Like the old song goes, ďSmoke gets in your eyes.Ē It seems the MPAA is taking that quite literally. Recently, they decided to include on-screen depictions of smoking as one of the criteria that can earn a film an ďRĒ rating.
Iíll take a somewhat unpopular (among Hollywood types) view on this.
I think itís a good idea.
Naturally, most smoking in movies occurs as a general reflection of the fact of smoking itself. Smoking, like driving, is a part of visible life. However, movies have made something of a fetish of smoking for a few additional reasons. Actors are often looking for ďbusiness,Ē that catch-all word to describe hands-on activities that take the burden of undue focus off their dialogue.
Smoking is a great bit of business. Watch Bogie roll his own cig, then light it up in The Maltese Falcon. Great business.
And the reward?
The smoke itself.
Cigarette smoke is Hollywoodís cheapest special effect. It curls around the actorís face. It lights beautifully. The simple act of taking a drag can shorthand misery, suspicion, angerÖ
Smoking is a great window to the soul, as visually informative as a smile or a tear. The way the actor exhales, the way they stub the cigarette out, the ritual of the ďlight,Ē the snap of a Zippo, the flick of the buttÖ
Itís all wonderful.
I donít care what anyone says. Smoking DOES make you look cool, and movies make the already cool act of smoking even cooler-looking.
The one-sheet for Chinatown, which you see above, was illustrated by a friend of my named Jim Pearsall. Itís my favorite movie poster of all time, and thatís in no small part because Jim nailed the noirish essence of smoke. Jake Gittes is a manís man, a tough private dick whose oxygen is the very stuff of smoggy L.A. And Evelyn Mulwray is a vision, a bit of smoke curling in the air. Beautiful, seductiveÖand then gone. Disappearing into the Chinatown air.
Itís movies like these that made me want to smoke. Yes, Iím actually someone who can safely say with 100% surety that I started smoking because of the way movies made smoking look. So did Jim Pearsall. In fact, thatís how Jim and I met. We were two smokers working at an ad agency in 1992. Iíd stand outside sucking down my Marlboro Menthols (I know, I knowÖ), and heíd rip the filters off his Carltons and tell me stories about old Hollywood.
Two years later, he was dead. Cancer, naturally.
The week before I got married, I quit smoking. I quit cold turkey, and I havenít had a cigarette since 1996.
Still, is this a moral crusade we need?
Hereís my basic view of the MPAA and their ratings system. I donít always agree with it. I know that Iíve personally had my share of issues with the MPAA on every movie Iíve done, and I have no doubt Iím in for plenty more. However, the MPAA ratings system is not censorship. The MPAA ratings system is designed to help parents figure out whether or not a movie is appropriate for their children. Simple as that.
We can argue about whether or not it does that well (although most parents apparently seem to think it does). I do know that every time Iíve gone in to recut a scene in order to avoid an R rating, I did so not under the threat of censorship, but out of a personal concern for my own bottom line. In other wordsÖgreed. I wanted a PG-13 so that the film would be seen by a wider audience, and I made the personal choice to sacrifice some moments in order to get that rating.
Even the dreaded NC-17 isnít censorship. Itís just a rating. As an aside, however, I do believe that newspapers that refuse to run ads for NC-17 films and theaters that refuse to exhibit those movies are way out of line, and I think the MPAA should make a concerted effort to kill that practiceÖat least with the major newspaper and exhibitor chains.
AnywayÖthe operative question is simply this: do parents want their unaccompanied children to see a movie that glamorizes smoking? And yes, the ratings board seems pretty specific about the glamorization aspect. Context counts.
Iíll be honest. I donít want my children to have that option. I was able to quit smoking, but Iím sure damage was done. Itís a risk Iíd rather not leave to my children and the film industry to take together. I want to be a part of that decision. Iím not supporting the nanny state, nor am I attempting to legislate morality. An R rating doesnít mean the film is evil, or itís taboo, or itís sinful or itís shameful. It means that it includes certain content that parents should have the right to decide whether or not their children see.
I donít agree with many of the criteria for R ratings (and I think thereís too much violence permitted in PG and PG-13 films), but I agree with the MPAA on this one. After all, I wasnít just being an idiot when I decided to smoke.
I was being a 16 year-old idiot who had seen a lot of movies.
I accept responsibility for my choice as a child. As a parent, Iíd like to accept responsiblity for the choice as well. The MPAA gave me one. I think thatís a good thing.
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