Monday, January 23, 2012

Film Project: Great Myths of the Great Depression

I'm blogging again. However, I've decided to transfer my blog to my own domain. You can find it here: I may still post here from time to time, but probably only to reference posts I've written on that other site.

In Other News
The past several weeks of my life were spent preparing for my college’s spring semester and working with my brother on a film project for a video contest that is being run by the Foundation for Economic Education. The competition asked high-school and college students to create an 8-minute film on Lawrence Reed’s essay “Great Myths of the Great Depression.” 25% of our score is how many hits, likes, and comments we receive on YouTube. We have a month to promote the film. You can watch it below:

In his essay, Lawrence Reed argued that destructive government policies produced America’s Great Depression. He set out to debunk what he called the 20th century’s greatest myth: free markets caused the depression and government intervention brought about economic recovery. Read the original essay here:

We used Final Cut Pro, Garage Band, Photoshop and Adobe Flash to produce the film, as well as public domain archival footage and historic photographs from and The National Archives. It was terribly difficult and time consuming to put this low-budget documentary together. Needless to say, I have even greater respect for professional filmmakers for the time and dedication they put into their projects.

I hope you enjoy the film and find it informative.

Posted by Nicole Bianchi at 11:17 PM |

Monday, February 07, 2011

The King's Speech: A Review

A King’s Courage in Overcoming Adversity Embodies the Spirit of a Nation

“Some have greatness thrust upon them,” Shakespeare once observed. His words are an apt description of Prince Albert’s journey to become King George VI of England. The King’s Speech follows Albert's struggles to overcome a debilitating speech handicap in order to lead his nation through the dark days of World War II.

Prince Albert (called Bertie by his family) never expected nor wanted the throne of England. His older brother Edward, charismatic and confident, was first in line to the throne and seemed the perfect choice to lead the nation. Albert suffered from shyness and his crippling stammer only made it worse. Even before the possibility that Edward might abdicate the throne, Albert tried to find someone who could cure his stutter.

It seemed a fruitless search. After visiting nine therapists, Albert had nearly given up all hope. But his wife, Elizabeth, would stop at nothing to help her husband. She discovered an Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue, of questionable methods and even more questionable qualifications, but who turned out to be just the friend the future king needed.

This inspiring story won The King’s Speech twelve Oscar nominations. But, of course, a good story does not always make a great film. However, The King’s Speech was in good hands with director Tom Hooper. A pro at the historical drama genre, Hooper directed the popular John Adams miniseries and won an Emmy for Elizabeth I.

David Seidler wrote the screenplay that bristles with a dry English humor. When Logue asks Bertie if he knows any jokes, the Prince replies, “Timing isn’t my strong suit.” Yet, the subtle humor does not overpower the story. Seidler wrote a script that engages all of his sympathies – he too suffered from a stutter as a child.

The film also benefits from the strong rapport between Colin Firth (who plays Prince Albert) and Geoffrey Rush (as Lionel Logue). Logue insists on calling the Prince by his Christian name, in defiance of royal etiquette. Logue knows that in order to truly help the Prince, Albert must trust him. Albert must see Logue not as his doctor, but as his friend. Helena Bonham Carter turns in an equally fine performance as Albert’s wife, never wavering in her love and support for her husband.

The King’s Speech is a classic underdog story where an unlikely hero is faced with nearly insurmountable odds. It is said that Prince Albert wept when he learned that his brother Edward had abdicated the throne in order to marry the American divorcée, Wallis Simpson. Albert knew that he would be humiliated as King if he could not conquer his stammer. The introduction of the radio meant that he must speak publicly to the people. Without Logue’s help, perhaps Prince Albert would also have abdicated the throne.

However, Albert’s tenacity and courage to conquer his defect prove that he was more than worthy to lead a nation. Indeed, through his friendship with Logue, Albert truly came to know and respect the common Englishman, a class of people the royalty rarely rubbed shoulders with.

At one point, he angrily asks Logue, “If I am king, where is my power? Can I declare war? Form a government? Levy a tax? No! And yet I am the seat of all authority because they think that when I speak, I speak for them.” By the time the film reaches its climatic scene, we know that King George VI does speak for all English people – for the commoner and for the aristocrat and for all who have conquered adversity. His is a story of triumph.

The movie ends with England’s declaration of war against Germany. And, thus, The King’s Speech is elevated to a parable for the indomitable will of the English people. Though the darkness of Nazi Germany nearly overwhelmed their small island, they too would stand firm and triumph.

Watch the trailer here.

[The King's Speech is rated R for language. There are several scenes where Albert swears during his therapy. However, many viewers were shocked to learn that the film had earned an R rating (it is quite tame compared to some PG-13 movies I've seen, though I would not recommend the film for children). Interestingly enough, however, executive producer Harvey Weinstein is considering recutting the movie in order to gain a PG-13 rating. It may be re-released in theaters later this February. Read more about that here.]

