11 December 2012

Could I please speak to Kate please

by Matt Rubinstein at 6:41 am

FisherkingMy favourite film in the 1990s was probably Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King, which stars Jeff Bridges as radio cult personality Jack Lucas, whose offhand incitement to class warfare prompts a lonely caller to open fire on a yuppie watering-hole, killing seven people and then himself. Jack is dancing around his penthouse, rehearsing a catchphrase for a new TV vehicle, when he sees the news on his three televisions. In Richard LaGravenese’s draft script, Jack is finally silenced by the unfolding report. In the filmed version, he manages a manifestly inadequate, and yet somehow perfect, “Fuck.” You can see in his face that he’s not just worried about his career or the public recriminations: he’s devastated because the world has just revealed to him that he’s an arsehole.

Like most people on this side of the world, I heard the news of Jacintha Saldanha’s death hours before Mel Greig and Mike Christian woke up on Saturday morning. I could only imagine that their reactions were something like Jack’s here. I have no doubt that they’re as shattered, gutted and heartbroken as they say. But their near-identical interviews with A Current Affair and Today Tonight are a little off-putting in their repeated insistence that (a) they weren’t responsible for putting the prank to air, and (b) nobody could have expected or foreseen the consequences. I believe that both these things are largely true, and also that the presenters were lawyered out of expressing anything that might be mistaken for actual remorse—as opposed to being “sorry that this has happened”—for the usual reasons. But it doesn’t hurt to admit that you were an arsehole. And if you ring up a maternity ward and ask to speak to a woman who’s having a difficult pregnancy and pretend to be her relatives by putting on silly voices—I’m sorry, but you’re kind of an arsehole. You don’t need to take all or most or even much of the blame for what ultimately happened, and you don’t deserve death threats or invitations to suicide. But you can’t expect much sympathy either, because you were kind of arseholes, and you might as well just own that and try not to be such arseholes next time. If you have to prank call someone, call someone who could conceivably be argued to deserve it. If things go wrong—or horribly right—maybe bail out of the call. Have a think about what you’re doing, and don’t just rely on “processes” you don’t understand to decide whether it’s a good idea or not. Little things.

In the old tellings, the Fisher King’s wound comes to blight the land around him, so that nothing can grow or thrive until he’s healed by a noble fool asking the right question. The actual question varies, but the most poetic one is simply: “What ails you?”. In Gilliam’s film, the land is blighted already—by rubbish and drunks, violent preppies, heartless yuppies, corporate indifference and empty cults. And Jack is wounded long before the loner opens fire and ruins his life—he just doesn’t know it yet. 

It’s hard to imagine a more blasted land than the one now occupied by 2DayFM and its barrel-scraping competitors. I don’t know who the afflicted king might be in this scenario—I have a horrible feeling it’s Kyle Sandilands, though Southern Cross Austereo chairman Max “The Axe” Moore-Wilton makes an intriguing candidate. But Mel and MC might suggest that their cancelled Hot 30 Countdown be replaced by a Noble Fool segment where they just call people up and ask what ails them, and how they can help. They can’t be blamed for the state of commercial radio, but they might be inspired to help fix it. Or maybe that’s just in stories.

30 May 2012

Optus vs Footy

by Matt Rubinstein at 3:39 pm

NotNow

Section 111 of the Copyright Act 1968 now provides that there is no breach of copyright where: 

a person makes a cinematograph film or sound recording of a broadcast solely for private and domestic use by watching or listening to the material broadcast at a time more convenient than the time when the broadcast is made.

This defence was introduced in 2006, almost thirty years after the first video cassette recorders arrived in Australia and we all started taping things off TV. I well remember the anguish of having to go to bed before the traditional Sunday night screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark was finished, tempered somewhat by the knowledge that my parents would tape the end for me, little suspecting that we were all involved in a criminal conspiracy that wouldn’t be legitimised for decades. I’m sure nobody ever got arrested or even investigated for that kind of personal time-shifting, but its continuing illegality long epitomised the inconsistency between copyright law and actual human behaviour, and the 2006 amendments were necessary to give the regime any kind of legitimacy. 

But give ‘em 11.22 potrzebies and they’ll take 945.67 smoots, as they say, and in July 2011 Australia’s second telco Optus took advantage of the newish defence to offer its “TV Now” service, which allowed subscribers to make recordings of free-to-air broadcasts on Optus’s servers and then watch them at a more convenient time—such as two minutes later on their Optus mobile phones. When applied to televised Australian Football League fixtures, this service differed by only two minutes from the service Telstra recently paid the AFL $150 million for the privilege of providing.

So Telstra, the AFL and the NRL—who hoped to raise its own $150 million or more in the next round of rights negotiations—all sued Optus in the Federal Court, and in February the Hon Steven David Rares surprised everyone by deciding that the Optus service was indeed exempted by section 111, since customers were essentially using Optus as their own giant VCR in the sky to make convenient recordings exactly as the section intended. There was a lot of technical detail about how the recordings were made and accessed, but the real point of Rares J’s judgment was that it didn’t much matter how the recording was made, as long as you made it for your own private and domestic convenience. Section 111 clearly applies to flashy digital video recorders as well as creaky VHS and Betamax machines; why shouldn’t it also apply to cloud services? Does it make any difference that you’re renting these services from Optus rather than buying your own hardware from Harvey Norman? Justice Rares didn’t think so.

The matter was quickly appealed, and in late April three other Federal Court judges expressed a good deal of gratitude to Justice Rares for laying all the groundwork and explaining everything so clearly, but they wasted no time in overturning just about all of his findings. Crucially, the appeal court found that subscribers to the TV Now service weren’t the ones making the recordings, or weren’t the only ones: Optus was at least partly involved in copying the valuable football broadcasts, and it since it wasn’t doing so for private or domestic purposes the section 111 defence didn’t apply.

This is a perfectly reasonable conclusion that probably best serves the intentions of the 2006 amendments, if they’d thought about it: there’s an instinctive difference between a human person recording something from their own TV in their own home and a corporation setting up farms of recording, transcoding and playout equipment to sell a service that other corporations have to pay millions for. There was no way Australia’s largest carrier and the owners of its most valuable broadcast properties were going to stand for that, and there’s little doubt that the legislature would have amended section 111 to close the loophole if the original decision had held up. 

And yet there’s an appealing fearlessness in Rares J’s decision, which looks past what the enacting parliament thought it was doing and considers what it was actually, if inadvertently, doing—providing a defence for private recordings no matter how you choose to make them, and whether or not that might make someone else’s multimillion-dollar investments worthless. It’s the kind of utopian vision not often seen in the Federal Court, and calls into question the very wisdom of spending $150 million on “exclusive” Internet streaming rights in the first place—as if the Internet were just another commercial delivery platform, instead of the place where we live and transact more and more of our lives. 

In law school my jurisprudence professor used to argue that a proper interpretation of the Australian Constitution would eventually result in the abolition of the States, since section 92 guarantees absolute freedom of trade, commerce and intercourse between the States, and that covers just about everything humans do; and section 117 prohibits discrimination between residents of different states, suggesting one law for everybody. The framers of the Constitution would have been appalled by that interpretation: they wanted (or thought they wanted) to maintain strong and independent States in a limited federation. But people don’t always fully understand the magnitude of their ideas: it’s for later generations to see confused beginnings through to their logical conclusions. 

I can’t help feeling that something on a smaller scale is happening here: the new section 111 of the Copyright Act may turn out to have profound implications for the way we deal with broadcasts and on the commercial value we attribute to them. There’s too much at stake right now for the section to be followed to its logical and perhaps inevitable conclusion—just like there are still States—but it’s kind of thrilling to catch a glimpse of what may very well be the future. 

All this reminds me of the first article I worked on after I became a lawyer in 1997: an evaluation of the legal issues surrounding sports broadcasting rights and the way they were packaged and sold. All this was before the Internet had much of an impact on most people’s lives: it was long before Facebook and Twitter, at the very dawn of Google itself, and everyone thought that web portals were the future. Everything has changed on the Internet, and remarkably little has changed on the broadcasting side of things. But it might be changing now.

Optus has vowed to appeal the latest decision to the High Court, to the disgust of the AFL and the delight of copyright-law rubberneckers like me. I’d be surprised if we saw the kind of left-field insight that Justice Rares came up with, but you never know. This could be the beginning of something.

30 April 2012

David Foster Wallace on The Simpsons

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:07 pm

DFW

This week’s episode of The Simpsons is full of pleasing references to David Foster Wallace’s famous essay A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, first published in Harper’s as Shipping Out: On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise and expanded in the essay collection that bears its new and lasting title. 

The connections begin obviously enough with the episode title, the grammatically-fussier A Totally Fun Thing That Bart Will Never Do Again. DFW geeks may also notice that the four-fingered family narrowly avoid being shunted onto a sugar-free fitness cruise (“welcome to eight days and seven nights of push-ups and kale!”) aboard the grim Nadir, which was DFW’s ironym for the Zenith, the luxury liner he spends nearly 30,000 words (plus footnotes) hilariously eviscerating. 

Even more piquant is this quick cameo of the man himself, sitting behind Bart in his celebrated tuxedo T-shirt:

The Fleet Bar was also the site of Elegant Tea Time later that same day, where elderly female passengers wore long white stripper-gloves and pinkies protruded from cups, and where among my breaches of Elegant Tea Time etiquette apparently were: (a) imagining people would be amused by the tuxedo-design T-shirt I wore because I hadn’t taken seriously the Celebrity brochure’s instruction to bring a real tux on the Cruise…

…and:

I, dickhead that I am, decided in advance that the idea of Formalwear on a tropical vacation was absurd, and I steadfastly refused to buy or rent a tux and go through the hassle of trying to figure out how even to pack it. I was both right and wrong: yes, the Formalwear thing is absurd, but since every Nadirite except me went ahead and dressed up in absurd Formalwear on Formal nights, I—having, of course, ironically enough spurned a tux precisely because of absurdity-considerations—was the one who ends up looking absurd at Formal 5*C.R. suppers—painfully absurd in the tuxedo-motif T-shirt I wore on the first Formal night…

Since it appears only in the footnotes to the essay, the tuxedo T-shirt probably occupies a whole additional level of DFW geekery, so hats off to the Simpsons writers for their delightful tribute. There are almost certainly even more stratospheric references visible only to even more dedicated DFW geeks than me. 

