Seeing the Trayvon Martin saga through a Bonaventure alum’s eyes

By Samantha Berkhead

 

 

Throughout the last few months, the Trayvon Martin case has ballooned from a quiet story of a shooting in suburban Florida to a national media controversy.

By the time editors at The New York Times asked Dan Barry, ‘80, and Serge F. Kovaleski, Campbell Robertson and Lizette Alvarez to cover the case, the story of the 17-year-old Martin’s death by the hand of neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman had become common knowledge — a household subject.

Somewhere underneath the media’s love affair with Martin’s hoodie and the seemingly never-ending debates about the role of racial differences in the event lied a story, albeit a controversial one.

Up until that point, Barry had been primarily known for his New York Times column, “This Land,” which comprises of anecdotal articles observing the vast diversity of human life throughout the United States. It was a far cry from what he had been known for at St. Bonaventure during the late 1970s. Barry started his own magazine, The Convex, which dealt with investigative reporting on-campus.

“I think I was kind of a journalistic smart-aleck imbued with the power of the word and the platform of the college magazine,” he said of his collegiate career. “I was kind of a big, goofy sophomoric kid who could get stuff published being the wise guy.”

For the Trayvon Martin story, Barry and his coworkers had to take a much more sober approach than what he had been used to.

“The story appeared a full month or so after the shooting,” he said. “First of all, most of the media were slow to understand what had happened. Then, when we did our story, I think the goal was to take a deep breath, take time and try and figure out what had happened as best as we could determine, and who these people are in this tragedy that played out in this wet grass down in Sanford and tell that story.”

Add that task to the deadline looming over the reporters’ heads, and they had a daunting challenge.

“For me, every story is a challenge,” he said. “I try to do my best with it, given the situation. That takes time. We had a lot of material to cover in the story with not a lot of time.”

With the time they did have, the four journalists voyaged to Sanford, Fla. and searched for threads of the truth. They spoke to Martin’s and Zimmerman’s families, friends, schoolmates and others who had known the two in order to convey the basic humanity within each of them.

Upon arriving in Sanford, Barry discovered a city carrying on with life as usual, yet at the same time tarnished with the deep-seated mourning that came from losing one of its own.

“Depending on where you were, you could have been in Orchard Park, you could have been in Rochester, you could have been anywhere,” he said. “It was just calm and life was continuing. Then there were other times, specifically in downtown Sanford, where there was a rally being held and there were hundreds and hundreds of people coming together to protest how the case had been handled by the police. When you’re in downtown Sanford and one of those rallies is taking place, the atmosphere is emotional. There is anger and sorrow and a lot of emotion on the street.”

After investigating, discrepancies and inconsistencies appeared within the narrative that challenged the idea of telling the story start to finish.

“There are critical moments in the narrative, and I think the most critical moment is when George Zimmerman stepped out of his truck,” Barry said. “He was a neighborhood watch coordinator and he acted on this suspicion, whether it warranted or not. Once he stepped out of the truck, I think things changed. There’s no narrative we can hear from Trayvon Martin, because he’s dead. One could argue that he went beyond his responsibilities or purpose once he stepped out of the car.”

As for the case itself, Barry said he remains uncertain as to the fate of Zimmerman or of Martin’s memory. However, he said he hopes the work he did will help convey the truth to the American people.

“I don’t know what will happen,” Barry said. “I’m as uncertain about what’s going to happen in that case as anybody. I think that the case itself resonates around the country for a couple of reasons. It highlights, yet again, the issue of race. It’s not a resolved issue in the United States of America in 2012. The issue of gun control remains of-the-moment. There are still things that need to be worked through as a country.”

To read Dan Barry’s reporting on the Trayvon Martin case, visit nytimes.com.

berkhesj10@bonaventure.edu

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St. Bonaventure University students go ‘There and Back Again’ with “The Hobbit”

 

 

The journey that changed the lives of a generation began a little more than 10 years ago.

As millions watched a hobbit named Frodo Baggins make his way across Middle Earth to destroy the Ring of Power on a movie screen, each viewer developed his or her own relationship with author J.R.R. Tolkien’s world. Some of those viewers grew up, graduated high school and eventually enrolled at St. Bonaventure University.