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Posted by Nicole Bianchi at 8:02 PM |

Friday, December 24, 2010

Celebrating Christmas

The Truth Behind the Traditions

Joyeux Noël! Frohe Weihnacht! Buon Natale! Feliz Navidad! Christmas (literally “Christ’s Mass”) is celebrated in over 160 countries by Christians and non-Christians alike. Each country has its own unique traditions and its own way of saying "Merry Christmas." And, yet, though the Christian in Germany and the Christian in New York may celebrate the holiday quite differently, they both are united in their purpose of commemorating the birth of Jesus the Messiah.

Because of its ethnic diversity, the United States boasts a wide range of Christmas traditions. When the average American decorates his Christmas tree, sings songs about Santa Claus, and sends Christmas cards, he is celebrating Christmas traditions taken from all around the world.

So, where exactly do those traditions come from? Read on to find out the history behind many of America's classic Christmas traditions (and wow your friends and relatives this holiday season with your knowledge of Christmas trivia).

The Truth Behind Santa Claus

Americans know Santa Claus as the jolly, rotund, white-bearded man who on Christmas Eve flies across the night sky in a sleigh pulled by nine reindeer. Many parents tell their children that Santa Claus brings the presents that seem to have magically appeared under the tree on Christmas morning. Most of Old Saint Nick's trappings are mythical, but he is actually based on a real person: a fourth century bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (Turkey). St. Nicholas was renowned for his kindness and generosity. In one story, a poor man had no money for his three daughters' dowries and, thus, the daughters could not get married and would be forced into prostitution. The story goes that Nicholas saved them by secretly tossing bags of gold down their chimney.

Unfortunately, Santa Claus has come to be seen as a secular symbol of Christmas -- a fact that would undoubtedly have outraged the bishop. In fact, St. Nicholas was known for his fiery temper. In 325 AD, Nicholas was a delegate at the Council of Nicaea (convened to settle questions regarding Christ's deity). During the proceedings, Nicholas became so enraged at Arius (who opposed the Trinitarian Christology) that Nicholas punched him. Of course, this behavior landed Nicholas in hot water and he was nearly stripped of his office, but the council eventually forgave him. One wonders what the real Santa Claus would do to those today who try to minimize the importance of Jesus during Christmastime.

How did St. Nicholas become the Santa Claus we know today? Well, St. Nicholas was quite a popular figure during the Middle Ages, but the Protestant Reformation discouraged the celebration of saints. The legend of St. Nicholas did survive, however, in the Netherlands. According to this article:
Sinterklaas came to America with the Dutch in the 17th and 18th centuries, and it was in the new colonies that he really evolved. The anglicizing of the name — from Sinterklaas to Santa Claus — happened by 1773, when the latter was referenced for the first time, in a New York City newspaper. Santa's waistline expanded in 1809 with the publication of author Washington Irving's book "A History of New York," in which the big man is described as portly and smoking a pipe instead of as a lanky bishop.
The Truth Behind Christmas Trees

For the Christian, the Christmas tree has come to symbolize everlasting life found in Christ. However, the tree does have its roots in pagan traditions. Fir trees and branches were used to decorate homes and temples during the ancient pagan winter solstice feasts and the Roman Saturnalia. Yet, there are other explanations for the Christmas tree.

One legend tells of Saint Boniface, an English missionary to the Frankish Empire in the 8th century. In 723, Boniface cut down the Donar Oak (Thor's oak), a tree that marked a sacred religious site of the pagan Germanic tribes. The Germanic peoples believed that Donar (Thor) would strike Boniface with lightning. Instead, "the huge oak was felled by a great gust of wind 'as if by miracle' with Boniface only making one swing of the axe." A fir tree sprang up from the center of the felled oak. The pagan peoples were converted on the spot and agreed to be baptized. They believed the fir tree must be holy and, in order to commemorate the event, they decorated the tree with various ornaments. (Another version goes that they decorated the tree with candles so that Boniface could preach to them at nighttime). Whether or not this legend is true, it is undoubtable that the Christmas tree tradition hails from Germany. Christmas trees were not popular in England until Victorian times when Prince Albert (Queen Victoria's German husband) set up a Christmas tree in Windsor Castle.

There are two other stories that might also explain Christmas trees. One involves medieval mystery plays that were often performed on Christmas Eve. Most medieval Christians were illiterate and the plays would bring to life stories from the Bible, often the stories of Creation and the Fall as December 24th was Adam and Eve day in the early Church calendar. A paradise tree, representing the Garden of Eden, was used to advertise the play.