For what it’s worth, DFW might not have been entirely happy to be even further immortalised here. As he told Wisconsin Public Radio’s Steve Paulson in 1997:

I think The Simpsons is important art. On the other hand, it’s also—in my opinion—relentlessly corrosive to the soul, and everything is parodied, and everything’s ridiculous. Maybe I’m old, but for my part I can be steeped in about an hour of it, and I sort of have to walk away and look at a flower or something. 

26 April 2012

The Clive James A Current Affair “affair” affair

by Matt Rubinstein at 3:50 am

Not Clive James's House

This blog only occasionally traffics in gossip and salacity, and I don’t want to make a bad situation any worse, but I’m so appalled by A Current Affair‘s appalling interview of the appalling Leanne Edelsten by the appalling Martin King that I am compelled to express my horror and outrage (why doesn’t appal have a noun?) the only way I know how. 

I’m not going to link to the report just in case that would even minutely increase some financially-relevant metric for that execrable program, which frequently tempts me to turn in my passport or at least disguise my accent, but never so much as now. 

Ms Edelsten is the ex-wife of disgraced “medical entrepreneur” and former owner of the Sydney Swans Geoffrey Edelsten, and also of Edelsten’s lawyer, which isn’t the least bit relevant. The other night she clambered down into the ACA cauldron of slime and announced that she had been involved in a long affair with a mystery figure who was revealed after a minute to be Australian writer and media commentator Clive James, who is a friend and neighbour of this blog (though this blog has never met him). There followed about fifteen godawful minutes of Martin King pretending disapproval of Ms Edelsten’s home-wrecking ways without even trying to contain his prurient glee, while Ms Edelsten repeated his every schoolyard question two or three times before answering in coy tidbits like someone trying to teach a dog some abominable trick. All this was padded out even further by cutaways to the places in Sydney they allegedly met and hooked up, with archive footage of every leer or knowing wink James ever delivered on television. 

ACA then apparently brought Ms Edelsten to Cambridge and filmed her dropping in on James at the “squalid flat” where he has allegedly been banished. As we know, Clive James is now in his 70s and is (we hope) recovering from leukaemia. In the footage he looks pretty bewildered as he tries to have what looks like an intimate conversation with Ms Edelsten, who is leading him around by the arm like one of those nurses who kill all their patients for their pensions. It’s very hard to watch. 

“It’s not very nice for Leanne to discover where Clive is now living,” Martin King intones. “From this – to this, a dingy basement apartment in Cambridge.” The first this is the house pictured above, which is supposed to be Clive James’s house, but it isn’t. His house isn’t far away, but it’s not in this picture, or any of the pictures. The defensively shuttered windows shown in close-up aren’t his windows. Not that I think people’s actual houses and windows should be shown on television, but I’m not sure that showing the houses and windows of other people entirely is much better. Plus, if they’d shown the right house then I might have been able to see my own house on TV. On A Current Affair! But it wasn’t to be. 

If rest of the story is more accurate than the local geography then I’m not too thrilled with Clive James either, partly because his wife of four decades is by all accounts awesome and accomplished and is very movingly—if obliquely—described in his memoirs, but mostly because Ms Edelsten comes across as quite an objectionable person and the relationship as she describes it is toe-curling and hideous. But what standards of integrity and taste can we demand of our poets and critics, let alone the people who help us laugh at Japanese game shows? In short: why is this on television? No, don’t tell me, I know. 

14 April 2012

e-books and antitrust

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:55 am

iPad

More than two years ago (but shamefully still on the same blog page as this entry) we spoke of the imminent launch of the iPad and iBookstore and their consequences for e-book pricing and distribution. I noted that Steve Jobs seemed eerily sanguine about competing with Amazon and its heavyweight Kindle Store despite projected iBook prices being 30% to 50% higher than their Kindle equivalents. “The prices will be the same,” Steve predicted breezily.

And he was right. Amazon’s famous $9.99 new releases and bestsellers are no more, and now most new trade books cost $12.99—the same as they do on the iBookstore, and indeed on the Nook Store, the Kobo Store, and whatever Google is calling its e-bookstore this week. How did Steve know? According to the US Department of Justice, it’s because Apple had already agreed with the major publishers to engineer an industry-wide shift from the traditional wholesale-retail model to a new agency model that would allow publishers to set retail prices directly, paying distributors a uniform 30% commission instead of charging a wholesale price.

On the face of it, this was never an astounding deal for publishers or authors: if the old wholesale price for a new release was $10 or more (so that Amazon’s $9.99 broke even or lost money, as has always been argued) then taking $9.09 on a $12.99 title doesn’t seem like much of an improvement. But it seems the publishers were more worried about customers getting used to the $9.99 price point and being reluctant to pay any more than that for either e-books or printed books into the future. As a result, they’ve been willing to sacrifice some short-term revenues—and allegedly limit retail prices to the tiers agreed with Apple—in order to wrest control of the emerging e-book market from a powerful Amazon.

I’m a bit conflicted about all of this since I like basically all of the parties involved. As an itinerant reader I like e-books as well as print books, and I sure liked Amazon’s lower prices. I also like Apple hardware, and have a ton of Kindle books on my iPad. As a writer I like publishers and want them to make money and keep publishing books and paying advances—though I would rather see them competing among themselves to innovate in the emerging market instead of just coordinating to prop up print sales. And as a sometime competition lawyer I like the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice and am not at all sure that the best answer to a dominant Amazon is the elimination of retail price competition.

Anyway, Hachette, Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins have all settled with the DoJ, and will have to renegotiate with Apple and stop preventing other retailers from discounting e-books to undercut the iBookstore. This is essentially a renunciation of the agency model, since an agent who can set the retail price isn’t really much of an agent. Macmillan—the first to force the agency model on Amazon—and Penguin have refused to settle, and Apple has denied everything. The world’s biggest trade bookseller, Random House, quietly adopted the agency model in February 2011 but has escaped the DoJ’s wrath and is referred to only obliquely in the filing as “the holdout publisher” and “the non-defendant publisher” bullied by the other five and Apple for not going agency sooner.

What happens if the DoJ wins or settles with the remaining publishers and the agency model is consigned to a footnote? The publishers and Authors Guild president Scott Turow argue that Amazon will return to its below-cost pricing and kill all other electronic and print outlets. I’m not convinced that this will happen, partly because it’s not clear to what extent Amazon’s pricing was ever properly predatory, and partly because things have changed considerably in the past two years.

Going in the face of the conventional wisdom, the DoJ asserts, presumably on information from Amazon, that:

From the time of its launch, Amazon’s e-book distribution business has been consistently profitable, even when substantially discounting some newly released and bestselling titles.

I’m going to assume that Amazon isn’t sneakily accounting Kindle hardware sales into its “e-book distribution business” and conclude that, even if Amazon did sell new releases and New York Times best-sellers at or slightly below the wholesale price it paid to publishers, it could still turn a profit overall by charging comfortably more than the wholesale cost on other books—the slightly older or more specialist titles that make up its immensely long tail. You can see this strategy at any physical bookshop.

The kick from Kindle hardware must have been a factor, but I wonder whether this would still be such a big deal if the wholesale-retail model were to return now. Remember that for the first two years of the Kindle Store, you could only read a Kindle book on an actual Kindle—unless you went to the trouble of decrypting and converting it to read on your computer or sideload onto another e-reader. In very late 2009 Amazon released its Kindle Reader for PC, and since then has provided its own apps for almost every major mobile and desktop operating system, as well as the Kindle Cloud Reader that lets you read your Kindle books on any browser.

As a result, there’s no longer any guarantee that a loss on a Kindle title will be offset by any sale of Kindle hardware: instead, cheap Kindle books are just as likely to drive iPad sales (whereas you can’t read an iBook on any non-Apple device without significant hackery). At any rate, Amazon’s ability to subsidise e-books from hardware sales is no greater than Apple’s or Barnes & Noble’s. Amazon’s expansion beyond the Kindle may well have been a response to the new agency arrangement, but it’s hard to see them going back on it now.

The agency arrangements have certainly fostered new competitors to Amazon and levelled the field somewhat. But without retail price competition and the ability of retailers to experiment with new models, this is not a competitive system in any substantive sense—Scott Turow’s “the government may be on the verge of killing real competition in order to save the appearance of competition” is catchy but empty. The agency model, whether it resulted from a conspiracy or not, may have been a useful transitional arrangement in a fragile emerging market, but I don’t think it’s healthy in the long run. I want to see what happens next.

 

3 March 2012

Friday Night Lights

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:41 pm

FnlI watched the Super Bowl this year, and if it made any sense at all it was because I’ve spent the last six months wading through NBC’s Friday Night Lights, spun off from Peter Berg’s 2004 film of the same name, in turn was based on HG “Buzz” Bissinger’s book of the slightly longer (and Oxford-commaed) name Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream.

I remember enjoying the film, which starred Billy Bob Thornton as the heroic coach, Connie Britton as his heroic wife and Lucas Black as the heroic quarterback. For some reason I’ve always enjoyed films about American football, from Any Given Sunday and Remember the Titans to Jerry Maguire and Shane Black’s million-dollar script for Tony Scott’s The Last Boy Scout.

Somewhat pretentiously, I first heard about the TV series from Lorrie Moore’s review in The New York Review of Books, as serious and sympathetic an analysis of popular culture as I’ve read anywhere. Moore remembers a party where:

I found myself locked in enthusiastic conversation in a corner with two other writers, all three of us, we discovered, solitary, isolated viewers of the NBC series Friday Night Lights. We spewed forth excitedly, like addicts—this was no longer a secret habit but a legitimately brilliant drama.

FNL‘s fifth and final season finished a year ago, but as far as I can tell it had never been seriously broadcast in the UK until it began on Sky Atlantic last month. It also struggled to find a regular slot in Australia, bouncing between Channel 10, Foxtel and ABC2. I’ve been watching it on Netflix, and like Lorrie Moore I’ve also come across quite a few closet fans who have tracked it down on DVD or online—and they’ve often been writers.

