It's a Love-Hate Thing

posted June 10, 2004

Thank you, Phil Hendrie, for this depressing fact...
Because all of the other problems we face are apparently solved, US lawmakers suggested an automatic 'R' rating for films which include smoking.

As the last FALstaffer who still buys tobacco, it's a pretty good bet that smoking in the visual media is a topic that others won't take on. Fair enough.
It's a new world indeed when anti-smoking campaigns are crafted with sufficient skill to cause the positive effect we've seen, at least out here in California. The true impact of the propaganda is hard to quantify. Certainly the taxes have been a deterrent to the young'uns picking up the habit as often as us late-seventies dinosaurs did. But what will cinema do without cigarettes? I haven't really seen an adequate replacement to signal that edgy, skirting-the-lines trait that smoking conveys (in the overused shortcut for actual character development so prevalent now). A distinct visual shorthand is being taken away from us, and of course "it's for the children". How can anyone possibly object to that? Studios have almost become parents by default, since there's hardly any movie too "mature" for some nimrods to decide hey, maybe it would be better if my toddler sat this one out...
We made this bed. Decades of cultivated sophistication, rebellion, coming-of-age depictions, and so on have encouraged us to smoke. I'll leave the whole life-imitating-art debate for others to deconstruct properly. All I know is there's a impassioned effort to excise something from the screen(s) that was once far more common in daily life, the absence of it is pretty conspicious sometimes (or have all you bikers given it up? Huh?), and I wonder if any other habit or behavior can really take its place.

I'd also throw in a word on behalf of the poor talent. You take a guy who's smoked most of his life, is strongly identified with the habit... and listen to the grumbling, from some quarters, when he quits. We expect to see these renegades smoke, particularly when they play a bad guy. Yet we supposedly want 'em to quit and set a good example - except, perhaps, in our entertainment/fantasy. So here's a gentle reminder to those who don't have many years of tobacco addiction in their history: If you're going to be consistent about the evils of smoking, don't look for stars who have managed to quit to take it up again "just for this movie." I'm here to tell you it hardly ever works like that.

This is such a small part of our phobic national hypocrisy about tobacco, but to hear some of you go on about "the power of images" I guess it's another example of where we need to shape the future before it shapes us. The more likely course, I think, is mentioned in "Virtual Light" by William Gibson (who's proving to be right on target with so many of his speculations) - mandated digital editing of classic movies and TV to remove the offending smokes.
Ponder the implications of that, and the resulting logical progression, for a minute.

Further points will go seriously off-topic, but I'll try to get one more in. I have no kids, and that warps my viewpoint (!), though I have done time at a teen center, intermittently, over the years. Perhaps you parents will see right through this one. I suggest, gently, that you've got to give some thought to the way in which your kids will "rebel" and distance themselves from you. Some defiant behavior is clearly safer than others.
(Disclaimer: I jump out of planes for fun. Hypocrisy? Sometimes I wonder, but usually not - space permitting, I could lay out a solid, evidence-drenched case that skydiving is a "smarter risk" than driving on the freeway.) In any event, consider this my request for you moms and dads to work at making the stupid risks less attractive and attainable, thinking like the rebellious 'teeners you once were. A conservative talk-show host, Dennis Prager, recently said that he'd rather have his son (the youngest of whom, I believe, is 18) be a smoker than a thief. And of course he'd prefer even more than his son was neither of those things. Don't be that dense, you - over there - it's disingenuous, and it doesn't suit you at all. What he's saying is that some behaviors are easier to change than others, and our "little angels" are going to pick their risky behavior from what they see on the street and behind the gym and on the minicineplex screen... almost as surely as what they see modeled day in, day out at home.

- Chris Grrr

All too soon.