Another story attributes the origin of Christmas trees to Martin Luther. He went for a walk one winter evening and looked up at the stars through the branches of the fir trees. He thought it was so beautiful that he cut down a fir tree and brought it home for his children. They decorated the tree with candles and decided to continue the tradition every Christmas eve.

You can read more about the history of Christmas trees here.

The Truth Behind Christmas Cards

The first White House Christmas Card was sent by Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953. According to this article: "The first commercial Christmas cards were commissioned by Sir Henry Cole in London in 1843 and featured an illustration by John Callcott Horsley. The picture of a family with a small child drinking wine together proved controversial, but the idea was shrewd: Cole had helped introduce the Penny Post three years earlier. Two batches totaling 2,050 cards were printed and sold that year for a shilling each."

The Truth Behind Nativity Scenes

Nativity scenes are quite popular during the Christmas season, but are not always accurate to the Biblical story of Christ's birth. For instance, the Bible is silent about the actual number of wise men who followed the star. Matthew 2:1-2 says, "Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, 'Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.'" Nowhere does it specify that there were three wise men.

Further, the Bible does not say that the wise men came to the stable at the same time as the shepherds. Rather, it is more likely that the wise men did not arrive until Jesus was much older (possibly one or two years after his birth). This would make sense because the wise men ask Herod about the child "after Jesus was born." In verse 7, Herod tells them to look for a "young child," not a newborn baby.

When the wise men do not return to Herod, he orders the execution of all male children two years and younger. This would only make sense if there was the possibility that Jesus was two years old. Further, in verses 9 and 11, Matthew tells us: "Behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was...And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him." The star did not rest over a stable or an inn, but Mary and Joseph's house.

How, then, did the traditional nativity scene come to be? Why three wise men? And why are they shown at the stable? Most likely the tradition of three wise men came about because three gifts are mentioned in the Biblical story: "Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh."

Nativity scenes began with Saint Francis of Assisi in 1223. He had the idea of recreating the Christmas story in caves with live actors. Most likely, these scenes included the three wise men. It would have been too hard to show the wise men showing up at the cave two years later! Saint Bonaventure in his Life of St. Francis of Assisi writes,
It happened in the third year before his death, that in order to excite the inhabitants of Grecio to commemorate the nativity of the Infant Jesus with great devotion, [St. Francis] determined to keep it with all possible solemnity; and lest he should be accused of lightness or novelty, he asked and obtained the permission of the sovereign Pontiff. Then he prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed. The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise. The man of God [St. Francis] stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy; the Holy Gospel was chanted by Francis, the Levite of Christ. Then he preached to the people around the nativity of the poor King; and being unable to utter His name for the tenderness of His love, He called Him the Babe of Bethlehem.
The Truth Behind Christmas Carols

The origin of Christmas carols also arose from Saint Francis of Assisi's Nativity Plays. This article explains:
The people in the plays sang songs or 'canticles' that told the story during the plays. Sometimes, the choruses of these new carols were in Latin; but normally they were all in a language that the people watching the play could understand and join in! The new carols spread to France, Spain, Germany and other European countries.

The earliest carol, like this, was written in 1410. Sadly only a very small fragment of it still exists. The carol was about Mary and Jesus meeting different people in Bethlehem. Most Carols from this time and the Elizabethan period are untrue stories, very loosely based on the Christmas story, about the holy family and were seen as entertaining rather than religious songs. They were usually sung in homes rather than in churches! Traveling singers or Minstrels started singing these carols and the words were changed for the local people wherever they were traveling.
The Truth Behind Wrapping Presents

The tradition of wrapping Christmas presents dates to the Victorian era. However, only the wealthy could afford expensive gifts and elaborate wrapping paper. Thus, wrapping Christmas presents was a practice reserved for the upper classes. This article explains the origins of wrapping paper in the United States:
In the United States, gift wrapping began to be popular in the early 1920’s. Plain tissue paper in red, green, and white had been used prior to this time. The tissue paper was flimsy and sometimes the colors would bleed. Wrapping paper often fell off of the gift or tore before the gift giving process actually occurred. The industry leader in gift wrap is the Hallmark Company. Yes, Joyce C. Hall, the founder of the company, invented the greeting card and the wrapping paper we use today. Today’s paper is still durable but easily folded. The actual invention of Hallmark’s wrapping paper was an accident and not really an invention. The Hall Brother’s store sold out of the tissue paper during the holiday season of 1917. Decorative envelope liners, made of elaborately adorned paper, began to sell for wrapping use. The liners had been purchased from a French factory. At ten cents a sheet they were snapped up quickly. The next year the Halls displayed the same style of envelope liner wrapping paper at three sheets for twenty-five cents. The marketing plan was a success and followed for many years to come.
The Truth Behind Xmas

Many Christians find the term "Xmas" offensive. They believe it is an attempt to take Christ out of Christmas. Surprisingly, however, the X in Xmas is actually the Greek letter chi and the first letter in the Greek word for Christ (Christos). But Xmas should not be pronounced "ex-mas." The correct pronunciation is (you guessed it) -- Christmas.