So I was stoked to see that in the recent Simpsons episode The Book Job, Lisa takes time out from the young adult novel she’s supposed to be writing to watch all five seasons. It’s a fun episode that features Neil Gaiman and begins with Lisa’s disappointment that one of her favourite authors is really a fabricated front for a committee of ghost-writers.

31 January 2010

e-books and iBooks

by Matt Rubinstein at 8:29 pm

Publishers.jpgThe day before the iPad launch, the Wall Street Journal reported some quite detailed rumours about Apple’s negotiations with publishers:

Apple is asking publishers to set two e-book price points for hardcover best sellers: $12.99 and $14.99, with fewer titles offered at $9.99. In setting their own e-book prices, publishers would avoid the threat of heavy discounting. Apple would take a 30% cut of the book price, with publishers receiving the remaining 70%.

This is quite a bit higher than the $9.99 Amazon charges for most of its mainstream Kindle titles. The WSJ’s Walt Mossberg had the chance to ask Steve Jobs directly about pricing, with interesting results:

Why should she buy a book for $14.99 on your device when she can buy one for $9.99 on Amazon on the Kindle or from Barnes & Noble on the Nook?
Well that won’t be the case…

You mean you won’t be $14.99 or they won’t be $9.99?
Uh… the prices will be the same… Publishers are actually withholding their books from Amazon because they’re not happy.

Optimistic pundits took this to mean that iBooks would sell for $9.99, even though the one featured most prominently in Steve Jobs’s demo, Ted Kennedy’s True Compass: A Memoir, seemed to be priced at $14.99, and some of the other books cost $10.99 or $12.99.

But it now seems more likely that Jobs’s first answer means what Mossberg was clearly worried it would mean: the prices will be the same because Amazon prices will be forced up.

A couple of days ago Amazon stopped directly selling the print and electronic editions of all Macmillan titles, though you can still buy the print versions through Amazon Marketplace. Macmillan CEO John Sargent explained yesterday that Amazon had dropped the titles in response to Macmillan’s new distribution deal, under which if Amazon wanted to offer electronic editions at the same time as print editions (without “extensive and deep windowing of titles”), it would need to adopt a new “agency” model of distribution:

Under the agency model, we will sell the digital editions of our books to consumers through our retailers. Our retailers will act as our agents and will take a 30% commission (the standard split today for many digital media businesses). The price will be set the price for each book individually. Our plan is to price the digital edition of most adult trade books in a price range from $14.99 to $5.99. At first release, concurrent with a hardcover, most titles will be priced between $14.99 and $12.99. E books will almost always appear day on date with the physical edition. Pricing will be dynamic over time.

Traditionally, publishers have been prevented from controlling the retail price of books by the prohibition against resale price maintenance in many jurisdictions. Resale price maintenance hasn’t been per se illegal in the US since 2007′s Leegin Creative Leather Products v PSKS 511 US 877, though it will still be illegal if it imposes an unreasonable restraint, and is still per se illegal in places like Australia. But an arrangement of agency, rather than sale and resale, can avoid these restrictions and give the publisher full control of the final price to consumers.

Eagle-eyed readers will notice that Macmillan is one of the publishers featured in the Apple keynote address, and the alignment of prices and rumours terms makes it pretty clear that at least the following has happened: Macmillan found that it could get a better deal selling through Apple, and is now looking for the same deal for all of its electronic books. There’s no evidence that Apple encouraged Macmillan to increase its prices through Amazon—Macmillan wouldn’t need any encouragement—but the increase would certainly benefit Apple for the reason Walt Mossberg identified right away, and the whole thing makes Steve’s response a little prescient and creepy.

It’s a pretty screwy situation where the introduction of a new competitor has the effect of increasing prices, and as Macmillan author Cory Doctorow points out it’s a problem of concentration at the levels of both production and distribution. Books (and movies and music and so on) are economically a little weird anyway, since in some sense every book occupies its own market and has no close substitutes: if you want True Compass you’re not going to buy The Golden Compass just because it’s cheaper. Since there’s only muted price competition between books themselves, we rely on price competition for each book at the retail level.

And even though retail physical bookselling is also fairly concentrated, it’s still the most competitive part of the supply chain, and with up to 40% of the cover price going to the retailer there’s a lot of room for different business models, improvements in efficiency, and real bargains for readers who want to shop around. With electronic books it’s a slightly different story, since the cost of distribution is very low (and the marginal cost of distribution is zero), but there’s still a lot a retailer can do to differentiate itself: offer a subscription model (like Amazon offers through Audible), bundle e-books with your 3G data plan, and other things I can’t think of because I don’t have an MBA. Publishers should demand and receive a fair wholesale price, but consumers need choice and competition at the retail level. It seems to me that insisting on an agency model threatens to foreclose this competition and could stifle innovation right when the emerging industry needs it. It’s only one publisher so far, and only one territory, but it’s worth keeping an eye on.

29 January 2010

iPads and iBooks

by Matt Rubinstein at 12:56 am

gallery-software-ibooks-20100127.jpgAs usual the whole world is in roughly equal parts delighted and outraged by Apple’s latest portable gizmo, the iPad. Much has been made of the name: I personally can’t believe how many posters and commenters have used the exact phrase “sounds like a feminine hygiene product”, all apparently believing they’re the first to have thought of it. Or maybe they don’t, maybe it’s one of those jokes-made-funny-through-repetition that the Internet loves so much. I like this article where “tech writers” forlornly predict that the jokes will simmer down soon.

There are some pretty interesting things about the iPad for readers and writers. There’s no coloured electronic ink or active-matrix organic LED display, just a 9.7″ LCD with in-plane switching for a reasonably wide viewing angle. The video geeks are up in arms (though occasionally confused) that the display is 1024 by 768 pixels in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the same as the big old TV sets we all used to have, so that the old episodes of Star Trek will fill the screen nicely but the new episodes (at 1.78:1) will have big black bars and the movies (at 2.35:1) will have even bigger black bars. This is even chubbier than the iPhone, which at 1.5:1 will leave either horizontal or vertical black bars for almost any video, but it seems reasonably well suited to reading books and magazines. It sits between the US Letter (1.29:1) and A-series (1.41:1) paper sizes and is just a bit squarer than your common B-format (1.52:1) paperback. All of this makes the iPad look slightly more like a thing for reading words than for watching videos, though it should also play videos pretty well despite the black bars.

Of course, films and videos have fixed dimensions and can’t be reformatted without making everybody fat or skinny. An electronic book can also be presented in a fixed format, like a PDF, or else in a “reflowable” format where the text is formatted to fill whatever space you have, with whatever font and pitch you choose. A fixed format is good where you have a lot of images, and also takes care of the rags, widows and orphans that typesetters and editors are so keen to control; but a reflowable format can be shared more easily across a variety of devices with different shapes and sizes, and is probably more useful for everyone but purists.

Apple has chosen not to invent its own format (as Amazon did for its Kindle) but to adopt the EPUB format developed by the International Digital Publishing Forum. EPUB is a collection of open standards that Apple may or may not combine with its own proprietary digital rights management system. At the moment, music from the iTunes Store are DRM-free but movies and TV shows are DRM-laden, as are applications from the App Store. There’s no word yet on whether iBooks from the iBook Store will be restricted, but on past performance there’s a good chance. It’s not yet clear that iBooks will sync back to your computer so you can read them there, or on iPhone or iPod Touch, let alone on another non-Apple device, but I’m thinking they’ll give us that at least. And the fact that the iPad uses EPUB is a positive step as it should mean that you can read a wide variety of e-books from other sources, including the public domain, in a decent format.

EPUB is a reflowable format, which means that iBooks won’t be properly typeset like real books but will more or less fill a screen that has more or less the same dimensions as a real book. From the screenshots there’s a bit of trompe l’oeil thrown in to make it look a bit like you’ve got a stack of pages curving away from a gutter, and when you turn the page it looks a bit like you’re really turning a page. I’m not sure that I care about this at all, or that I like the mock bookshelf that holds your purchases. I love book covers but would be happy to see them just sitting there like movie posters or album covers already do. I think that typeface and layout are very important and can be adequately translated to the digital realm, but physical pages and bookshelves can’t really be reproduced on a screen and it might be better to come up with a new metaphor. However, this might be a useful intermediate step for people who are still uneasy about reading books on a screen. And it might in fact make some important psychological difference that Apple has spent way more time and money researching than I ever would.

While the Kindle comes with an international 3G wireless connection effectively built into the price of the books, the iPad comes in two series: one that only has Wi-Fi and will be available internationally at the end of March, and one with a 3G radio that will be available in the US at the end of April and elsewhere from June or July. Apple has organised an “unlimited” data plan with AT&T for $30 a month, which is a lot less of a bargain than Steve Jobs seems to think but is at least pre-paid with no contract. Steve did say that the device is unlocked so theoretically you could get a separate data plan, or even swap out the SIM card from your existing handset—apparently the iPad only accepts the “new” microSIM format, but there may be clever adapters available if the electronics are the same, which it looks like they are.

The best solution is to allow tethering between the iPad and your existing mobile device, such as an iPhone. AT&T still doesn’t offer iPhone tethering, partly because they offer “unlimited” data plans and tethering would wreck the pricing models. But many carriers in other parts of the world sell tiered or limited data plans and have chosen to offer iPhone tethering for free or for a (mostly) reasonable price, and it works seamlessly over USB or Bluetooth. The iPad has Bluetooth and could certainly be made to use the iPhone’s data connection where tethering was offered. Of course, a jailbroken iPhone can be tethered over Wi-Fi, which the iPad would treat like any other Wi-Fi network. I’d say Apple would be doing the non-AT&T carriers a favour by encouraging us to pay the extra for official tethering, rather than forcing us to jailbreak and get it for free.

Outside of the US most of us spend a lot of time out of Wi-Fi range, so cellular wireless is pretty important for a device aimed not only at books but at magazines, regularly-updated news sources and general browsing—especially when, as I suggested earlier, having a live Internet connection could be a big part of what makes electronic books competitive with paper books. But it seems stupid to have multiple data plans when you could easily share the one. We’ll have to wait and see what the international carriers are offering, but I dearly hope they see the sense in tethering. If I do buy an iPad I don’t think it’ll be a 3G-enabled one; and if tethering is supported then I think I’ll buy one.

