Smok­ing’s sin­ful sen­su­al­ity in movies

MEGHAN DAUM

Los Angeles Times - - Opinion - he por­trait

pho­tog­ra­pher Mar­ion Et­tlinger once told me that the worst thing to ever hap­pen to her art form was the demise of smok­ing. A cig­a­rette, af­ter all, not only gives a sub­ject some­thing to do with his hands, it seems to pro­vide an un­canny cure for cam­era shy­ness, al­low­ing a fa­cial ex­pres­sion and a phys­i­cal pos­ture to in­te­grate into some in­ef­fa­ble mo­ment of truth.

Et­tlinger is known for her por­traits of au­thors, a species his­tor­i­cally known for prodi­gious smok­ing as well as a spec­tac­u­lar dis­com­fort dur­ing photo shoots. It’s easy to see how the stigma now at­tached to cig­a­rettes might feel like a color re­moved from her pal­ette.

But smok­ing and art — or at least artists — of all va­ri­eties have long made steamy bed­fel­lows. That’s why, de­spite the wide­spread ac­cep­tance in this coun­try that cig­a­rettes are the devil’s own nos­trils, the Mo­tion Pic­ture Assn. of Amer­ica’s re­cent an­nounce­ment that it would now “con­sider smok­ing as a fac­tor” when mak­ing its rat­ings de­ci­sions feels like yet an­other nail in the cof­fin of grown-up en­ter­tain­ment.

Let’s just get this out of the way now: I know smok­ing is bad. No one should do it (ex­cept at Ra­mones con­certs) and kids, who are dis­cov­ered to be im­pres­sion­able in new ways each day, shouldn’t be over­ex­posed to smok­ing in the me­dia any more than they should be over­ex­posed to other things that kill peo­ple — like, say, vi­o­lence.

I also re­al­ize that the MPAA isn’t threat­en­ing to au­to­mat­i­cally as­sign an R rat­ing to any movie in which some­one hap­pens to light up. Ac­cord­ing to the an­nounce­ment, it will con­sider the fol­low­ing: Is the smok­ing per­va­sive? Does the film glam­or­ize smok­ing? Is there a his­toric or other mit­i­gat­ing con­text?

In­evitably, this will raise all sorts of con­found­ing and fas­ci­nat­ing eth­i­cal and demi­ur­gic ques­tions. Can a vil­lain be “glam­orous”? Is smok­ing OK if the smoker is try­ing to quit? Or if he dies of a smok­ing-re­lated ill­ness? What if he dies of some­thing else (like be­ing hit by a bus while smok­ing)?

In­deed, such in­quiries are the sed­i­ment from which slip­pery slopes are born, not to men­tion the kind of think­ing that could po­ten­tially re­sult in some­thing like “101 Dal­ma­tians” get­ting slapped with an R rat­ing thanks to that vil­lain­ous yet re­sound­ingly glam chainsmoker Cruella De Vil.

But let’s not over­re­act. In th­ese anti-to­bacco times, the only kind of on­screen smok­ing that car­ries enough mys­tique to pos­si­bly in­flu­ence a teenager is the kind that goes along with sex (or the neu­ro­sis brought on by its ab­sence) — and that will most likely gar­ner an R rat­ing any­way.

So, on one hand, noth­ing is lost. Even the Direc­tors Guild of Amer­ica has come out in sup­port of the MPAA on this one. But this sud­den fo­cus on cel­lu­loid smok­ing re­minds me of how, as an im­pres­sion­able youth, I was pro­foundly af­fected by cer­tain films not in spite of their de­pic­tion of smok­ing but, at least on some level, be­cause of it.

I’m talk­ing not only about clas­sics like “Casablanca” and “High Noon” (and just about ev­ery Amer­i­can film made be­fore the 1970s) but about the French new wave cin­ema, the work of Ital­ians like Fellini and Pa­solini, Ger­mans like Wen­ders and Fass­binder, and in­de­pen­dent Amer­i­can direc­tors like John Cas­savetes, Peter Bog­danovich and Jim Jar­musch.

By study­ing th­ese films as a high school and col­lege stu­dent, I re­ceived an ed­u­ca­tion not just in cin­ema but in sen­su­al­ity. Th­ese movies put a pre­mium on a gritty am­bi­ence that man­aged to seem to­tally sexy even if there was no sex hap­pen­ing at all. And they did this al­most en­tirely with cig­a­rettes.

How come ev­ery film stu­dent I knew in the 1980s and ’90s, mak­ing a 16mm black-and-white short, asked the ac­tors to smoke? Be­cause it was eas­ier than ask­ing them to take their clothes off, and the ef­fect was about the same, maybe bet­ter.

When it comes to get­ting your at­ten­tion, cig­a­rettes, with their rad­i­cal, hip­ster con­no­ta­tions, are the art world’s best ad­ver­tise­ment, a sly form of pornog­ra­phy that’s so sexy it tran­scends sex. Watch John Lurie smok­ing away in Jar­musch’s “Stranger Than Par­adise” and you’ll see what I mean. It se­duces us into watch­ing chal­leng­ing, or at least un­con­ven­tional, ma­te­rial.

Of course, film­mak­ers can be­come as over­re­liant on cig­a­rettes as the peo­ple who smoke them. In in­de­pen­dent and stu­dio pro­duc­tions alike, it’s all too easy to for­get the hard work of char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ment and por­tray the bad guy as eco­nom­i­cally dis­ad­van­taged, men­tally ill or just plain mean by stick­ing a Merit in his mouth or, if you want to go for slutty, make it a Vir­ginia Slims in her mouth. But ever since the early days of cin­ema, the body lan­guage of movies has been largely rooted in the fluid, self­pos­sessed ges­tures that cig­a­rette smok­ing en­ables. It may be time to bid it farewell, but it also de­serves some grudg­ing re­spect for sup­port­ing the arts.

Tm­daum@la­timescolum­nists.com

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.