The image on the left is the labarum, a military standard used by the Roman emperor Constantine I. It represents the first two letters that spell Christos -- chi and rho. Thus, Xmas is an abbreviation for Christmas, but certainly does not take Christ out of Christmas. Perhaps this proves the futility of efforts by the secular word to erase Christianity from the Christmas holiday.

The Truth Behind Mistletoe

Why do we kiss under the mistletoe? Like Christmas trees, the mistletoe is a druidic custom. According to this article:
It is supposed to possess mystical powers which bring good luck to the household and ward off evil spirits. It was also used as a sign of love and friendship in Norse mythology and that's where the custom of kissing under Mistletoe comes from. When the first Christians came to Western Europe, some tried to ban the use of Mistletoe as a decoration in Churches, but many still continued to use it. York Minster Church in the UK used to hold a special Mistletoe Service in the winter, where wrong doers in the city of York could come and be pardoned.
In 1820, Washington Irving wrote in his "The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon" that "the mistletoe is still hung up in farm-houses and kitchens at Christmas, and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked the privilege ceases."

The Truth Behind Candy Canes

Candy canes were originally white sticks of sugar, peppermint-less and stripe-less. They gained their signature "cane" shape sometime in 1670 when a choirmaster in Germany made the candies resemble shepherd's crooks, and handed them out to children to keep them quiet during the Christmas services. The candy was not flavored with peppermint and was not striped until the 20th century. Some say the candy cane resembles a J and, thus, is a symbol for Jesus. Others say that the three red stripes represent the trinity. Or that the red and white stripes represent Christ's blood and purity. Or that the peppermint flavor represents hyssop, an herb offered to Jesus before he died. However, there is no proof to back up any of these claims. It seems candy canes are just that -- candy canes.

The Truth Behind December 25

Why is Christmas celebrated on December 25? Was Jesus actually born on December 25? Actually, the Bible does not give a date for Christ's birth. It is more probable that Jesus was born in the spring. However, dating Christ's birth to December 25 is an ancient practice. According to this article: "The first recorded date of Christmas being celebrated on December 25th was in 336AD in the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine (he was the first Christian Roman Emperor). A few years later Pope Julius I officially declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on the 25th December." December 25 might have been chosen in an effort to replace pagan holidays with a Christian one. The Winter Solstice and the Roman Saturnalia were celebrated around this date in December. Interestingly, Orthodox and Coptic churches celebrate Christmas on January 7th, and the Armenian Church celebrates it on January 6th. Regardless of the date, it is a special day that Christians set aside to celebrate the miracle of the incarnation -- when God became flesh and dwelt among us. "We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14).

Merry Christmas! Have a blessed holiday season.

Luke 2, verses 9-14:
And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:  

“Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”


Posted by Nicole Bianchi at 10:56 PM |

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

"God gave you a gift of 86,400 seconds today. Have you used one to say 'thank you?'" 
-- William A. Ward

Psalm 100. A Psalm for Giving Grateful Praise.

Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth.
Worship the LORD with gladness;
come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the LORD is God.
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving
and his courts with praise;
give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the LORD is good and his love endures forever;
his faithfulness continues through all generations.

Have a blessed Thanksgiving with family and friends!

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Posted by Nicole Bianchi at 4:46 PM |

Monday, November 22, 2010

New York City's Poetry

Musings from a poetry reading hosted by First Things magazine and featuring the poetry of Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry magazine.

I am seated in a small, crowded room on the sixth floor of a building on New York City’s East Side. It is my first time at a poetry reading. Initially, I feel out of place. I am younger than most here – too young even to drink the wine. But I find several familiar faces in the crowd. I realize that all in this room are united by a love for words and especially for poetry.

Christian Wiman, a native of west Texas, came to the city to share his poetry. He laughs, almost apologetically, when admitting that most of the poems are about Texas. But I am fascinated by the way his voice (with a hint of a Texan drawl) lifts words from the page and paints pictures of fields that “wrinkle into rows / of cotton” and dust devils that are a “mystical hysterical amalgam of earth and wind / and mind.”

Leaning forward in my chair to catch the words as they slip past, I wish for pen and paper to write down several of the lines. Wiman knows these poems by heart and does not think to allow a long pause between each reading to let his listeners ponder the graceful phrases.

There is one poem that captivates me. He calls it “Postolka,” the Czech word for kestrel. During a stay in Prague, he saw a falcon land on his windowsill. The poem recounts the moment: “Wish for something, you said. / A shiver pricked your spine. / The falcon turned its head 
/ and locked its eyes on mine.” I love the way I suddenly feel transported to that room. I can feel the eager anticipation pulsing through my body, and the wonder that such a large bird, loose in a city, would choose my windowsill on which to alight. What would I do in this room if I saw a falcon dive through the night air and perch on the fire escape to stare at me?