22 January 2010

Beat up Martin

by Matt Rubinstein at 11:02 pm

Newton.jpgApparently Apple is about to announce some kind of new gadget in the next week or so, and it’s going to revolutionise everything all over again. Although nobody thinks that the new device is going to be a mere e-book reader, it looks like it’s going to be at least an e-book reader, with Apple rumoured to be in talks with Hachette, HarperCollins and others to secure electronic distribution of their titles. The idea would be a sort of iTunes store for books as well as journals and the existing music, movies and TV shows.

I never thought I would have considered a tablet computer or e-book reader, but now I think there’s a good chance I’ll buy the Apple one. What happened to me? Honestly: it was the iPhone. Another rumour has it that the iPhone was born out of something called the “Safari Pad”, a touchscreen tablet-style device intended for web browsing that Steve Jobs finessed into the smartphone we all know and mostly love. That decision now seems to have been an inspired one, about developing the market as much as the technology.

I bought an iPhone because I already had an iPod, I listened to a lot of music and podcasts and could never get them to work seamlessly enough with whatever smartphone I hoped would solve it all for me. I just wanted to carry fewer gadgets and have more free pockets, and the iPhone fit the bill. I hadn’t ever thought of reading books on it, because that wasn’t remotely possible on either previous phones or iPods. The closest thing I’d done on either kind of device was listening to audiobooks, which I do like a lot, though I’ve always found there’s something unwieldy about them: you can’t read at your own pace, it’s hard to flip back and forward to find things you may have missed or misunderstood, you can’t copy out bits that you like.

But I got a couple of free books for the iPhone and started reading them, just because they were there and I didn’t have anything else to read on the bus or waiting in the pub. I downloaded the Shakespeare application, like most people do. I got the Kindle application and bought a book or two. I was sent a first draft of a new novel by e-mail and instead of printing it out I read it on the iPhone. It wasn’t ideal, the screen was too small, it wasn’t particularly comfortable to hold, but instead of thinking it was all rubbish and I’d go back to paperbacks, I started thinking: what if the screen were bigger? If the contrast were better? And then: what if I could easily search through the book, make notes to myself, copy and paste passages? What if, any time I didn’t know a word or a historical reference, I could just tap on it for its definition or Wikipedia entry? By being almost good enough, the iPhone suggested what would come after it, and began to persuade me that I needed something I’d never thought about before.

And then I started thinking: what if, having bought a paperback for reading around the house and making the bookshelves look good, I could pay an extra buck or two to download the electronic version? And what if the audiobook were just a couple of bucks more? (The Kindle has a text-to-speech function available for some titles, but it’s no substitute for a proper reader, who does need to be paid: I don’t know how much of the price of an audiobook goes towards its production, how much is for the underlying work.) What if I could switch between the text version and the spoken version when I had to walk somewhere, and switch back when I sat down again, or when I wanted to make a note or a quote or look something up—and it always knew where I was up to? I still think I’d favour the paper version, and use the others when circumstances demanded, but I’m not sure about that. I can imagine the convenience and versatility of the electronic versions might trump even the pleasure of paper.

At the moment I’m reading my wife’s paperback copy of Cormac McCarthy’s brutal Blood Meridian together with the audiobook version narrated by Richard Poe that I bought a while ago, and looking up many of McCarthy’s old-west names and places from my iPhone. I feel like there may be a reading experience even richer than the one we’re used to around the corner. As always, the challenge will be to make sure all the rights are dealt with effectively and realistically, to make sure creators are rewarded without stifling innovation or alienating readers. If we don’t get in our own way too much we could offer a new generation of readers something that we’ve never had before. And to have the latest McCarthy bloodfest up there on the same page, in the same search results as the latest Dexter episode or High School Musical instalment or Jay-Z protégé, just as accessible and nearly as flashy and cool—that’s got to be a good thing for the written word.

Paddy Power now has a market on what Apple will call the new product, with “iPad” almost unbackable at 1:5. I always thought it would be cute to call it the iSaac, a synthesis of the overused i-prefix with the original and much-loved Newton MessagePad that let Dolph down so badly in the picture above. But I acknowledge that that would be an extremely nerdy and unlikely name, and Paddy Power prefers even the “EtchaSketch” (at 500:1).

31 July 2007

Punch

by Matt Rubinstein at 12:55 am

pictureA short film I wrote has its première at the Melbourne International Film Festival tonight. Punch is an 11-minute fable of heartache and cream pies directed by Sotiris Dounoukos, who I most recently worked with on Paper & Sand—which, gratifyingly, is still screening around the place, including last week at the Bangkok International Film Festival, whose website lists the director as “Satiris”, which is funny for all kinds of reasons.

I wrote Punch a few years ago, and soon after that Sotiris found himself in Paris and decided to shoot it there. As everybody now knows, I don’t speak much French, so the cast and crew translated my script and filmed it over a guerrilla weekend in which nobody got any sleep and at least one car crashed at the sight of the wonderful Guillaume Clémencin wandering the streets in his red wig and hilarious shoes. I wish I’d been there. The film has been in post-production for a while and is now looking fantastic. Naturally the English subtitles were an absolute walk in the park and perfectly match the writer’s intentions, which you can’t always say about subtitles.

Tonight’s screening is part of a showcase of Australian shorts and is sold out—I’ll be queueing up hoping for no-shows myself. The film is also screening on Sunday before Falkenberg Farewell, a Scandinavian feature which has something to do with “the Jar of Unexpected Tragedy”—maybe a kind of Pandora’s Box?

7 June 2007

Near enough

by Matt Rubinstein at 11:56 pm

tennyson.jpegI just watched El Espinazo del Diablo (here called The Devil’s Backbone), Guillermo del Toro’s predecessor and companion to last year’s El Labertino del Fauno (aka Pan’s Labyrinth). Both films have the gruesome beauty of old fairytales; they are uneasy dreams that can’t decide whether or not they’re nightmares. I like them a lot, and Hellboy is great fun too.

One of the characters in The Devil’s Backbone, Casares, is fond of reciting old poems, including one subtitled like this:

Stay by my side as my light grows dim,
as my blood slows down and my nerves shatter
with stabbing pain, as my heart grows weak
and the wheels of my being turn slowly.

Stay by my side as my fragile body
is racked by pain which verges on truth
and manic time continues scattering dust
and furious life bursts out in flames.

Stay by my side as I fade
so you can point to the end of my struggle
and the twilight of eternal days
at the low, dark edge of life.

It’s very tenderly delivered at a heartbreaking point in the film, and it sounds great. But there’s also something familiar about it. Yes, it’s from Canto 50 of In Memoriam AHH, which of course is Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s lengthy elegy to his Cambridge mate Arthur Henry Hallam:

Be near me when my light is low,
When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick
And tingle; and the heart is sick,
And all the wheels of Being slow.

Be near me when the sensuous frame
Is rack’d with pangs that conquer trust;
And Time, a maniac scattering dust,
And Life, a Fury slinging flame.

Be near me when my faith is dry,
And men the flies of latter spring,
That lay their eggs, and sting and sing
And weave their petty cells and die.

Be near me when I fade away,
To point the term of human strife,
And on the low dark verge of life
The twilight of eternal day.

Now, I don’t know enough Spanish to work out to what extent Casares was paraphrasing Tennyson. Normally where a character in a foreign film quotes an English poem or whatever, the practice is for the subtitle to revert to the original English—that way it rhymes and everything, plus as a translator you can kind of put your feet up for a bit. But maybe the paraphrase actually gives more of a flavour of the Spanish version—which, after all, doesn’t rhyme or scan or sound like nineteenth-century English poetry.

Canto 50 also supplies the title and epigraph of Andrew O’Hagan’s latest novel, Be Near Me. Andrew charmed the absolute pants off the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival with his enthusiasm, his good humour and his Scottish accent. At his session in the Blue Mountains I overheard one old dear behind me whisper to another: “Imagine being his wife.” He mentioned that he hadn’t been sure what to call his book until he heard or remembered A,LT’s canto. Was it del Toro’s film that reminded him? Probably not, but still.

4 April 2007

The city under the sky over Berlin

by Matt Rubinstein at 4:42 am

Memorial.jpgI’ve had a thing for the city of Berlin ever since I saw Wim Wenders’s 1987 Der Himmel über Berlin, somewhat cheesily rebadged as Wings of Desire for the English-speaking world and later unforgivably remade as City of Angels, with Meg Ryan as the heart surgeon who “didn’t believe in angels until she fell in love with one”.

The original features a couple of weatherbeaten old angels who mooch around Berlin in trenchcoats, reading the thoughts of various locals—and Peter Falk, for some reason—and wondering what it’s like to be human. It’s one of the most poetic movies I’ve seen, thanks to Wenders’s lilting direction and Peter Handke’s contribution to the script: particularly his Lied Vom Kindsein or Song of Childhood, which winds its way through the film.

The poem sounds amazing read by Bruno Ganz in German, with the near-antimetabolic (or perhaps chiastic, but certainly within the context of the poem anaphoric) “Als das Kind Kind war”. It also translates pretty well into English:

When the child was a child,
It was the time for these questions:
Why am I me, and why not you?
Why am I here, and why not there?
When did time begin, and where does space end?
Is life under the sun not just a dream?

When the child was a child,
it awoke once in a strange bed,
and now does so again and again.
Many people, then, seemed beautiful,
and now only a few do, by sheer luck.

When the child was a child,
Berries filled its hand as only berries do,
and do even now,
Fresh walnuts made its tongue raw,
and do even now,
It had, on every mountaintop,
the longing for a higher mountain yet,
and in every city,
the longing for an even greater city,
and that is still so.

