21 November 2006

Smokin’

by Matt Rubinstein at 6:10 am

whoops.jpgIt feels like everyone around here smokes. In fact only 26% of men and 23% of women in the United Kingdom are regular smokers, compared to 19% and 16% in Australia—and to 42% and 24% in developed countries and 48% and 12% worldwide. But there sure feels like a lot more smoke around than there is back home.

Part of the reason is that in England, at least, you can still smoke in any cafe, restaurant or pub. There might be a couple of non-smoking tables, but especially in winter these places are pretty airtight and there’s always a fog of smoke reaching almost to the floor. It takes some getting used to after Sydney, where smoking has been banned in restaurants since 2000 and is being whittled away in pubs ahead of a full ban next year—and plus where there’s a bit more fresh air generally. Scotland and Ireland have implemented their ban and England and Wales will go the same way in the middle of next year, so maybe everyone’s just smoking up a storm while they still can.

So I’m sitting in a cafe watching everyone happily smoking away and I notice that all the cigarette packets have those “SMOKING KILLS” warning labels on them. As you know, these and similar government-mandated frighteners have been getting more dire and widespread for many years now, and some have to be vastly more effective than others. The nasty colour photos of lungs and gangrene we have in Australia must work better than text alone; similar ones in Canada are said to have made a difference, and the UK is introducing its own “hard-hitting pictures” next year.

But I suspect that if pictures work it’s not really because they remind smokers what they’re doing to their bodies; it’s simply because they’re gross. Smoking is widely perceived as cool, and everyone knows that thumbing your nose at danger is also cool. That guy with a “SMOKING KILLS” pack feels good about taking it out and leaving it on the table. And it has to be the same with almost all the other warnings, no matter how detailed. The only one that I think stands a chance is the one that says “Smoking may reduce the blood flow and cause impotence”—you don’t see that one lying around nearly as much.

But if the warnings are going to work, they need to be even more direct—and more shameful—than that. They need to take away smoking’s cool, and they can’t be restricted to things science tells us are true: that’s never going to work. They should say, in big letters and on every panel, “I’VE GOT HERPES” or “MY ARSE IS ENORMOUS”. The National Health Service is on the right track with its “fags make girls ugly” and “~ boys impotent” campaigns (the latter pictured, and you can see a TV spot here), but these things need to be right there on the packs: “I’M A CRAP LAY” on the Virginia Slims and “I LIKE COCK” on the Marlboros. Photos shouldn’t be of stroke-affected brains but of running sores or even Goatse—then we’d be able to moblog anywhere.

11 November 2006

Schwing!

by Matt Rubinstein at 11:04 pm

The good thing about the US election result isn’t that anything’s going to change soon: even if the Democrats had any discernible legislative agenda, and a mandate to enact it (rather than a mandate just to not be Republicans), the President still has his veto power and–probably more importantly–his infamous signing statements, which purport to reserve the right to interpret new laws however the Prez sees fit, which knowing what a respecter of plain English and other institutions the guy in the big chair at the moment is… Plus if the President does it, that means it’s legal, and other neo-Nixonian horrors.

No, the good thing is that it suggests that Americans were paying attention after all. It did look for a while like they weren’t, and that they were spooked enough by the threat of terrorism or still comfortable enough in the propped-up economy that they’d let the administration get away with pretty much anything. No doubt that apparent indifference contributed to the government’s arrogance and encouraged it to treat its citizens and the Constitution with the same contempt. But enough now seems to be enough.

It’s hard to say what made the difference. Certainly things have been going badly in Iraq for a long time now. They may be getting worse, but not catastrophically so: they were pretty bad to start with. Maybe it’s just that the US is a big country; it can’t just turn on a dime, it has to lumber on for a while before you notice anything’s happened. But the Midterms suggest that even if people aren’t kicking up an immediate fuss, they still might be changing their minds about you. I hope that lesson isn’t lost on everyone who’s left.

6 November 2006

Why Cambridge is preposterous

by Matt Rubinstein at 12:42 am

stjohns.jpgI have received a couple of inquiries—the blogger’s equivalent of the phone ringing off the hook—about my recent throwaway that the venerable university town of Cambridge is preposterous.