I am reminded of a passage from Mystery and Manners, a book of essays by Flannery O’Connor. O’Connor encourages writers to take up painting because it forces them to see. This is the basis of all the arts, she argues. Writing is not concerned with just saying things, but showing things. I do not know if Wiman has read O’Connor, but he has surely taken this advice to heart. His poetry is charged by a peculiar clarity of vision that creates honestly detailed portrayals of everyday life. The poems possess all the color and beauty of a photograph. And, yet, they are much more alive than a photograph: they allow a glimpse into Wiman’s mind and transcribe into words the vibrant glow of his soul.

That glow seems to fill the room, subduing his listeners into an awestruck silence or stirring them to applause. We applaud when his words inspire and encourage the glow within our own souls.

When I leave the poetry reading, I am refreshed and renewed. I find myself on the sidewalk in the cool of an October evening. But the city seems different than before, as though I see it with new eyes. I long to draw my own lines of poetry – to capture the emotions welling up in my soul and somehow offer them up to this big city.

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Posted by Nicole Bianchi at 12:39 PM |

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Breakfast at Tiffany's: Book Review

[This book review was written for a college writing class assignment. I was asked to write a brief essay examining a piece of literature set in New York City. In his story, Capote writes of the City: "They must see this, these lights, this river – I love New York, even though it isn't mine, the way something has to be, a tree or a street or a house, something, anyway, that belongs to me because I belong to it."]

A Review of Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's

The name "Holly Golightly" brings to mind an elegant Audrey Hepburn – slim and beautiful in a chic black dress. Hepburn recreated Truman Capote’s famous character in the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s and instantly became an icon of fashion. The film, however, presents a sugarcoated version of Capote’s original story. The 1958 novella is a harsher, cruder, and sadder glimpse of life in World War II-era New York City. Capote weaves a theme of alienation throughout the pages, examining the possibility of feeling terribly alone in a city of over twelve million people.

Told through the voice of an unnamed narrator, Breakfast at Tiffany’s follows the escapades of a young socialite, Holly Golightly, who, though she seems to have the world at her feet, tries to find a place where she belongs. The majority of the story takes place in “a brownstone in the East Seventies.” This is only a temporary residence for most of the characters. When the narrator returns to the brownstone years later, he finds only one resident still living there.

Just as the apartment is a temporary residence for the characters, so too are their relationships only temporary. The narrator and Holly become friends, but constantly argue. This tension drives the plot of the story. The narrator can see Holly’s life spiraling out of control, but seems powerless to do anything to save her.

He first meets Holly when she loses her key and rings him to open the front door for her. Later on, she requests entrance to his apartment through the window, explaining, “I’ve got the most terrible man downstairs.” This encounter reveals the most about Holly: she makes her living as a prostitute (wheedling money out of wealthy, older men) and she does not like to speak about her rather odd past (the narrator finds out later that she was a “hillbilly” and a child bride).

The plot of Breakfast at Tiffany’s is anything but new. It follows the basic outline of a romantic novel, though those looking for passion and romance will be disappointed. Capote is more interested in detailing the quiet friendship that develops between the narrator and Holly, rather than her flings with a number of rich millionaires. Further, Capote’s story is intensely realistic. Holly is hardly an innocent damsel in distress and she has no chivalrous knight in shining armor to rescue her.

Indeed, what makes Capote’s story unique is its frank portrayal of ordinary life. Most people will never find the romance they yearn for. Loneliness is a harsh reality – the narrator feels out of place at Holly’s parties, the reader feels as if he were eavesdropping on Holly’s personal life, and Holly herself ultimately finds that she is an outsider to the upper crust of New York City. This is what makes Holly’s pitiful cry all the more poignant – “Not knowing what’s yours till you’ve thrown it away.” It reveals the heart of this cautionary tale. There are two kinds of people in this world – those who find where they belong and those who do not; those who know what’s theirs and keep it and those who throw everything they love away.

Capote wrote his novella for those who are not afraid to examine the heartache and struggle of everyday life. His characters are believable and the dialogue is strong. However, everyday life does not always have a happy ending and, thus, Capote’s story is a bit more depressing than its film counterpart. Yet, this is also the reason why it surpasses the film and must be considered a literary masterpiece.

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Posted by Nicole Bianchi at 10:47 PM |

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Historic Trip Down Market Street: Before and After

1906 San Franciso -- before and after the catastrophic earthquake.

The above movie has gone viral on YouTube with over one million views. The footage is 104 years old -- the first movie to be shot using 35 mm film. On April 14, 1906, a camera was attached to the front of a cable car and captured twelve minutes of busy traffic on San Francisco's Market Street. What fascinates me most about this film, besides the incredible trip back in time, is the absolute mayhem of the traffic -- and not a single accident! Also, it is sobering to think that only four days later tragedy would strike this city and claim over 3,000 lives.