Handke got in trouble last year for kind of sticking up for Slobodan Milošević, with the result that when he was awarded the city of Düsseldorf’s €50,000 Heinrich Heise prize, the city councillors kicked up such a stink that he declined it. Without getting too much into why we’re so desperate that good writers also be good people, I did find Handke’s apparent position on Milošević a bit disturbing after the gentle inquisition of his poetry—maybe not as much as TS Eliot’s anti-semitism, but more than Günter Grass’s stint in the Waffen-SS. It’s still a good poem, though.

So I first visited Berlin in 1991, and things were pretty much like they were in the movie. The wall had been down for two years, but it hadn’t all been sold to tourists yet and there were quite a few sections still standing. There was a big difference between Ost and West, and between them the great squares of Potsdamer Platz and Leipziger Platz, cut in half by the wall and its associated battlements, were still the wastelands of rubble and busted sofas where the angels had wandered around eavesdropping on lonely old bums and their memories.

When I went back in 1997 they were laying foundations and sticking up scaffolding for inconceivable construction projects, and last week I finally got back there and couldn’t believe it—the Platz is now an immense, shining citadel where Sony, DaimerChrysler and a bunch of others have shimmering towers linked by malls and multiplexes. It’s a truly remarkable transformation, even if it now looks much more like the kind of place you’d find Meg Ryan staring sappily into the middle-distance.

The best thing is just up the road, where New York architect Peter Eisenman has built a Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, pictured above. It’s made up of 2711 concrete stelae arranged in a rough grid over an undulating field. From the outside it’s pretty interesting: each of the slabs is a different height, they all tilt slightly off true, and the light and shadow make endless patterns. As you walk towards the centre, the stones rise over you—the tallest one is 4.7 metres high—and it quickly feels like you’re lost in a grim kind of industrial forest. Then there’s a Doppler-affected giggle and a little kid tears past along the axis perpendicular to yours, and then the kid who’s chasing her, and then they’re gone again. It’s all very sombre and playful and thought-provoking; I liked it a lot. Eisenman once thought it would be a good idea to let people graffiti up the place, but instead the stelae were slapped with a non-stick coating—which also turned out to be controversial, since the first batch was made by the crew who supplied concentration camps with Zyklon B and had to be replaced.

Also very impressive is Daniel Libeskind’s addition to the Jewish Museum, a lightning bolt full of slopes and voids, long walks and hard climbs. One of the most affecting parts of the building is a corridor that narrows in all directions until you feel like those guys in that illusion and leads into a deep angular well that opens to the sky, and the silence, and the cold. There’s also another, earlier field of stelae in a sloping garden. Some pretty moving stuff in the exhibition, too.

I tried really hard to get Berlin right in my book Nomad, which borrowed a bit from the Wim Wenders movie—there’s the same bronze statue on top of the Siegessäule, though the neo-Nazi Depeche Mode fans are all mine—but I didn’t come close, of course. What the hell did I know? I’d like to try again some time; it is an incredible place.

21 March 2007

Damn that elegiac Bill-Murray-whoring-himself-in-Tokyo movie

by Matt Rubinstein at 8:05 pm

bomb.jpg…because if you could ever use the common phrase that is also the name of that movie as the clever title of your article or blog entry about the difficulties people sometimes have trying to express things in different languages, you sure can’t now. Oh no wait, maybe you can.

I’ve got a novel coming out soon whose main character is a contract subtitler for an unnamed multilingual television network, so I was interested to read this imaginatively-titled article complaining that the modern trend of Hollywood studios outsourcing their subtitles to the sweatshops of India and Malaysia has had some unsatisfactory results:

Frustrated at seeing what are already low wages forced down still further, native subtitlers have begun compiling examples of the errors littering British and American movies released in foreign markets. And from their research, there certainly seems no shortage of cases where literal-minded or just plain odd translations have rendered Hollywood movies incomprehensible (or, if we’re going to be honest about this, more incomprehensible).

Unfortunately, the examples offered aren’t all that compelling. The Guild of Native Subtitlers reports that “Sir David Attenborough” has been translated as “Sherlock Holmes”, “an asteroid field” as “a steroid field” and “Vietnam vet” as “veterinarian from Vietnam”, but most of these mistakes are pretty understandable and their results quite comprehensible (except the Sherlock Holmes thing). Faced with such slim pickings, the journalist is reduced to speculation:

After all, would you want the pivotal line of Stanley Kubrick’s meditation on war, Full Metal Jacket, to have been given to you as “I love the smell of napalm in the morning – smells like Viscounts”? Or seen Some Like It Hot end with Jack Lemmon being told by his amorous suitor: “You nobody! You are a prefect?” And, as for Silence of the Lambs, surely no audience deserves to have Hannibal Lecter terrify Clarice Starling with the revelation that: “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate some liver with him and then we had ice cream”?

This last one sounds more like what CleanFlicks and the other “movie sanitizers” used to do, but all of them are pretty much beside the point. Mysteriously, our guy ignores the only really funny one caught by the Disgrunted Subtitlers’ Union: a television broadcast in which “she died in a freak rugby accident” is rendered as “she died in a rugby match for people with deformities”.

But if Her Majesty’s Own Subtitlers can’t come up with a lot more examples than that, maybe it’s no wonder they’re losing work to India. Haven’t they heard of the Internet? It’s full of great stuff. A lot of it might be as flagrantly invented as Hannibal Lecter’s ice cream, but whatever. And they could easily have used some of these old favourites, which are actual subtitles from unspecified Hong Kong films:

I am damn unsatisfied to be killed in this way.

Same old rules: no eyes, no groin.

Take my advice, or I’ll spank you without pants.

You always use violence. I should’ve ordered glutinous rice chicken.

You daring lousy guy.

Beat him out of recognizable shape!

Greetings, large black person. Let us not forget to form a team up together and go into the country to inflict the pain of our karate feets on some ass of the giant lizard person.

I know, but they’re fun. Back in the real world Subtitling Worldwide, a Dutch outfit whose English website adds another layer to the whole thing, offers its own salutary examples:

After all he put you through. This was said to someone who had been given a hard time by her boyfriend. Still the subtitle read, ‘after all, he connected you/put you through (by telephone)’.

Rest easy. A soldier was shot dead, another soldier closes his eyes and says, ‘Rest easy.’ The Dutch subtitle said: ‘Take a nice little break.’

A famous anachronism. In the Dutch subtitles of The Onedin Line one of the saddest/funniest mistakes ever was made. The series is situated in the pre-steamship era, a time when Alexander Graham Bell hadn’t been born yet. From a sailing ship a character surrounded by old rope, old sails and old wood, shouts to the shore, ‘I’ll call you.’ The subtitler, maybe focussed on different things entirely, maybe under time pressure, translated: ‘I’ll phone you.’

Send me a carbon copy. This again incredibly was translated as ‘send me a copy of coal’.

They mate for life (about swans which stick together their whole life). This is continually wrongly translated in subtitles, usually implying vehement or continuous copulating, which forms a comic contrast with the almost conventional nature of swans (and other wrongly treated birds).

Again, many of these are understandable mistakes. The trouble is, most professional subtitlers do know more or less what they’re doing. You have to venture into the black market to dig up the really astonishing attitudes towards captioning. It’s not always easy to imagine why these things exist at all, but we can all be thankful that they do. This guy gets a lot of mileage from a bootleg copy of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (or indeed Gentlement) he picked up in Bangladesh:

The errors in subtitles start off as banal mistakes. A drunken sot’s remark to a visitor, “And I suppose you’re another traveler, got it in your head to sample the dark continent” becomes the reverse: “And I suppose you aren’t a traveler. Got it into your head to stuff from the dark continent.” Dire predictions of an unstable world, “Baying for blood, it’s a powder keg.” changes to “Being for blood, it’s a powder cake.” The Invisible Man’s jest, “I’m feeling a bit of draft in my nether regions” becomes, “I’m feeling a bit of drafted another agents.” Individual phrases also provide a challenge: “Thief” changes to “faith,” “boon” to “bone,” “sick note” to “sick knot,” “as patriotic” to “the speech” and “prerogative” to “perlocutive.”

Some sense can still be made of the subtitles, until utterly nonsensical constructions start to appear. “There is great unrest, countries set at each other’s throats” mutates to “That’s glad on rest, countries set each other throat.” “These attacks have every nation clamoring for the very weapons that assail them” changes to “And he attached every nations claiming very weapons to the sierra.” Sean Connery’s guttural growl after a fight, “Wasn’t there another one of these buggers?” becomes “You guys sent another this baggage?” Strangest of all, Quatermain’s boast, “I don’t know whether to regale with how I found King Solomon’s mines,” becomes “I know how to regret you with how I found to kick soloman’s mind.”

This other guy has an even better experience with a Chinese boot of Star War III: the Backstroke of the West, which has captions like:

You are a sacrifice article that I cut up rough now

He big in nothing important in good elephant

Giving first aid the already disheveled hair projection

I hope that these dreamses really can’t become

Send these troopseses only

They want to know him at fuck

I was just made by the Presbyterian Church

A line have beened distorted by the dark world

…and which pretty much closes the loop on the whole All Your Base thing pictured above.

19 March 2007

Credit where it’s due

by Matt Rubinstein at 2:23 am

credits.jpgA while ago now we were talking about the attribution rules set down by the Writers Guild of America and ably summarised by the otherwise corrupt Wikipedia here. In one of those spooky coincidences that can only be explained by the existence of an intelligent designer, less than six months later I came across an actual example of what I was talking about.

This is from Matt Groening‘s underappreciated Futurama, which finished up in 2003 but may yet have a last gasp next year. The gang go to the movies to see the big-screen version of robosoap All my Circuits. The credits imply that Writing Unit 5 wrote the first draft of this triumph, but the second draft was written by Writing Unit 12 together with Joe Eszterhas. 12 and Eszterhas must have been responsible for more than half of the final script; it’s possible that 5 just throws out ideas Stratemeyer-style these days, and it’s good to see that Hollywood has finally forgiven Eszterhas for Showgirls.

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!

9 August 2005

Desperate broadcasters

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:17 am

teri.jpgI’m tempted just to let this go, because any kind of comment is sooner or later going to involve admitting that I watched pretty much the whole season of Desperate Housewives on Seven. At least, I had the TV on while the show was on, which is all the ratings measure anyway—not that I’m counted in the ratings; if I were we might still be watching The West Wing. But so there it is. It had its moments but was overall pretty lame; Gabrielle was kind of hot, though clearly awful; and the “big mystery” story arc progressed at about the rate of a Phantom comic.