 

The Shadow of the Past

 

The 2001 movie “Spy Kids” first introduced junior journalism and mass communication major Bryan Clark to the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy in an unlikely way.

“(Before ‘Spy Kids’ started) they had a trailer for the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies,” Clark said. “I hadn’t heard of these things before, but I thought they seemed kind of cool. My friends and I started noticing the previews and commercials on TV. Even though the book we’d read so far wasn’t great, we knew something was going on.”

The films soon became a yearly event for Clark and his friends.

“I remember during the Fellowship of the Ring, during the Council of Elrond, one of my friends dropped all the Skittles from his Skittles bag onto the theater floor, and it was pretty loud,” he said.

For Clark and students like sophomore criminology major Brandon Kallen, the yearly release of director Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” films became not just a tradition, but a door opening a new world.

“I never really got to read any of the books,” Kallen said. “But I got into it mostly when I saw the first movie. Then I just watched every single movie and became an avid viewer. I started to learn a bunch about ‘Lord of the Rings’ and its characters.”

Clark, who chose to do his eerily accurate Gollum impersonation during the interview, recalls emulating other “Lord of the Rings” characters with his childhood friends.

“I live across the street from the woods, so my friends and I would go into the forest to play ‘Lord of the Rings’ and we’d use branches and sticks as swords and pretend that the trees were orcs,” Clark said. “I was Gandalf.”

For graduate student Monica Edwards, Tolkien’s works included a moral, humanistic base that inspired her.

“I always really liked the idea of a band of truly good people being able to overcome unimaginable odds,” Edwards said. “I always liked the friendships — Frodo and Sam especially — and Legolas and Gimli as well. … I think Tolkien’s helped bring me to where I am today.”

 

An Unexpected Journey

 

In just 11 months, on Dec. 14, many will return to Tolkien’s mythical world when “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” hits theaters under Jackson’s direction. The trailer, which appeared on the Internet a few days before Christmas, provoked renewed thought and wonder at the world Tolkien single-handedly created.

“When I was a kid, I just thought ‘Hey, these (movies) are awesome, they’re the coolest thing,’” said senior journalism and mass communication major Levi Trimble. “Now that I’ve cultured myself a little bit, I’ve realized they were instant classics, because without Tolkien we wouldn’t have modern-day fantasy or sci-fi. Those works are probably some of the most important in fiction.”

Sophomore journalism and mass communication major Kevin Rogers agreed that viewing Tolkien’s stories will evoke different feelings a decade later.

“I think you’re able to appreciate it more (over time). The movies kind of give you a SparkNotes of it,” Rogers said. “Some of it’s a little thick when you’re 10 or 11, but looking back it’s so much better because you have that base to go off of, and you appreciate the books more. You tend to hate the movies a little more, too, but that’s just how it goes.”

Rogers, who can occasionally be seen wearing his “Sad Balrog” T-shirt around campus, said he’s been looking forward to ‘The Hobbit’ since he heard the news about its adaptation.

“I know it’s probably not going to be perfect, but as long as they keep doing what they did with ‘Lord of the Rings’ I’m pretty sure it’ll be fine,” Rogers said. “I’m pumped to see Gollum again. I kind of want it to come now.”

Kallen said his initial skepticism about “The Hobbit” changed instantly with the trailer’s release.

“I thought that the Hobbit wasn’t going to be very good, because I was thinking, ‘Oh, they just want more money,’” he said. “When I saw the trailer, I felt like they were really sticking to the ‘Lord of the Rings’-esque type of development and I honestly got goose bumps when I watched the trailer.”

 

A Long-Expected Party

 

As the years since the “Lord of the Rings” have passed, the children who grew up with the trilogy became adults who continue to love the stories.

“Over last winter, I got so into the books that I actually tried to write my own Tolkien-ian ‘Legendarian,’ as it’s called,” Trimble said, “Which I really shouldn’t say in public, but I don’t care.”

Edwards also rediscovered Tolkien’s literary legacy in her academic pursuits.

“Last semester, I took a class on Middle English and I ended up writing a paper on Old English. I used Tolkien’s criticism on Old English as one of my major sources. It was really interesting to see a lot of his roots in this stuff, and it made me more interested in a literary period I had little interest in.”

