screen wriTer

Don­ald Clarke on US cin­ema’s war on to­bacco

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Opinion -

Word reaches us that the MPAA, the shad­owy body con­cerned with movie cer­ti­fi­ca­tion in the US, is open­ing up a new front against the de­mon cig­a­rette. The or­gan­i­sa­tion wants to slap its most pro­hib­i­tive clas­si­fi­ca­tion – the feared R – on all films fea­tur­ing “smok­ing out­side of a his­toric or other mit­i­gat­ing con­text”. What, I won­der, con­sti­tutes a mit­i­gat­ing cir­cum­stance? If the MPAA doesn’t in­clude be­ing from France among its list of ex­ten­u­a­tions then that coun­try’s film in­dus­try may as well give up on sell­ing it­self to young Amer­ica. Even in­fants and pets seem to smoke in Rus­sian films. Inan­i­mate ob­jects get at the fags in Turk­ish flicks.

Let’s take the au­thor­i­ties at their word when they tell us their in­ten­tion is to stop film-mak­ers from glam­or­is­ing smok­ing. Are they crazy? The only char­ac­ters who light up in Amer­i­can films th­ese days are de­pres­sives, psy­chopaths and those whose hand­ker­chiefs al­ready show the bloody signs of an im­pend­ing early demise. Many main­stream fea­tures could com­fort­ably ac­com­mo­date a pre­am­ble from that wise doc­tor who, in the 1950s, in­tro­duced such pub­lic in­for­ma­tion films as Com­mu­nism: The Beget­ter of Self-Abuse, Beat Po­etry Gives you Em­phy­sema and Greasers Ate My Aunt. “Young Tommy thought smok­ing was a laugh,” Dr Brown­voice might be­gin, “but, be­fore long, he found him­self speak­ing in a vaguely racist Rus­sian ac­cent, slap­ping un­con­vinc­ing pros­ti­tutes around the chops and be­ing shot at by Den­zel Wash­ing­ton.”

Bal­anced, vir­tu­ous movie char­ac­ters still smoked in the 1970s and 1980s, but it is not since the 1950s, when the con­nec­tion be­tween lung can­cer and fags was still be­ing ar­gued over, that the in­cli­na­tion to in­hale the emis­sions of burn­ing leaves iden­ti­fied the hero as a fel­low to be en­vied and ad­mired. When Paul Hen­reid popped two cig­gies into his mouth dur­ing Now Voy­ager – one for him­self and one for re­cov­er­ing men­tal pa­tient Bette Davis – it was re­garded as an act of over­pow­er­ing ro­man­tic res­o­nance. Nowa­days, the only peo­ple al­lowed to smoke two fags at the same time are job­less un­for­tu­nates in Ken Loach films.

Mind you, Hol­ly­wood in its golden years did at­tach neg­a­tive traits to cer­tain modes of be­hav­iour we now view as be­ing not just ac­cept­able, but barely wor­thy of com­ment. Men who wore beards, but ex­pressed no in­ter­est in go­ing to sea, were gen­er­ally de­picted as brutes and de­gen­er­ates. If a fel­low favoured an ef­fete turn of phrase or a lilac shirt, then he was al­most cer­tainly dis­posed to­wards mur­der and world dom­i­na­tion.

Times change, but, then as now, movie pro­fes­sion­als ap­pear un­able to stop them­selves from – both ex­plic­itly and im­plic­itly – lec­tur­ing us on what they re­gard as un­ac­cept­able modes of be­hav­iour. Where will it end? Will hor­rific con­duct be ex­cised from hor­ror films? Will in­fi­deli­ties be banned from sex­ual come­dies? Movies with­out all that bad stuff would, surely, end up look­ing like the most bor­ing bits of real life. We can get that at home.

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