I recommend watching the high quality, restored version of this film that was recently spotlighted on 60 Minutes.

If you're fascinated by the history surrounding the film, watch Morley Safer's full report here. For many years, the film was wrongly believed to have been taken in 1905. However, historian David Kiehn pinpointed the date using theater marquees, car license plates, and weather records.

After watching the above film, view this footage of Market Street following the April 18th earthquake:

At a moment's notice, on a day like the one in the first film, an earthquake rocked the city to its core. San Francisco's devastation eerily resembles a bombed out European city during WWII. It should give us pause when we look at these two contrasting videos to consider how quickly disaster can come upon a city. In the first movie, we see ordinary people going about their daily lives. In the second, we see a nearly deserted street and abandoned, smoking buildings. A few people wander the street, their faces blank -- they know their lives will never be the same. It is saddening that the 21st century man can find such a scene all too familiar with what he experienced on 9/11. We are not immune to such unexpected tragedy.

Most inspiring, however, is the people of San Francisco's perseverance to rebuild their city after the earthquake. I am reminded of the 1936 film San Francisco, starring Clark Gable and Jeanette MacDonald. It tells the story of "a beautiful singer [MacDonald] and a battling priest who try to reform a Barbary Coast saloon owner [Gable] in the days before the big earthquake." The film culminates in a 20-minute recreated sequence of the 1906 earthquake. In the aftermath, Gable searches for MacDonald in the rubble. Despairing, he promises God he will reform his life if MacDonald is alive. When he finds MacDonald in a refugee camp, Gable falls on his knees, thanking God. Word reaches the camp that the fires have been put out in the city. Gable and MacDonald join the other refugees to march back to the city, singing a hymn, with cries of "We'll build a new San Francisco!" The last scene of the movie shows the smoldering city slowly transform into the modern 1930s San Francisco.

Emma M. Burke, a survivor of the earthquake, wrote these inspiring words: "In conclusion, let me say that this stupendous disaster leads a thoughtful person to two conclusions: viz., faith in humanity; and the progress of the human race. All artificial restraints of our civilization fell away with the earthquake's shocks. Every man was his brother's keeper. Everyone spoke to everyone else with a smile. The all-prevailing cheerfulness and helpfulness were encouraging signs of our progress in practicing the golden rule, and humanity's struggle upward toward the example of our Savior."


Posted by Nicole Bianchi at 7:07 PM |

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Social Network: A Review

“You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies.”

David Fincher’s highly anticipated film, The Social Network, has been advertised as a story about the origins of Facebook, the social networking website that now boasts over 500 million users. But at its heart it is a story about the origins of the site’s creator – the brilliant, arrogant, and entrepreneurial Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg).

Based on Ben Mezrich’s 2009 bestseller The Accidental Billionaires, the movie is fast paced and carried by sharp, witty dialogue. Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay prevents this story from being just another film about a down-on-his-luck-genius who becomes an accidental, overnight billionaire. Rather there is something about the storyline that is exciting, energetic, and suspenseful. The rise to fame is never easy and the view from the top can be lonely.

The Social Network artfully jumps from flashbacks of Zuckerberg’s college years (when he invented Facebook in his Harvard dorm room) to an office where Zuckerberg testifies in depositions in two lawsuits. One involves the Winklevoss brothers (both played by Armie Hammer), who accuse Zuckerberg of stealing their idea for a social networking site. The other involves his best and only friend Eduardo Saverin (played by Andrew Garfield). Saverin, Facebook’s former CFO, lent Zuckerberg money to start up the website, but was later frozen out. While the audience might sympathize with the claims of Saverin and the Winklevoss twins, Zuckerberg at one point exclaims, “If you were the inventors of Facebook, you would have invented Facebook.” Essentially, this is the story of a man who had a brilliant idea, made that idea a reality, and then found himself the victim of everyone who wanted a piece of his success.

While many of the scenes are lighthearted and there are a few laugh-out-loud moments, the film is actually quite serious and becomes a cautionary tale about the costs of fame. Though a brilliant computer programmer, Zuckerberg was fallible and made a few regrettable decisions along the way. At one point, he follows some bad advice and betrays his best friend for the sake of Facebook. By the end of the film, Zuckerberg may have 500 million Facebook friends, but he finds himself terribly alone. This is one of the subtle messages of the movie – thousands of virtual friends on the Internet cannot substitute for meaningful relationships in everyday life.

