be councilled by the staff. They then fill out the application and have an interview with the staff. If everything looks great, the dog can go home with its new family that day.

Getting an older dog used to a new home takes a little longer than for puppies.
“Any shelter dog tends to have a longer period of adjustment because they’ve been displaced from a family they’ve been with,” says Innocente.

It is usually about 3 months. According to Marcuz, it depends on how their past has been. If they were from a neglectful or abusive house, it may take a bit longer to get used to the new place.

There are myths that surround the adoption of older dogs; myths that often keep families from adopting older animals.

“A lot of people are so reluctant to adopt an older dog because they think they’re set in their ways,” says Marcuz. “It’s a real myth. Dogs adapt to their surroundings and they respond well to a consistent routine. Once they get past the initial adjustment period, they do settle in nicely. For the most part, they’re fine.”

Marcuz mentioned that having an older dogs means less work than a puppy. “My husband and I favour the older dogs because they don’t have that great need of tons of exercise like the younger ones need,” she says. “More calm, and more content. They’re past that puppy stage, which is a lot of work. It’s nice to get an older dog who is more calm and relaxed.”

The sad reality of an older dog in a shelter is the possibility of euthanization. However, the Humane Society is very careful with this issue.

“We’re going to exhaust everything we can before euthanization,” says Innocente. But she says that euthanization is an “evil that you can’t get away from.”

Putting a dog down is used as a last resort in response to a very ill animal with no chance of survival, or for aggressive animals who have been violent several times. With aggressive animals, Humane Society workers exhaust all possibilities and work with them very hard before thinking of putting them down. Much sensitivity must be used in a situation as this.

“Some come in with a lot of baggage on their own because of the way they were treated before,” says Innocente.

It is important to know the difference between Humane Societies and city pounds (in Toronto, all city pound centres are known collectively as Toronto Animal Services.) According to the Toronto Animal Services website, “Toronto Animal Services enforces the City of Toronto bylaws as they relate to animals living in the City of Toronto. We care for all animals impounded under the bylaws.”

Animals at Toronto Animal Services are more likely strays, and animals who have suffered terrible experiences through abuse and neglect. The Humane Societies of Ontario exists mainly to prevent animal cruelty and promote the protection and humane care of all animals. Another large difference is that Toronto Animal Services receives government funding, but not enough, and are drastically under funded. Humane Societies are not government funded, and rely solely on public donations. There is no doubt, however, that either type of shelter is lacking in the compassion and care of all animals that enter its walls.

The Toronto Humane Society has a chart on their website that compares the statistics between them and Toronto Animal Services from 2002-2006, further exemplifying the Humane Society’s views on euthanization. In 2005, 9,477 dogs and cats were admitted to the Toronto Humane Society, while 6,070 were admitted to Toronto Animal Services. 7,126 animals (75%) were adopted from the Toronto Humane Society while 1,590 (26%) were adopted from Toronto Animal Services.

More alarming is that 883 (9%) of the animals that were admitted in 2005 to the Humane Society were euthanized while 3,074 (51%) dogs and cats were euthanized at Toronto Animal Services. That’s half of the animals admitted that year. Statistics such as these are heart-breaking, pointing to the crisis that faces animals that enter Toronto Animal Services on a daily basis.

An obstacle that emerges from the myths of older dogs is having to care for an animal whose health is not as strong as it once was. Older animals tend to move slower, and larger dogs’ joints tend to wear out as they get older. As a dog ages, the chance for cancer increases, as does the chance of developing other incurable diseases. The majority of older dogs need dental work, but rarely do they receive this expense. Marcuz points out, however, that “a dog can get sick at any age,” and that disease does not discriminate between young and old.

The most important thing to do for an older dog is give them regular wellness check-ups at their veterinarian.

“As dogs get older, it’s good to do not just a check-up visually, but regular blood work, mostly on a yearly basis,” says Marcuz. “Vets will test their blood and make sure everything is good.”

Along with making sure the dog is healthy with regular vet check-ups, it is critical that the dogs’ day-to-day life is comfortable. Lisa Rodgers, a sales representative at PetsMart, has some pointers when buying food, treats or toys for an older dog. She recommends higher end food for animals, likely organic.

Marcuz echoes this notion: “Very good, holistic, or organic food that doesn’t have a lot of fillers so you want to be sure they’re eating healthy food so they don’t put on a lot of weight.”

Rodgers recommends Science Diet or Iams for higher-end dog food. Dogs aged 2 to 7 should eat adult food, while dogs aged over 7 should eat senior food – both kinds have different nutrients needed for different ages. As far as treats go, Rodgers says that soft treats are best.

“Geriatric Kongs” are much softer than regular Kongs and are easier to eat for older dogs. Treats for hip and joint care are also highly recommended by representatives at PetsMart.

“We tell our customers that it is best to start on this from puppy age,” says Rodgers. She points out that making sure feeders are low to the ground, allowing an older dog to eat comfortably.

Marcuz also states that having a big cushy bed for an older dog will ensure the dog wakes up happy and relaxed every morning. “Make sure they’re in a warm place. We would never recommend that they are left alone outside even if your yard is fully fenced,” says Marcuz. “Definitely we recommend a dog is left in the house if you’re not home.”

Regardless of how prepared shelters workers are for the arrival of all kinds of animals from all kinds of backgrounds, it is never easy to be faced with an animal who was severely abused or neglected.

Innocente says that there were nights when she’d cry herself to sleep after a hard day. “Things stick with you. It just makes you think. It makes you think what people are capable of doing to animals.” She points to a syndrome that affects individuals who care for sick animals and people: Compassion Fatigue.

Innocente says that workers at the Humane Society are sent to conventions to learn how best to deal with the condition. Compassion Fatigue occurs when an individual has burnt out from helping those unable to help themselves, and oftentimes turn off to the emotional distress that used to impact them.

“These workers go through and see a lot of things,” she says. There is no way to avoid becoming emotionally attached to the animals according to Innocente, and the only cure is to push on, knowing that every animal helped is a life saved.

Every animal in every shelter needs love, and every animal deserves it. Some have had terribly distressing lives at the hands of humans, and some have lived happily with one loving owner their whole life. All it takes is one look, one look to fall in love with big brown eyes and furry little paws. And maybe, just maybe, that life will be completely changed outside of those metal bars.