For Kallen, knowing Tolkien has been a uniting factor between himself and other people interested in the books and movies.

“It brings people together, and it has a lot of good morals and lessons in the movie, like the friendship between Sam and Frodo and all that,” he said. “That’s a real friendship I think everyone should aspire toward. It just has a lot of secret and hidden meanings that allow for interpretation and draws the viewers in.”

Kallen’s, along with multitudes of others’, feelings about these stories will likely never change.

“I am still in love with them,” he said.

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Kate Bush – 50 Words For Snow

By Samantha Berkhead

 
As the first nips of frost that freeze your eyelashes and cause the grass to crunch beneath your boots spread through the air last month, Kate Bush released one of her best, most starkly beautiful records — the aptly named 50 Words For Snow.

Hailing from Great Britain, Bush has been one of the most influential artists of the past three decades. From Tori Amos to Florence Welch, echoes of her canon can be heard all over today’s sonic palette.

Over the metronomic, atmospheric sounds of “Snowflake,” the album’s opener, Bush coos “I was born in a cloud … Now I am falling.” While she sings in the character of the snowflake here, there’s no reason to say her words don’t reflect the fallen, shattered world oft found in the human experience. She sets the tone for the rest of the album at once with this track, a stroke of brilliance from a veteran.

On “Misty,” a 13-minute wisp of a song that cuts deep with its ethereal melody and chilling lyrics, Bush personifies a snowman as a lover gone cold. When Bush warbles “He is dissolving, dissolving before me and dawn will come soon. / What kind of spirit is this? / Our one and only tryst,” it feels as though she’s confiding about her broken relationship to you alone. Yet at the same time, a part of Bush remains elegantly reserved in the song, never letting you too far in.

Despite the album’s desolate, wintry expanse, Bush deftly manages to create an intimate atmosphere. Her lyrics are at once distant and immediate, aloof and claustrophobic. This stunning dichotomy, combined with 50 Words For Snow’s poignant, cathartic instrumentation, demonstrate nothing more than Kate Bush’s pure genius.

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Bring poetry back

Two hundred years ago, poetry dominated western society as the premier art form. People like William Wordsworth and Lord Byron had a devoted readership of millions during and after their lifetimes. Words made sense of the surrounding world and its beauty as well as the often-elusive human soul.

Yet today, poetry occupies the outermost circles of our waning cultural focus.

The evidence lies at your fingertips. Do a comparative search between Kim Kardashian and William Wordsworth on Google Trends. You’ll see Kardashian’s graph gradually rise over time like an economist’s fantasy. Wordsworth’s, however, remains a flat line hugging the lowest part of the y-axis.

No “bright young things” in today’s world of poetry have captivated a mass audience. We think of poetry as a dry, snobby way to whine about our feelings; inaccessible words reserved for dust-covered academic types.

Somewhere along the way, people lost their way. The bliss and illumination that can come from reading a poem became obscured by flashing lights and big movie screens.

The trend began with the advent of the consumer culture. Sometime after the Industrial Revolution, a middle class was born—and this middle class really liked having things. Owning the latest technologies and amenities, once a luxury, became an addiction for many as the twentieth century progressed. Mile-long lines of people sleep overnight on stores’ sidewalks in hopes to acquire one of the first copies of a video game or a brand-new television. And the only way to have nice, new things is to have money.

Writing poetry won’t really earn anyone a comfortable living. Wouldn’t you feel fine spending every day in an office cubicle if it meant you could live the suburban dream?

American society measures the worth of others by the extent of their worldly possessions, not by the content of their souls. In poetry, the soul is everything. The loss of such an artistic rendering of the soul can prove fatal for our own.

Yet poetry’s downfall may not have been due to strictly economic factors. Motion pictures rose in prominence during the first half of the 1900s. Not only a visual representation of plotlines, movies also require little to no effort to comprehend. A person burns fewer calories watching a movie than he or she does while sleeping. Not many activities can boast that feat.

Unless it’s a dense, art-house movie meant to be viewed several times, everything is in plain view with film. It’s easy to see how easily poetry, often full of elusive and obscured meanings beneath distilled words, faded away in comparison to something that often takes little effort to enjoy.