Of course Seven milked the show for much more than it was worth, doling out new episodes as if they (the new episodes) were pellets of rat-food doled out by first-year students of operant conditioning trying to confirm that the variable ratio schedule is indeed the most cruel and diabolical and difficult-for-rats-to-shake of all the schedules of reinforcement, padding these new episodes, or rather “all-new” episodes, with simply unwatchable “behind-the-scenes”–type featurettes and other dross and filth, or just pre-empting them for other less-valuable programs during non-ratings periods. Not to mention the dubious technique of wedging each episode into the hitherto-undiscovered 8:40pm–9:40pm timeslot, thereby manipulating the ratings in ways I can’t even begin to understand; and the erratic ADD/ADHD-type repetition of the first few episodes already covered back when it all started.

But in screening last night’s series cliffhanger, which was generally better than most of the intervening episodes because one or two things actually happened in it, Seven reached a new ebb in its attempt to sucker some of its inexplicably massive Housewives audience into watching some of its other programming. The deal was: if you sat through the debut of Grey’s Anatomy—an apparently charmless medical comedy/drama offering nothing that Scrubs didn’t deliver every week in half the time with exponential levels of humour and pathos—you got to see a “secret additional bonus mystery scene” that had been excised from the first season of Desperate Housewives for undisclosed reasons. The implication was—I think the teaser actually said—that the hidden scene would solve some outstanding mystery that the final episode was just too solution-packed to manage.

Now I’ll tell you what the actual scene contained in a moment (ha!), but first I should explain that in fact I was watching all this stuff through the intermediary of my new personal video recorder or PVR, which quite ingeniously records a perfect copy of the digital broadcast signal on its roomy hard-drive for later playback. It can record two channels at the same time as playing back a previously-recorded or even currently-recording program, and it has buttons that instantly zap forward two minutes or 30 seconds so you never have to see any commercials. The networks hate them because of their potential to reduce advertising revenue, and try to reduce their usefulness by not transmitting information about upcoming programs (which would make setting timers etc so simple that why wouldn’t you) and increasingly screening ads in weird and unpredictable configurations.

And of course the free-to-air model depends on people watching advertisements, and if we all stop watching—and if they find out about it—the quality of programming may eventually suffer. But I think there are solutions. One is product placement, which I don’t object to as long as it’s done with restraint and slots into, rather than manipulating, the host program. Look at all the real-world products that found their way into Seinfeld with hilarious results: the Junior Mint, the Pez, the Jujyfruit, Snapple, Häagen-Dazs—if you do it right, there’s nothing wrong with it. The other solution might be to make commercials that people can stand to watch, rather than the brain-damaged half-attempts that befoul our prime-time viewing. Anyway, the point is that my trusty Topfield PVR5000t allowed me to swiftly track down the lost scene from Desperate Housewives—thinking only of this blog and you, Loyal Reader—without having to watch more of Grey’s Anatomy than I wanted to, which wasn’t much.

So completely unsurprisingly that lost scene, which had been likened to the Dead Sea Scrolls or at least that new Vivaldi just discovered by clever Melbourne musicologist Dr Janice Stockigt, consisted of immaculate psychopath Bree and her creepy man-friend George being busted shopping for garden supplies by her therapist Dr Goldfine, played by—and this almost makes the whole thing worthwhile—Sam Lloyd, who is brilliant as hangdog lawyer Ted Buckland from Scrubs. The scene has no bearing on any part of the plot, such as it is, and was either removed by American ABC for that reason or by Seven so they could jam in some more commercials and trick some viewers. An appalling display.

Last night’s Media Watch showed Ten’s Action News trying on two separate occasions to rope in viewers by showing tantalising excerpts of near- and actual tragic events and asking “Did they make it? Stay tuned!”, which is analogous but of course even worse. The one where they didn’t make it was stretched over two ad breaks! And don’t think I haven’t noticed that Ten is still claiming that 3.7 million people watched the first incarnation of The 4400 either.

In closing, I’d like us all to take a moment to remember Desperate Housewife Teri Hatcher in her finest moment, playing the spectacularly-endowed Sidra in Seinfeld‘s fourth-season winner, “The Implant”. That’s Elaine stumbling towards her in the health-club sauna, about to be saved by her controversial breasts. Look at the terror! Look at the range!

20 June 2005

Misutaa Supaakoru

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:15 am

sparkle.jpgKan Tong’s “Wok Star” campaign is turning a few heads with its introduction to high-octane, seizure-inducing advertising experiences of the kind most often found on Japanese television. The spot features comedian Hung Le and an unidentified co-star expressing their enthusiasm for the stir-fry–helper to disgruntled diners and bewildered shoppers alike, accompanied by a psychotically bouncy pachinko-house theme tune. It all seems to be in an over-excited kind of Vietnamese (a translation is available here), although the titles are in Chinese. The commercial gives the strong impression that everybody involved with it is spectacularly, if gleefully, insane.

Some people have complained that the advertisement is racist, because it portrays Asian people as clear fruitcakes and Asian cultures as tasteless and terrifying. Others counter that the ad is a pretty note-perfect reproduction of the style, pace and enunciation used in many actual ads overseas. Check out this Japanese spot for crab-and-mayonnaise pizza for an excellent example. Fans of Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation should know that Bill Murray got off extremely lightly in his Suntory ads: real-life Japanese advertisers have done a lot worse to big-name American stars, almost all of whom have fallen to temptation. The Simpsons captured the key aspects well with their Mr Sparkle ad, and ad agency Clemenger BBDO and production company The Pound have done a pretty good job here too.

Yet others have pointed out that Japanese television doesn’t have much to do with Chinese and South-East–Asian stir-fries promoted by a Vietnamese-Australian performer, and is still racist because thanks to the old “all these Asians are the same” solecism. But Kan Tong (a brand of MasterFoods, itself owned by Mars Inc) doesn’t really align itself with any country or cuisine: its Wok Star sauces cover a range of bases associated with all kinds of Asian cooking (at least the kind we have here in Australia), so perhaps the ad is a reflection of that. They might even have these kinds of ads in China or Vietnam; I don’t know.

When I was in Japan last month I watched all the ads that I could, and loved them all—but in the end I did find myself wanting to tell everybody to just calm down. It’s just a Pocky! Whatever that is. It’s just a can of Pocari Sweat! (Better than it sounds.) Professor Paul Herbig from the Ketner School of Business at Indiana’s Tri-State University explains:

Japanese advertising is designed to appeal to emotions, produce good feelings, and create a happy atmosphere. Japanese ads are visually attractive and eye-catching, featuring bright colors. This fits the Japanese visual orientation to life and reflects their sensitivity to aesthetics, color, and design. They often use symbols and strong gestures in their television commercials. Japanese ads may be humorous or witty, and they appeal to the consumer’s intelligence; however, they do not convey much product information. The vast majority of television spots are “mood commercials” designed to make the consumer feel good about the product. Japanese ads seem to violate many of the American precepts for good advertising; sometimes it is hard to discern what the product is from viewing the ad.

It sure is. Of course not all Japanese commercials have this jackhammer style; some are quite sort of soothing and ethereal. But many of the ones I saw were like the Wok Star one. Is it racist to poke fun at another culture’s advertisements—which are created, after all, as part of the serious endeavour of selling things to people, and which presumably work well enough on the people to make them buy the things? I’m tempted to say: it’s television commercials, for Christ’s sake. It’s not ancient rituals or cherished traditions. Surely television commercials the world over are available to our mockery. For all their sensitive aesthetics, these ads are just bonkers, they are just too excited about these fairly mundane consumer products—just as our ads have very strange ideas about soft drinks and the miraculous powers of various confectionaries and how loud you have to talk about furniture sales; and I would encourage anyone from anywhere to mock them as vigorously as they deserve.

If you do think the ad is racist, you can complain to the Advertising Standards Bureau. These guys deal with about 2000 complaints a year, about 25% of which relate to the offensive portrayal of people on the basis of race, sex, age, religion or disability. In 2003, of the 2620 complaints made only 23 were upheld, though 113 of the ads were withdrawn by the advertisers before any determination was made. So far this year the ASB has pinged Telfast for showing people driving into flowerbeds without seatbelts, Fuji for that ad where a hostage is killed for not having any family snapshots in his wallet, and almost all the car manufacturers for portraying driving as fun. Hahn Premium withdrew its “Life’s Short—Drink Great Beer” ad (also by Clemenger BBDO) featuring a dwarf being eaten by a hippo. But we can leave that for another time.

13 May 2005

Everything’s A-OK

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:14 am

sesame.jpgI’ve just come back from Japan, where I saw many strange and wondrous things. One was this subway poster, in which Sesame Street characters exhort commuters not to take up too much room with their newspapers. It’s a bilingual message, but the dominant English may indicate that it’s directed at the ill-mannered gaijin papering the carriages with their lifestyle sections. Also, the considerate Muppets’ broadsheets are all in English, though the only headline I can make out is A Big Fire Broke Out!!—whose excess of punctuation and dearth of detail suggests that the SESAME Times is probably a Murdoch paper.

The Times also omits any mention of the Sesame Street Muppets’ involvement in the Big Fire, which most historians agree was lit by furry war criminals (from left) Mojabo, Ernie, Teena, Elmo, Bert, Grover and Big Bird as part of an ongoing pattern of aggression against neighbouring streets such as Zhima Jie and Ulitsa Sezam. Violent demonstrations have broken out in those streets. Beneath the harmonious catchcries “Yiiip-yip-yip-yip-yip-yip” and “Uh-huh, uh-huh” lies a deeper conflict.

No, wait—the demonstrations were mostly in China and Korea, and they were getting all worked up about the Japanese Ministry of Education’s approval of a new history textbook, the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform’s The New History Textbook. Critics (including Japan’s own Centre of Research and Documentation on Japan’s War Responsibility) have argued that the new textbook inadequately characterises Japan’s role in the lead-up to, and behaviour during, the Second World War. For example, the textbook is said to absolve Japan of responsibility for invading Manchuria, to gloss over the Nanjing Massacre (also called the Rape of Nanking or the Nanjing Incident, at opposite ends of the continuum), and to downplay Japanese war crimes including the exploitation of comfort women.