And, thus, the movie is a frank portrayal of our culture. Although it is a time of such great opportunity when a young twenty-six year old can become a billionaire, it is also a time of great depersonalization. Perhaps The Social Network has performed so well at the box-office because it is not infected by the culture’s depersonalization. It gives the audience three dimensional characters that we can understand and empathize with: the Winklevoss brothers who had good ideas but not enough drive to see them through; Eduardo Saverin who could not handle living life in the fast lane; Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake), the former co-founder of Napster, who jumped onboard the Facebook bandwagon and was destroyed by his own success. But most importantly it is about the creative genius of Mark Zuckerberg and a fascinating glimpse into the mind of an inventor.

Watch the trailer here.


Posted by Nicole Bianchi at 5:19 PM |

Friday, October 08, 2010

Finding Neverland: A Review

This Week’s Edition of Friday at the Movies: Spotlighting Films About Writing (Part II)

Missed last week's edition? Read Part I of this series (a review of Finding Forrester.)

Tonight's Spotlight: Finding Neverland (a review)

This review was originally written in March 2005 following the release of the film.

The story of Peter Pan has endeared itself to young and old alike. Many remember the theatrical adaptations or the bright colors and winsome songs of the Disney cartoon. But to understand the story of the boy who never grew up, one must read the original version written by the Scottish novelist and dramatist, J. M. Barrie. Tinged with childish longing, sorrow, and cruelty, this tale does not have the same feel as its adaptations. One may well wonder why it became a children’s classic. Yet, many parts are also filled with beauty and innocence.

Such is also Finding Neverland: a movie delving into concepts of happiness and sorrow -- the beauty of life and the tragedy of death.

Johnny Depp plays the eccentric novelist, J.M. Barrie, in a winning and believable role. However, as an article in The New Yorker observes, "Depp resembles Barrie in no way, except in his slenderness of form. We get a passable, soft stab at a Scottish burr but no mustache; we see more of the sweet side of Barrie." Indeed, this is not a film about Barrie's life (it barely touches the surface), but it is a well-done tribute and shows how Barrie came upon his inspiration for his most famous play, Peter Pan.

The movie begins in 1904 on the opening night of Barrie's play, Little Mary, which proves a terrible failure. However, the theater manager (played by Dustin Hoffman) is willing to give Barrie a second chance. Slightly scarred by the rejection of his previous attempt, Barrie professes, "I can do better."

Barrie seeks out the solace of Kensington Gardens to begin brainstorming ideas for a new play. Here he finds his inspiration in the form of the four young Llewelyn Davies boys (George, Jack, Michael, and Peter) and their recently widowed mother, Sylvia (played by Kate Winslet).

Barrie, throughout the film pictured as a child at heart, immediately befriends the family. He becomes a sort of surrogate father to the grieving children, enchanting them with afternoon games of Cowboys and Indians, knights and kings, and explorations of "darkest Africa."

Peter (movingly played by the young Freddie Highmore) appears to be the one most affected by his father's death. He has grown up too fast, losing the imagination of a child, unable to participate in the games of his brothers. Barrie helps him to regain the childhood he lost, encouraging him to write and pour out his thoughts on paper.

Barrie sees himself in Peter. When he was only six years old, his older brother, David, died in a skating accident. Barrie explains that his mother was terribly affected by this and would never speak or look at him. One day he dressed up in David's clothes and went to her. He says that after that day the boy James just disappeared. "I like to think he went to Neverland."

Barrie mourns over his lost childhood and that he grew up too quickly. He laments, "Boys should never be sent to bed. They wake up a day older."

But the film does not idolize childhood -- only the innocence and the romantic imagination of children. It is also a beautiful coming of age story. When one of the Davies boys shows concern for his mother, Barrie remarks, "The boy is gone. In the last thirty seconds, you just became a man."

Unfortunately, Barrie's friendship with the Davies means that he spends most of his time with the boys and with Sylvia, instead of trying to mend his crumbling marriage and damaging his reputation in the process. As his life begins to unravel, Barrie is struck by tragedy a second time. And it is clear that the success of his play Peter Pan can do little to ebb the despair he feels inside.

Yet, the film is not so much about tragedy as about not giving up in the face of failure, about inspiring others to pursue their dreams, about the power of friendship. Barrie, even at the rejection of his first play, persists in his novel idea for a new one, helped at every turn by the Davies family. In a touching scene, Barrie and Sylvia encourage Michael to fly a kite, even though he is the smallest and cannot run as fast as the others. And Barrie urges Peter to write a play, even though the boy states that his brothers write better than him.

Further, Finding Neverland shows that imagination can help mend grieving hearts and bring people closer together. However, it does not necessarily advocate escapism. A clear balance exists between being serious and pretending, as Barrie reminds Sylvia at one part in the film over a serious issue, "You can’t keep pretending."