Ultimately, poetry’s return to a more accepted, revered place in the mass consciousness will take decades if not centuries. A fundamental, not structural change, must occur—for poetry to come back, people must want it to come back. The common psyche of this culture must realize it needs art such as poetry to survive.

 

— Samantha Berkhead

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Björk – Biophilia

Biophilia

If anyone could revolutionize the way the world looks upon music, it would be Björk. No other artist challenges her listeners more or takes her music further.

At the start of her prolific career’s third decade, she has created Biophilia—-a valentine to the natural universe using the interfaces of the digital world.
The album, designed as a set of interactive apps—one for each song—-for the iPad and iPhone, required not only musical collaborators, but scientists, engineers, video game designers and film directors to make the project a reality. As the world’s first so-called “app album,” Biophilia symbolizes a revolution before one even presses play.

The album’s music itself departs from the brass-horn experimentation and frankly upsetting Timbaland influences found on 2007’s Volta. Björk gets back to the brilliance she’s known for—unstructured, harrowing melodic journeys through eccentric shapes of sounds. Vespertine’s introverted, gossamer sounds echo through in songs like “Moon” and “Virus,” and Homogenic’s heavy percussive assaults show up in “Crystalline” and “Sacrifice.”

Each song reflects the album’s title in its own way, taking the listener through living snapshots of the unabashedly organic universe surrounding humanity—but for all its evident fragmentation, Biophilia may be Björk’s most cohesive album yet.

A lush, solitary, nocturnal tone permeates every chord and every word. Every element of Biophilia contributes to the bigger picture—-the picture of natural life as an otherworldly realm worthy of awe.

Never one to stray toward the traditional, Björk also created musical instruments and elements to fit the nature within each song. She recorded many of the songs using an iPad, likely something never done before in music. The Tesla coil becomes an instrument on “Thunderbolt,” literally jolting electric energy into the song’s soundscape. Many songs feature the “gameleste,” an instrument combining a gamelan and a celesta created solely for the purpose of making this album a masterpiece.

Yet with all of its flashy, eccentric instrumentation and unconventional production and concept, the bones of Biophilia’s song structures could make a near-perfect album on their own.

Lead single “Crystalline” boasts Björk’s ethereal vocals as they carry a gorgeous, repetitive melody meant to represent crystals growing up from the ground and building upon each other.

“Solstice,” a sparse, haunting track on its own, brilliantly recalls humans’ relationship with gravity. Featuring swinging pendulums and a counterpoint referencing the movement and rotational movements of the planets, the song becomes more than just a symbolic set of lyrics.

“Virus,” composed as a love song on the destructive relationship between a virus and a cell, is a lyrical and artistic triumph in a career full of lyrical and artistic triumphs. Harpsichords and plucked chimes twinkle around the song’s atmosphere, offsetting the leech-like lyrics and Björk’s husky soprano.

“May I, can I or have I too often craved miracles?” she hauntingly wails.

But Björk has never needed to crave miracles—she makes them happen at the snap of a finger.

 

— Samantha Berkhead

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Sarah’s Key (Elle s’appelait Sarah)

Sarah's Key

US Release: 2011
Director: Gilles Paquet-Brenner

In the earliest moments of Sarah’s Key, lead actress Kristin Scott Thomas declares that “when a story is told, it is not forgotten.” This statement rings as a challenge both to the film’s viewers and the film itself, but it’s a challenge the film doesn’t quite overcome.

The widely unknown deportation of 13,000 French Jews to concentration camps in 1942 catalyzes the dual narrative film that spans 60 years. The young Sarah Starzynski and her parents are among the Jews forced from their homes and each other by their own government. In a desperate attempt to save her younger brother from a similar fate, Sarah locks him in a closet, taking the key with her and making him swear to stay hidden.

The film cuts back and forth from 1942 to present-day France, where expatriate American journalist Julia Jarmond (Scott Thomas, in a performance as bland and thin as a communion wafer) struggles to pick up the threads of Sarah’s journey and weave them together after learning her husband’s family owns the apartment the Starzynskis lived in before being shipped away.