The textbook controversy has been smouldering for about as long as there have been textbooks: Saburo Ienaga spent about 40 years and many court cases trying to get his own textbook published as he’d written it—massacres and all—and not as the Textbook Authorisation System wanted it. He had some important victories but died in 2002; and now the New History Textbook is said to raise (or lower) the bar in minimising or excusing Japan’s role as aggressor in the war—indeed, its publishers are explicitly reacting against the “masochist” (some of us might say “black armband”) view of history and attempting to restore national pride in Japan’s military record.

This site compares the old and new textbooks and includes some interesting timelines. The 2005 edition does seem to apply another coat of whitewash to the 2001 version, which itself could hardly have been described as “masochist”. Of course, the people in Japan’s neighbourhood aren’t shining examples of penitence, or of an encouraging attitude towards unflattering publications, either—and there’s a lot of appeal to the idea that China in particular wants to head off any talk of Japan joining it as a permanent member of the Security Council. The BBC News reports that the Chinese Press has explicitly linked the issues; for example, Shanghai’s Wenhui Bao argues:

How can a country which not only cannot correctly handle history, but falsifies history again and again, have the qualifications to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a responsible member of the international community?

Even though the makeup of the Security Council is patently ridiculous and the Chinese defence of it self-serving, it’s hard not to be a little surprised by the official accounts of Japan’s role in the war. I visited the museum attached to the Yasakuni Shrine—which houses the spirits of the Japanese war dead, including executed war criminals like Hideki Tojo and Iwane Matsui, said to be responsible for Nanjing; and which Junichiro Koizumi keeps raising international eyebrows by visiting—and found it gave a very different account of the war and its causes than I’d pieced together (admittedly, mostly from movies). Like: WWII was everyone’s fault but Japan’s; the US was itching to join in and forced Japan to make the first move at Pearl Harbor; and the Allies unnecessarily prolonged the war by insisting on Japan’s full surrender. Lots of Chinese soldiers died at Nanjing because they were ordered to defend it to the death; Japanese commanding officers issued explicit warnings that civilians were not to be mistreated.

I don’t know what happened. But it seems to me that any responsible history should as far as possible give all sides of the story, with proportionately more space to the more widely- or respectably-held views. Almost nobody adheres to this ideal, but the Japanese government seems to insist on a lower standard than many. On the other hand, at the end of April Koizumi had this to say:

In the past, Japan, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations. Japan squarely faces these facts of history in a spirit of humility. And with feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology always engraved in mind, Japan has resolutely maintained, consistently since the end of World War II, to never turn into a military power but an economic power, and its principle of resolving all matters by peaceful means without recourse to use of force.

This is pretty much in line with other apologies issued in the past by Koizumi and other Japanese leaders. It’s not very specific, but it seems genuine enough. Perhaps that’s the Japanese way. I think specifics are important, but perhaps they’re not everything; perhaps actual conduct is more critical.

Brought to you by the letters E and F and the number 3.

4 April 2005

This land is my land

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:12 am

heaven.jpgWarning: this post contains possible spoilers concerning the outcome of treaty negotiations between Indonesia and Australia.

I just watched on DVD and really enjoyed Zhang Yimou’s (or Jet Li’s or even Quentin Tarantino’s, depending) martial arts epic Hero. I loved its otherworldly landscapes, slightly overcooked colour schemes, gobsmacking fight sequences, and Zhang Ziyi. I totally dug the scene in the Go temple where Jet Li and Donnie Yen whomp each other inside their respective heads (where it’s still raining atmospherically), and all the connections between calligraphy and swordplay. That was cool. But of course there’s a but.

I’m a pretty dopey movie-watcher: I usually suspend disbelief before I’ve sat down, and never guess whodunit or see the twist coming, and always miss undertones and nods to other movies—unless they’re completely obvious, like with this movie and Rashômon, which I mention not to look clever but only to avoid looking like a complete moron—but the politics of Hero unsettled even me, a bit. You’ll remember that more or less everybody’s hell-bent on killing the Qin king for various atrocities until Broken Sword decides it’s better to let him live, because of two words. Broken Sword even persuades the nameless assassin (in the English version he’s actually named Nameless, somewhat post-modernly) to give up his brilliant and very effective and by that stage failsafe and in-the-bag attempt on the king’s life and sacrifice himself for these two words. They are clearly very important words, and we’re expected to believe in them, or at least understand why everybody in the movie believes in them.

The two words are tian xià, illustrated above, which the subtitles helpfully translate as “our land”. The idea is that the war between the various nearby kingdoms are doing untold damage and that only the king of Qin can unite them into a single manageable nation. This sounds a bit questionable to our modern ears, particularly knowing the way China feels about Taiwan, Tibet and so on. But it turns out to be a very ancient Chinese principle—predating China, in fact—and more accurately translates as “all under heaven”: the idea that everyone in the (known or relevant) world should be subject to one law and governed by one leader. This version doesn’t sound any less questionable, if you ask me.

The movie takes place towards the end of the Warring States Period, after the Qin kingdom had subjugated the Zhou (where all the assassins come from) but before it had seen to the rest of the great powers and unified China in 221 BC. The king is real: he is Qin Shi Huang, who as the movie says became the First Emperor of China and started work on the Great Wall. History doesn’t attest to any assassin named Nameless (duh) but the staggering Records of the Grand Historian tell the story of an assassination attempt by one Jing Ke, which contains some similarities. Jing Ke persuades a Qin general to give him his head so he can get close enough to whack the king; he has a red-hot go but the king jumps back, Jing Ke misses and the guards take care of the rest. This legend is told (with its own modifications) in 1999′s The Emperor and the Assassin. In one of the DVD’s special features, Zhang Yimou says that he consulted all of the existing sources but nothing really satisfied him, so he decided to write his own story.

Look, it’s very likely that the unification of China in 221 BC did save a lot of bloodshed, compared to letting the endless war between the states just trundle on; and that it gave the country a well-needed leg-up and allowed it thereafter to innovate and invent fireworks and spaghetti and all. Europe is now generally realising the benefits of some kind of coordination between nation-states, and all of us loony one-worlders would like to see everyone working together in harmony and at least some laws applying everywhere. But that’s not really what tian xià is about—it’s about empire. And the world’s going the opposite way nowadays, and disintegrating along various lines: look what happened to the USSR, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia. It’s hard not to see the resumption of Hong Kong and Macau as going against the current, to say nothing of the ongoing difficulties with Taiwan (and even less about this thing with Tibet).

And so it’s also hard not to see the tian xià angle in Hero as at least a little bit political. Which would be fine—all movies are political, and we can’t object to them just because they go against the prevailing politics—if it weren’t for the tight control the Chinese government exerts over the arts. Even if this is Zhang Yimou’s own personal view, the thought that this is the film the government wants him to make, and that nobody’s allowed to make the opposite film, the other argument—that’s what’s troubling about it.

It doesn’t mean it’s a bad film—look at Battleship Potemkin—or that Zhang Yimou’s a bad guy. But it’s weird—some of his earlier films were banned, or mangled by censors, and he himself was banned from filmmaking for a period after To Live; subsequent films like Not One Less and The Road Home were criticised internationally as propaganda and—sure enough—shown by the Chinese government in its pledge drives. If Hero is propaganda, that’s only secondary; perhaps Zhang is just trying to make good movies in the circumstances. Alan Stone has a good discussion in the Boston Review, which is perhaps too thoughtful to be quotable.

We all have our euphemisms for empire, anyway. The security treaty we’re negotiating with Indonesia will include some sort of wording requiring us to respect Indonesia’s “territorial integrity”, which in case anyone was in any doubt Alexander Downer explains like this:

And Indonesians will be reinforced in their confidence in Australia knowing that Australia supports Indonesia’s territorial integrity and by that I mean we do not support secessionist movements in Indonesia.

Of course we ruined the last treaty by going to help in East Timor, but that won’t happen in Aceh or West Papua or any other place under heaven. Since it’s not a defence pact we probably won’t be called in to actually suppress any secessionist movements, but still. I hope acclaimed Indonesian directors are busily working on sumptuous epics to convince everybody that the Acehnese and West Papuans are better off as they are. Hell, I’m still waiting for Leichhardt Council’s film about the ill-fated Balmain secession, but Paddy McGuinness seems to have rolled over on that one, at least for now.

The other thing about Hero is that although it boasts a beautiful score by Dun Tan with haunting violin work by famed fiddler Itzhak Perlman, it completely ignores the dramatic possibilities of both David Bowie’s Heroes and Enrique Iglesias’s Hero. You wouldn’t catch a Western director passing up opportunities like those.

9 March 2005

Pulse of my heart

by Matt Rubinstein at 11:48 am

90210.jpgI’m not sure I entirely bought the Irish parts of Clint Eastwood’s otherwise-compelling Million Dollar Baby. The grizzled trainer struggling through phrasebooks and grammars to recapture some unspecified Lost Thing From The Past seemed just a bit heavy-handed: everything he says and does to Morgan Freeman and Hilary Swank shows us he’s gentle and sensitive and haunted; he doesn’t need to go off and read poetry as well. And the Irish fight-fans who obviously know what mo cuishle means seem a bit keen to adopt it as a battlecry to accompany these women just belting each other (on which props to Hilary Swank and her trainer—she really does look ferocious. Can you believe she was on 90210?).

Anyway, The New York Times has an interesting article on the use of the Gaelic phrase in the film, including its full version and meaning:

The name is a shortened form of the phrase “A chuisle mo chroí,” “O, pulse of my heart,” or as Frankie will put it more concisely, “My darling.” But Ms. Swank’s character doesn’t know that yet and neither do we. All we know is that the words emblazoned – and some argue misspelled – on the back of her robe are important to a lot of people.

Well, I don’t speak any Irish, but I suppose there’s a fair argument that if it’s really “mo chuisle” then “mo cuishle” is a misspelling. By far the most common version seems to be macushla, which seems much easier for everyone, but may be offensive or ignorant or something, I don’t know.

