January 24, 2010
The movie Avatar (which I’ve yet to see and I will gut your worthless soul if you so much as give three seconds away) has garnered considerable praise for its technical innovations and the ability to open a whole new realm of filmmaking. This morning, however, I heard a criticism I hadn’t heard. It wasn’t that the plot reminded people of the story of Pocahontas or that the Na’vi looked like the feral offspring of the Smurfs and the Thundercats.
Apparently, Sigourney Weaver’s character in the movie smokes.
An adult in a science fiction movie doing something that is legal and socially accepted in 20th century Earth?! Next thing you know, they’ll have phone cords in space!
Let me give you juice bits if you don’t want to read it, although it IS a very short article. David Edelstein says that we should give films that feature smoking an automatic R-rating. His exact words:
A kneejerk “R” for cigarettes would be a threat to artistic freedom, a restraint on capitalism. It would be Puritanism! Censorship!
Right? Well, no. I think it’s a good idea.
Now, let’s be clear from the get-go. There should be one culture for all ages, and one for grown-ups. In an R-rated movie, I don’t care if people do things too vile to say on TV. I don’t care if they eat cigarettes. With kids, it’s a different ballgame.
He then goes on to say that no one’s talking about banning alcohol in movies, just making it harder for kids to see smoking.
Okay, kids, take out your Number 2 pencil and a piece of paper. Today we’re going to learn about the Kansas City Shuffle, otherwise known as a con. You make the mark look one way, then you run in the opposite direction.
Davie here is actually saying two things while apparently saying one. By not denying his previous hyperbole that automatic R-ratings are not censorship, he agrees it is censorship, and then goes on to say it should be done. Censorship is the omission of information that may be considered harmful in some way, whether for religious, political, or social reasons. Would this tactic be censorship? Yes. Would it be good? Yes, according to Davie here.
I’ve already talked about cursing, violence, and some of our culture’s weirder standards on entertainment in a previous article, so I’ll try not to repeat myself too much. I’d just like to know if this same standard would apply to alcohol. He does say that this rating policy should have some wiggle room. Classic movies can keep their smoking, but new movies need to button up and think of the children. Won’t someone think of the children!?
Who, may I ask, are these children that apparently don’t have any guidance on what to do and what not to do? I think there must be caches of feral orphans wandering the streets. Eventually, they wander into a movie theater and are exposed to something that makes the bestial lives worse. And who in their right mind, in 2010, does not know smoking is unhealthy? Every time I hear someone complain about this and alcohol in movies, it’s always for these children who apparently have never heard of cancer, drunk driving accidents, and the fact that inhaling smoke is bad for you. When I have a beer, I know full well my reflexes are going to get slower and that if I have enough, I should probably not drive and should find the shortest route to pay homage to the Porcelain God should the need arise. I know this. People who smoke two packs a day know what they’re doing, too.
No one forces you to smoke. You smoke because you make a choice. You KEEP smoking because you’ve exposed yourself to harmful and addictive compounds. A piece of art with smoking may make you think about it, and there are several studies that show that children who are exposed to smoking in the movies are more susceptive to smoke later in life and become regular smokers, but that misses the point. It’s still the initial choice of lighting that first cigarette. People drag race all the time here in South Texas. Some people get killed. I don’t recall seeing anyone calling on a ban on cars.
This idea of increasing film ratings for showing someone smoking is ridiculous for other reasons, not the least of which is this supposed “no retroactive rating” thing Davie mentions towards the end. Films based on historical people can have smoking since it was apparently necessary for the plot. We can’t take Bogart’s cigs way either. Davie then, most likely for a final joke, says he wishes the movies actually told you things like what age these actors died from cancer caused by smoking, just to let the audience know the facts.
It makes sense. It’s kind of how I want to hear how many kilowatt hours James Cameron burned while rendering Avatar or the dozens of CGI films released in the last few years. Or how many gallons of gasoline got burned and how much greenhouse gas was created while filming everything from Apocalypse Now to Independence Day.
The other part of the argument that misses the mark is this belief, apparently prevalent in our society, that entertainment must target either everyone or just adults. We have this idea that there is a magical point between “child” and “adult.” I was under the impression that there was in fact a spectrum and the middle point was called “adolescence.” I’m not even condoning this with the idea that teenagers already know about smoking and drinking from the movies. This would be a circular argument. Unless these kids grow up in a world WITHOUT smoking, cursing, and violence, they’re going to come into contact with it at some point. If you watch a movie and you wonder why one of the characters has a piece of rolled up, smoldering paper sticking out of his or her mouth… get out of the cult, throw away the robes and manifesto, and come back to society.
Why do older movies get a pass, too? Could it that there is some artistic merit to showing these things? Davie doesn’t seem to have a problem with showing blood, guts, and glory as much as he does with smoking. I’m assuming this is because violence serves the story. If a writer has a character smoke or drink, it’s probably for a reason. If he or she doesn’t, it’s a choice.
And this is the key word. Choice.
Writers do things for very specific reasons. At least good writers do. If the main character has a tattoo on her face in the shape of a robin, that means something. If the villain is clean-cut and speaks with a Wisconsin accent, there’s a reason for that. If Sigourney Weaver’s character asked for a cigarette as soon as she woke up, that tells us something about her character. It tells us something about her state of mind and the kinds of things she does. It’s a tool.
I’m all for people knowing the dangers of tobacco, but don’t turn the movies into soapboxes unless you’re making a movie about the dangers of smoking. Even then, it’s going to have a very predictable ending. The most backwards part of this article is the belief that real people can smoke in movies, but fictional characters can’t.
Why the exception? I guess it’s the same kind of logic that states that educational programming can show a woman’s bare breasts if she’s part of a tribe or culture that doesn’t think anything of it, but if a woman on NBC took her top off, the network would get fined so fast that Johnny Carson would have to pay.
There really is a difference between child and adult programming, but we have to be conscious of the fact that adolescents are neither children nor adults. Communicating to this demographic, we have to remember that teens know a lot more than we think they know. The internet already gives them a window into the world they would not have known a generation ago. The distinction that art needs to conform to the ideal of “adult-only” and “everyone else” is narrow-minded. There are more areas than these two extremes.
We all have a choice. The choice is informed by background and influenced by those around us, but art cannot make us do anything we don’t want to do. It shows us things about ourselves and the world. It changes the way we see things. If someone smokes because they saw it in a movie, then they made their choice based on a movie.
Now just shut up and let Sigourney smoke her cig.