She relentlessly hunts for clues of Sarah’s fate after finding her name absent from the list of French Jews sent to Auschwitz. Julia’s search takes her across oceans and continents, and she learns there is a cost to the horrible truths she ultimately discovers.

The beautiful yet scathing visual storytelling surrounding Sarah’s adolescence vanishes whenever the film reverts to the present—a tragedy in itself. Rather than give a compelling story its due attention, Paquet-Brenner lets Scott Thomas bring any potential the film had to a trite and clichéd halt. Matters of Julia’s unexpected pregnancy and personal life overshadow the harrowing story of the past.

It’s safe to hypothesize that the film’s bifocal emphasis cripples whatever power it might have otherwise held over viewers if more time was allotted to exploring Sarah’s character as she matured. Paquet-Brenner’s unforgiving portrayal of the terror and raw human desperation of the Holocaust is beautiful in its horror. Yet as soon as Sarah ages past childhood, her role in the story essentially vanishes, leaving any development or analysis of her troubled psyche to viewers’ imagination. Instead of a masterpiece, viewers are dealt a cheap shot at a happy-go-lucky story using the worst tragedy of the 20th century as fodder for attention.

This is no Schindler’s List or La Vita è Bella. This is the Holocaust for soccer moms.

By Samantha Berkhead

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Our Last Best Chance: The Pursuit of Peace In A Time of Peril

Our Last Best Chance
Author: King Abdullah II of Jordan
Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Inc.: New York, 2011

It seems oddly prophetic that Jordan’s King Abdullah II published his first book when he did. Our Last Best Chance, a memoir pressing the need for peace in his region of the world, was released just as Tunisia’s revolutionary uprising blazed a trail for the Arab Spring of 2011—-a wave of citizen protests washing across the Middle East, the full implications of which remain frustratingly veiled to many.

From Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf to Bill Clinton’s My Life, books authored by state leaders usually get published while they are not in the position of power for which they’re known. This trend makes Abdullah’s book all the more intriguing—-Our Last Best Chance was written and published just over 10 years into his reign.

Quirks of the author’s chronology and timing aside, Our Last Best Chance tells the story of a man deeply devoted not only to his country, but to peace and stability throughout the Middle East. For someone with extensive transatlantic military training, Abdullah is an adamant pacifist and progressive—-in many ways the ideal 21st-century monarch.

Abdullah’s commitment to securing peace for his people and civilians everywhere permeates his text. At times, this passion results in non-thrilling, almost sedative circumlocution and repetition of narrative. But his narrative accurately conveys how much he wants to achieve peace among his neighbors, an admirable trait for someone in such a position of influence throughout the region.

The still-unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict bookends Abdullah’s story, in particular the many failed talks for peace that have taken place in the last several decades. Jordan’s close proximity to the conflict makes the issue a priority for Abdullah. The Palestinian people have been wrongly denied their rights to statehood and peaceful existence for more than half a century, and Israel has never quite understood that throughout the several conferences that have taken place.

The Israel-Palestine problem is no doubt complex and divisive; even Abdullah isn’t immune from making a politically colorless commentary. He puts forth his position on the two-state solution to Palestinian independence so frequently that sometimes it’s tempting to visualize a blue-faced Congressman rambling upon a wooden crate on a street corner in days of yore.

But at the same time, it’s difficult to become irritated with Abdullah.

He is a wise and respectable leader who consistently acts in the interests of his people. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has had a vast impact on Muslims around the world seeking the protection of Jerusalem. He remains one of the very few leaders in the world who will avoid war as a solution to problems in favor of face-to-face diplomacy and peaceful resolutions. He also has a clearer, more moderate view on terrorism and al-Qaida than many higher-ups on Capitol Hill do. He is aware that the present day may be the last window of opportunity Arab nations have to secure peace and security for the future.

All of these things make King Abdullah an authoritative voice on the Middle East and its place in this world—a place that for some Americans is still shrouded in mystery and shrouds of smoke from 9/11. It would be wise for anyone to heed his words.

But with the radical changes in leadership across the region resulting from the Arab Spring revolutions, who knows what will happen next?

 

— Samantha Berkhead

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