The movie is not without its problems. Lacking a Christian worldview, it does not quite reach the excellence that it could have. There is never a reference to God and Neverland takes on the form of Heaven. It's quite simply Romantic Humanism. This is probably why the conclusion of the film feels a tad bit unsatisfying.

In spite of this, it is a fine piece of storytelling with strong acting, enchanting scenes, and a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack. And, notwithstanding its obvious problems, it still conveys countless truths. Finding Neverland is about growing up but retaining the innocence and wonder of a child, about getting over grief, about understanding death, about comforting people and bringing happiness to others. But, most importantly, it is about the exuberant imagination of a brilliant storyteller. It is about J. M. Barrie.

He thought that he had found that innocence and wonder in the Davies boys. But he was wrong. As Peter exclaims at one part in the film, "I'm not Peter Pan. He is."

Watch the trailer here.

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Posted by Nicole Bianchi at 10:02 PM |

Friday, October 01, 2010

Finding Forrester: A Review

This Week’s Edition of Friday at the Movies: Spotlighting Films About Writing

I’m reserving Fridays for writing about some of the movies that I love. This October I’ll be spotlighting five of my favorite films about writing. These are the movies that I turn to when I want to be inspired. I’ll be posting them in alphabetical order over the coming weeks.

Do you have a favorite movie about writing or about a famous writer? Please do share in the comment section below. I’m always looking for more movies to add to my list.

Tonight's Spotlight: Finding Forrester (a review)

"No thinking - that comes later. You must write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head. The first key to writing is -- to write, not to think!"

This is one of many writing tips that Jamal Wallace learns from his mentor, William Forrester, in the 2000 drama, Finding Forrester. Theirs is an unlikely friendship. Wallace (played by Rob Brown in his first film role) is an African-American teenager from the Bronx who spends most of his time on the basketball court. Forrester (played by Sean Connery) is a reclusive writer, hiding in an apartment, and using binoculars to spy on the neighborhood. Wallace's friends dare him to sneak into Forrester's apartment one night, but when Forrester finds him, he runs off and accidentally leaves his backpack behind. It turns out that Wallace is an exceptionally gifted writer; his backpack is filled with journals of his writing.

Forrester is annoyed at Wallace for invading his privacy, but tosses the backpack and journals out the window (his comments are scrawled across the pages in red ink). Likewise, Wallace is annoyed at Forrester for reading his journals, but is also intrigued that someone has taken interest in his writing. He returns to the apartment with more of his work and slowly wins over the lonely and rather bitter old man.

Forrester is not the only one to discover Wallace's talent. Although Wallace has been underachieving at his inner city high school in an effort to fit in with his friends, he scores particularly high on the Stanford Achievement Test. This catches the eye of a selective private school (who are also impressed by his skill on the basketball court) and he is soon awarded a scholarship. In this new world and completely different culture, Wallace will find his friendship with Forrester particularly invaluable.

Directed by Gus Van Sant (of Good Will Hunting fame) and written by Mike Rich, Finding Forrester is a classic hollywood tale of unlikely friendship and the importance of following one's dreams. While this storyline might seem a tad cliche, it is rescued by Connery's convincing portrayal of a brilliant author who achieved the success many writers can only dream of, but ultimately found it a hollow victory. It could not bring him happiness.

Connery's and Brown's rapport drive the film, especially their conversations about writing. The film gives  a very unique image of the writer than one we are used to seeing. He is not to be shut up in a room all by himself, banging away on his typewriter. Rather, writing is a communal art, like music or dancing. It is to be shared and read aloud. Writers find their best ideas when brainstorming with others. (C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien certainly understood this when they formed The Inklings).

Though Forrester has much more experience than his young protégé, it is Wallace who utters one of the most mature and insightful lines in the movie, berating Forrester for hiding from the world, and having a locked file cabinet full of writing that nobody else can read. Forrester is squandering his gifts, burying them in the ground like the foolish servant in the Parable of the Talents. People are given gifts in order to use them to impact others, not to shut up their gifts in a drawer. Even if we write everyday, that writing will only be truly alive if others read it and are moved by our turn of phrase. One of the main purposes of writing (and of art in general) is to uplift and encourage the soul of man. Wallace accuses Forrester of being too scared to "walk out that door and do something for somebody else."

Ultimately, Finding Forrester tells a coming of age story about overcoming adversity -- having the tenacity to hone and develop one's individual talents. It certainly does not paint the road to success as trouble-free. Wallace soon comes into conflict with a teacher at his new school who refuses to believe that a student of Wallace's background could possess such a tremendous gift for writing. But Forrester teaches Wallace that it is better to exceed than simply measure up to the expectations of others. And in many ways the film exceeds our own expectations by taking a familiar plot-line and retelling it in a new and inspiring way.

Watch the trailer here.

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Posted by Nicole Bianchi at 10:10 PM |

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