The other interesting part of the NYT article discusses the scene in which Clint Eastwood is translating WB Yeats’s The Lake Isle of Innisfree from Irish into English for Hilary. It’s certainly a beautiful poem:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

But alert readers will notice that it is written in English, and always was. Someone may have translated it back into Irish for Clint’s little book, but it wasn’t Yeats, and Clint could have saved himself a lot of trouble by reading the original.

It’s like the scene in Tom Stoppard’s wonderful Arcadia where Septimus has translated a bit of Antony and Cleopatra into Latin and torments Thomasina as she tries to translate it back into English—then shows off by pretending to puzzle over his own translation as he squeezes out the Shakespeare version. She catches on faster than Hilary Swank did, and is ropable. Tragically I seem to have lent my copy to someone and so can’t extract it.

30 November 2004

Adaptations

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:57 pm

Yet another “unfilmable” novel has fallen—this time it’s Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, from a random selection of the team that brought us Notting Hill. I don’t know what you need to do these days to write an unfilmable book that’s going to stick. If William S Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (bugpowder dust, mugwump jism, sentient assholes), JG Ballard’s Crash (fucking and mangling) and Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (rats, nailguns, Whitney Houston) aren’t going to do it, I’m not sure what will.

Well, the whole idea of an unfilmable book gets thrown around a lot these days. People said it about Michael Cunningham’s The Hours (various tangents to Virginia Woolf and Mrs Dalloway), Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (lots of lying around and sand) and Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (beats me). And look what happened there.

I guess when people call a book “unfilmable” they often just mean that it’s too (i) violent; (ii) weird; or (iii) boring. Or, to sum up, they mean that what really counts about the book—what the whole point of the book is—just can’t be represented visually. And sometimes they’re right (the thing about The English Patient is the language; on celluloid it’s sumptuous as all hell but I’m definitely with Elaine on that one); sometimes they’re wrong (turns out American Psycho was about consumerism and ennui after all, and quite filmable); and sometimes the film people find a way to dodge the question (like Adaptation‘s adaptation of Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, an extension of David Cronenberg’s trick with Naked Lunch).

Enduring Love was a great book, particularly the set-piece at the beginning, a bit of virtuosity that was widely published before the novel came out. I’m afraid it’s the kind of thing that can be breathtaking and consuming in a novel but kind of run-of-the-mill in cinema, but of course it’s too early to tell.

Anyway, The Guardian has a quiz about film adaptations which includes a question about a book that’s legally unfilmable due to its author’s intransigence, but we’ll see how long that lasts. See how you go! (I didn’t do very well.)

18 November 2004

The Uncanny Valley

by Matt Rubinstein at 9:47 pm

kids.jpgI’ve just seen a few extracts from the new computer-animated Tom Hanks vehicle (is there anything he can’t do?), The Polar Express, and I’m already freaked out. Still images don’t fully convey the horror of these almost-perfect-yet-deeply-wrong CGI children adrift in their winter wonderland; you should have a look at the commercials yourself if you’ve got the bandwidth. In the meantime I’m going to declare over-rendered digital humans the scary clowns of the new millennium.

I think this is clearly an example of the Uncanny Valley, which should be a suburb of Adelaide but isn’t: it’s that sudden dip in our emotional response to things that look almost human but are clearly not human, first proposed by Japanese robot-guy Masahiro Mori. The idea is that humans have an increasingly warm response to robots as they become less obviously machine-like and more human, but as soon as they get too human we’re repulsed and shut down completely until they become virtually indistinguishable from humans, after which we’re all OK again. I think that this is a pretty neat explanation for the fact that animated bugs, clownfish, ogres and whatnot (as well as conventionally 2D animated humans, and I suppose puppets) can touch and move us as “real” people, but where the aim is to try to look as close to reality as possible the effect is eerie and repellent. Unless it’s just me.

For some reason this issue has worked the Wikipedia crowd into a lather, with some guy swearing up and down that computer animation has nothing to do with the unfortunate Valley, including because “Google search doesn’t show any evidence [of the connection]”. Maybe this is one of the areas where collaborative drafting falls down. Further investigation reveals that a lot of people have already linked the new movie to the old valley, so maybe we should just leave it, eh.

8 November 2004

Zhuzh

by Matt Rubinstein at 11:48 am

zhuzh.jpgNow, I have little to no truck with this whole Queer Eye phenomenon. First of all because it’s a “reality”/lifestyle/format show and therefore the scourge of our times. Second because I can’t stand this so-called “metrosexual” movement with all its stylings and hand creams and getting your colours done. Christforsake! Sure, we’ve driven women spare for centuries over all this stuff, but it’s not obvious to me that the solution is now to start driving men spare too. Why can’t we all lighten up? Let that poor sap leave his shirt untucked. Or hers.

None of this is meant to condone John Laws’s insane rant, of course. I certainly don’t want to be counted among the frankly disconcerting group of “truck drivers, wharf labourers, free-thinking red-blooded Australian men and [Laws himself]” for whom that rough-headed pillow-biter-smiter claims to speak. I just don’t want to watch the show.

But it does seem to have coined or at least popularised a new word, and that’s always interesting, especially considering the orthographical difficulties involved. People have evidently tried to spell it tsuz, tszuj, tjuzs, zjuj and tjuz, most of which just involve throwing random letters around. The Macquarie Dictionary has chosen zhuzh, which is the only sensible spelling. The American Dialect Society has a bob each way with both zhuzh (yay) and tjuzs (what?), but it also voted “metrosexual” to be the word of 2003 and deserves to be thoroughly ignored.

What we’re talking about here is a voiced postalveolar fricative. Two of them, in fact. They’re only occasionally found in English, for example in the middle of measure and vision, but they’re everywhere in French, as in jeune and Jacques. They also turn up in Eastern European languages, like the Russian Ж which is generally transliterated as zh. The International Phonetic Alphabet uses the symbol ʒ, which is also called ezh. It makes sense: z is just the voiced version of s (they’re alveolar fricatives), and ʒ is the voiced version of ʃ, which we’re all quite happy writing as sh as in shut the hell up, John Laws!

ʒ is transcribed in other ways in other languages. For example, in Hungarian it’s zs, in Polish and Czech it’s a z with a diacritic (ż and ž), and in South American versions of Spanish it can be rr or ll. Nowhere in the world, as far as I can see, is it transcribed as tj—that’s an affricate, if it’s anything.

That u in the middle’s a bit ambiguous, but English has never worked out what do with that pesky near-close near-back rounded vowel. There’s put, but there’s also pub; on the other hand there’s book but also boot (these distinctions do depend on local prounciation and fall down in various parts of England). Nobody’s suggested anything else, though, so I don’t know why I raise it.

I doubt I’ll ever actually say it, but if you choose to, you should know that you’re saying zhuzh, and not any of these abominations that turn out more like chuzz or zudge—if you’re lucky.

2 November 2004

The Brits have just discovered Seinfeld

by Matt Rubinstein at 9:14 am

…with the release of the first three seasons on DVD. The Guardian provides a brief overview of this interesting new show from across the pond:

One episode is entirely set in a Chinese restaurant where the cast wait for a table, and George (Jason Alexander) confides his latest girlfriend disaster to Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld). He has had to leave midway through sex because he is too embarrassed to go to the toilet in his girlfriend’s tiny flat, where his every move will be heard, and he has ‘an intestinal requirement that surpasses by great lengths anything in the sexual realm’. So how to extricate himself? ‘The only excuse she might possibly have accepted is if I told her that I am in reality Batman, and I’m very sorry, I just saw the Batsignal…’

What? This has to be one of the most famous episodes of one of the most famous comedies ever; but apparently it just never took off in the UK, being shown intermittently by the BBC in the kind of timeslots occupied by the mysterious “Guthy-Renker” here. Apparently it’s part of the long-standing British snobbery about foreign comedy, which surely has grown increasingly misplaced since (in my view) The Young Ones and Blackadder.

The Brits seem to be back on track now, with recent things like Ali G, The Office and People Like Us—but it’s sad to think that they’ve had to go without Seinfeld and similar for so long. At the same time, there is of course almost no British comedy on US television. Maybe this is the lucky country after all.

20 October 2004

Everybody wants something

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:14 pm

degrassi.jpg So I’ve finally caught up with Degrassi: the Next Generation, which has been showing for a few weeks on the ABC and is of course the latest tilt by the loveable overwrought Canucks who first turned up in The Kids of Degrassi Street, found their edu-melodramatic form in Degrassi Junior High and then Degrassi High, and disturbed a lot of nostalgic 80s-survivors when they returned briefly to shag and maim each other in Degrassi High: School’s Out, but have been pretty quiet since. Until now!

These four are the only ones left from the old days, apart from the long-suffering Mr Raditch—and guess what? They’re all teachers now, guiding a new cohort of eh-sayers through their awkward phases.

Tonight’s episode was a pretty faithful reworking of one of the first Junior High outings, where some 13-year-old decides she’s had enough of being a wallflower and decides to be a skank instead, winning instant popularity and dismaying her bookish best friend, who is charged with jealousy when she expresses her concern, and so on… only last time it was eye-shadow and boob tubes; this time it’s low-riders and outrageous T-bars. Voula’s turning in her grave, I just know it.

Also, Joey Jeremiah now has a step-son, and he’s in a band (the stepson is), and they’re all really good until Joey forces them to join him in a long-awaited rendition of The Zit Remedy’s (Everybody Wants) Something. Then they’re instantly crap. Caitlin lands a well-placed sledge about how could Joey, Wheels and Snake ever think they’d make it as a band when they only had one song? Definitely one for the last generation, who still remember how Shane knocked Spike up at a party, then took acid and fell off a bridge and got brain damage, and thereafter hung around the school being creepy and telling people they should be kicked in the head; how Wheels’s parents were killed in a car crash and he reacted by growing a mullet and becoming a dickhead, and wound up in jail for vehicular manslaughter (irony?); and how Caitlin kept doing weird things with her hair but was always hot, and should never have let Joey wear her down, especially when he was boning that blonde chick!

It was a good show. Let us never speak of it again.

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