I should make it clear that I only mean that in a good way. My personal—perhaps idiosyncratic—use of the word dates back a couple of years to a trip to Twin Falls in Kakadu National Park, where during the dry season when the falls don’t have a lot to them you can sit at the very edge and let the water wash over you on its way down. The weather is relentlessly perfect, you have to hike through a lot of scrub to get there, and by the time you happen on the waterfall it really is something. My hiking buddy and I were pretty blown away by it, and she went and lay at the top of the falls as I’ve described and soaked up the sun and didn’t look bad in her bikini, and we both agreed that the only way to do justice to the scene was to call it—you guessed it—preposterous. It’s the kind of thing that shouldn’t really exist outside of tourist advertisements.

Cambridge is a bit like that, only of course a lot colder. The university itself is about 800 years old. The first college was founded in 1280; there are now 31 of the bastards, and many of them are huge and sprawling and full of courts and cloisters and chapels and battlements and other Gothic what-have-you. See for example the New Court at St John’s, pictured.

What’s preposterous isn’t that edifices of this scale and extravagance exist, or that they’re all lined up one after the other like McMansions; it’s more that people still get to use them: privileged seventeen-year-olds get to skip lectures and defile each other, and smart-arses from all over the world get to do indescribable research, and they all flap around in gowns and wobble about on ancient bicycles and get drunk at long tables in ancient halls between Latin graces. There are older and more impressive buildings than the ones at these old university towns, I’m sure, but they’re either still palaces or now museums; what’s remarkable is that people come here to do work and to use the buildings as they’ve been used for so long. I think.

Outside the colleges, the streets are cobble and flag and there may be more bookshops than coffee-shops—though most of the bookshops have coffee-shops inside them. And yes, everything is expensive—some things preposterously so—but what do you expect in a place that shouldn’t really exist?

Yesterday I heard a punter—someone actually punting along the Cam—tell some tourists that various scenes from the Harry Potter movies were shot at St John’s. As far as I can tell that’s not true, they were shot at Oxford—which I’m sure is no less preposterous—but it’s easy to believe. Personally I think the place is crying out for a zombie flick; you could have all these undead hordes coming for the overweight brains of the freshers and fellows barricaded behind the old doors and drawbridges. And all the zombies could be these famously well-educated figures from history, like in that Halloween episode of The Simpsons (“Show’s over, Shakespeare!” “Is this the end of Zombie Shakespeare?”) only more so. And shotguns, plenty of shotguns.

3 November 2006

Paper & Sand

by Matt Rubinstein at 6:58 am

pands.jpgGood news! A short film that I got involved with a couple of years ago has been nominated for an AFI award in the category of Best Screenplay in a Short Film.

Paper & Sand tells the story of a young Afghan couple who have recently been released from immigration detention and are adjusting to their new lives in Sydney. It was recently also a finalist in the Dendy Awards that form part of the Sydney Film Festival, though it didn’t win either of its categories: Long Form Short was won by Stranded, which has also been nominated for an AFI in our category as well as a couple of others; and the Community Relations Commission award was taken by Switch on the Night, another refugee flick.

I co-wrote Paper & Sand with Queensland writer Ian Kennedy Williams. Co-writing can of course mean a lot of different things; in this case it meant that I took a perfectly good draft of Ian’s and messed around with it until it was superficially unrecognisable though (I think or at least hope) fundamentally the same.

If we were going by WGA attribution rules our names would accordingly be separated by an “and” in the credits; if we had both worked on the same draft we would have a “&” instead. I don’t know who decided that, but that’s how it is, and it’s why you sometimes get a mix of both in American films, as in “written by X & Y and Z”. (We won’t even get started on “story by” and “based on characters created by”.)

The AWG is a bit more flexible, which is why the writing credit for the also-AFI-nominated Candy goes to “Luke Davies (with Neil Armfield)”. But the WGA handbook makes interesting reading; the variations are many and convoluted, and you can see how you’d get into trouble when a lot of people are involved in the creation of a story and they all want to be acknowledged—as they should be (except for the director, who nobody wants to hear from).

My first gig writing for performance was a bit like this one; a very good playwright had written a complex epic about drugs and intergenerational blame that went for three or four hours, and I had to try to cut it down to an hour and a bit and make it more accessible to teenagers. For that they called me a “dramaturg”, which is one of those words nobody quite knows the meaning of, but which can be said with a gratifying sneer.

Anyway, congratulations to Ian and to director Sotiris Dounoukos. The AFI awards are held in Sydney on 7 December 2006 and will be televised on Channel 9, though the short film categories might be over by the time the telecast starts.

Update: We did not win the AFI award; Stranded beat us to it again. We did, however, win the Punters Choice award for February 2007 at Fitzroy Shorts. So that’s something!

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