Prove your humanity

Lauren Bacall’s is a picture of 1940s sophistication – all shoulders and eyes and loose curls – leaning in a doorway across from Humphrey Bogart. The film is her first, To Have and Have Not, in which she arrests her audience with a fierce yet smoldering presence that is both covetable and timeless. With a long cigarette perched between her lips, she purrs: “anybody got a match?”.

Lauren Walker, 29, is a market stall owner from Perth and connoisseur of all things vintage. She mimics Bacall’s cool nonchalance, feigning the toss of a match in time with the film playing on her wall-mounted flat screen. “Do you not want to be that woman?” she turns and asks with one impeccably-penciled eyebrow raised.

Lauren not only lives and breathes mid-century fashion, but is also a voracious collector of cult films from that era. Is it so surprising, then, that she associates cigarettes with the perceived glamour and brazen decadence of yesteryear?

Research published last May, and led by US tobacco control activist Professor Stanton A. Glantz, meets that question with a resounding ‘no’. Professor Glantz and his colleagues tallied smoking incidents in a random sample of popular films from the 1950s to the early 2000s and found that cigarette smoking in movies encourages smoking uptake in young people to a far greater extent than traditional forms of advertising. Furthermore, their review found that in 2002 – when Lauren was 17 years old – the number of smoking incidents in top-grossing films had not only met, but exceeded figures from the 50s.

Lauren remembers moving to Perth from Donnybrook to go to beauty college in 2002. She took up smoking that year because, well, everybody was doing it. And she credits it with having brought her and her now business partner (and fellow purveyor of vintage whimsy) together. Aside from the occasional celebratory cigar, however, Lauren hasn’t let a cigarette touch her lips for the past three years.

That’s not to say she doesn’t miss it.

“When I re-visit my favourite old movies or TV shows set in the 60s, like Mad Men, I feel I’d give anything for a scotch in one hand and a cigarette in the other,” she tells me.

“I think it certainly has got that old-timey sort of glamour to it and, I mean, I can’t actually watch Mad Men anymore because of that – that’s how badly I crave one.” Her eyes narrow as if she’s about to savor some tasty morsel. She takes a sip from her tea.

Lighting designer Dan Wotherspoon, 29, takes in a deep, slow breath and turns to exhale a steady cloud of menthol laced smoke, before flicking his cigarette twice against the low, limestone wall behind him. Dan is one of a few hundred punters at the Rosemount Hotel tonight, and one of about 40 or so who are huddled together like supremely well-dressed penguins on the smoker’s terrace. They’re missing the headline band, but, judging by the din, nobody cares.

Nearby, a girl with long, fairy floss hair, is on her hands and knees scrambling to gather her rainbow-coloured cigarettes back into their pack. Some people feign helpfulness as they pocket a few of the unusual darts on the sly. Once composed, she adjusts her fur coat and regales her friends with the story of how she stumbled across the pastel cigarettes in a dingy Thai servo two years prior. Apparently, this pack is just one in her collection of rarities.

Dan looks on, leans back into his heels and grins as he sips away on his menthols.

Back at his place, there’s an enviable record collection and a couple of bookcases heaving with paperbacks and graphic novels. However, his 2,500-strong VHS tape collection is his ultimate pride and joy; gleaned from the ‘closing down’ sales of the struggling video stores that still dot Perth’s suburbs.

He tells me he smokes a pack of cigarettes every two days.

“It started off as a bit of a social experiment,” he says.

“I just noticed that everyone would come inside after smoking at the pub or wherever and they’d have their own little group thing going on, and they didn’t even know each other – it was just, like, bam you’re old mates straight away or you’re best friends for the rest of the night just because you shared a lighter and had a smoke together.

“And from there it turned into more of, I wouldn’t say an addiction, but more of a habit, for sure.”

Dan says there’s a sense of rebellion attributed to smoking that will always be appealing, and not only to young people.

“I think smokers, and especially casual smokers, do it because they just don’t care anymore,” he says as he ashes his crumpled cigarette and swaps it for a pint of pale ale. I’m intrigued by his argument. Has society become so profoundly sanitised and controlled, that the personal satisfaction found in disrupting the status quo can be so redemptive as to outweigh any fear of illness, or even death? Perhaps.

“We live in a generation of paranoid, terrified people who are also kind of becoming desensitised to all the warnings telling us that everything we do is going to kill us all the time,” Dan says.

He tells me people smoke because, like analogue technology and historical retellings of Woodstock, there’s a perceived authenticity to it. He pauses for a moment. “Then there’s the satisfaction of being able to make a choice,” he adds earnestly.

“With all the new technology and all this information that keeps getting fed to us and telling us to move on to the newest, next big thing, which is DVDs versus VHS, or mp3s versus cassette or vinyl, we’re opting for the latter because it feels real and we’re harking back to that.”

In his book Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past, revered music and cultural critic Simon Reynolds identifies a kinship between addiction and collection. It’s a likeness that’s rooted in temporal nostalgia, neurosis, an attempt to assert control (cheers, Baudrillard) and most fittingly, according to German philosopher Walter Benjamin: a fear of, or ambivalence to, death.

“Addiction is sometimes diagnosed as an unconsciously motivated attempt to simplify life and…drug use creates a rhythm to existence,” writes Reynolds.

“Collecting takes a stand against the way that styles go out of fashion or run out of steam, leaving in their wake a legion of cruelly forgotten performers.”

Reynolds quotes Benjamin when he argues the life of a collector “is characterised by a dialectical tension between the poles of disorder and order”. Likewise, 20-somethings who indulge in a handful of 3am cigarettes every weekend might – whether they realise it or not – be grappling with both a fear of mortality and a competing resolve to not give a toss.

According to the Cancer Council Victoria, tobacco products are causally responsible for the premature death of every second long-term user, and strokes caused by smoking have taken the lives of people in their 20s and 30s. And yet, as I spoke with more and more young smokers, there seemed to be a belief among them, that if you quit by the time you’re 30 any risk of long-term illness is virtually eliminated and the slate is wiped clean.

Professor Larry Saha, of the Australian National University Research School of Social Sciences, says youth subcultures are powerful despite their cultural isolation. And furthermore, if those subcultures are at ease with smoking, then it doesn’t matter how much we’re told not to do it. We ignore the warnings and commandeer the act as our own.

“We live in a very medicalised culture right now,” Professor Saha explains.

“Maybe, in our haste to eradicate smoking, what with the Quit campaign from the 90s and distressing images on the packaging, we’ve reached a stage of sounding ridiculous so that people are just tuning out and they’re just not paying attention anymore to the messages.

“You can actually only quash it so much until you reach a stage where it starts to plateau and no matter how many more campaigns you mount, no matter how much more you do, there’s always going to be that core group of people who smoke.

“And it’s concentrated among the young.”

It’s three days before Lauren’s 30th birthday and she’s procured a box of cigars for the event. She maintains it’s not ‘cheating’ to sip on them because there’s no breathing in. “Plus, look how beautiful they are,” she implores, leaving the open box on the dining table among a tumult of floral hair pins, which she makes and uses to adorn her neat, red victory rolls. In a world that fetishises all that is retro, how could the look really be complete without a martini in one hand and a smoke in the other?

Lauren poses, hand on hip, and brings a fat cigar to her red-painted lips.

“Do I look like my namesake?” she coos.

Not quite. It’s more Tony Montana than Lauren Bacall. But there’s no denying she looks fucking cool.