From the point of view of artistic expression, I say: “This sucks.”
As a self-loathing nicotine consumer for the past 22 months, I say: “Yeah, FUCK the tobacco industry... those drug-dealing shitbags.”
After all, Hollywood for decades pushed cigarettes... made smoking seem cool and glamorous and sexy. Even the motherfucking “Flintstones” used to hustle Winstons in prime time.
But in the end, I’m a storyteller. Which means I want to show the world as it is, and talk about human beings as we actually are. And that will sometimes involve the depiction of smoking.
For the HBO miniseries “The Corner,” David Simon and I showed lots of characters smoking, because cigarettes are a big part of ghetto life. And because, thematically, I think it underlined the self-poisoning behavior of those characters.
In the episode of “The Wire” I wrote last season, I included a scene where middle-schooler Namond bums a cig from his mother’s pack while she’s on the phone. He even lights up in front of her and gives her a wink.
Why did I write this? 1) It’s based on something I saw a kid in my neighborhood do when we were in junior high, and it always stuck with me. Moms didn’t have shit to say about it. Therefore, 2) it perfectly fit the context of the “Wire” story arc; this little moment symbolizes Namond’s mother’s lack of responsibility as a parent.
Anti-smoking activists have been urging that any film featuring smoking be rated “R” on that basis alone. Back in May, the Motion Picture Association of America announced that it would take “glamorized” or “pervasive smoking” into account when it rates movies.
That announcement triggered an unprecedented amount of discussion on Craig Mazin and Ted Elliott’s Artful Writer blog, where a lot of screenwriters hang out. What follows is a sampling of that conversation. (You can read much more of it in the Artful Writer archives here and here.) I have left the original punctuations and typos in tact.
Of course, I’d love to know what any of my readers think about this issue...
CRAIG MAZIN: ... Here’s my basic view of the MPAA and their ratings system. I don’t always agree with it. I know that I’ve personally had my share of issues with the MPAA on every movie I’ve done, and I have no doubt I’m 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. ...
[T]he 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.
I’ll be honest. I don’t want my children to have that option. I was able to quit smoking, but I’m sure damage was done. It’s a risk I’d rather not leave to my children and the film industry to take together. I want to be a part of that decision. I’m not supporting the nanny state, nor am I attempting to legislate morality. An R rating doesn’t mean the film is evil, or it’s taboo, or it’s sinful or it’s shameful. It means that it includes certain content that parents should have the right to decide whether or not their children see.
I don’t agree with many of the criteria for R ratings (and I think there’s too much violence permitted in PG and PG-13 films), but I agree with the MPAA on this one. After all, I wasn’t just being an idiot when I decided to smoke.
I was being a 16 year-old idiot who had seen a lot of movies. ...
JON RAYMOND: As much as I despise cigarette smoking, I have to agree that it’s really not the business of the MPAA to label movies based on smoking content. But, then I don’t think anything the MPAA does is very ethical. If they can do this, I can easily imagine them rating films in the future for showing gasoline driven vehicles. After all, auto exhaust pollution is at least as dangerous to society as smoking. The recent film, This Film Is Not Yet Rated was very enlightening on what the MPAA does and it ain’t pretty. ...
It’s important to take a stand against this erosion of personal liberty, freedom, and privacy.
MAZIN: I’m sorry, but how does the fact of an “R” rating erode your personal liberty, freedom and privacy?
If you’re over 17, an “R” rating has zero effect on your life. Zero.
PAULY: One of Arthur C. Clarke’s futuristic novels, The Ghost from the Grand Banks, has characters busy digitally removing smoking from old films. It’s quite an interesting little novelty.
Personally, I have no problem with the new ratings criteria. This will challenge screenwriters to tie smoking more to a film’s content, rather than using it to take a simple stab at glamor. I just hope no one ever does try to erase smoking from classic films. Especially anything with Bogey.
LORELEI ARMSTRONG: Good for you, Craig! I also have a friend who died from lung cancer, in her case due to second-hand smoke. She worked for the police department in Hong Kong for eleven years, and those cool cops smoked plenty. How many great actors have we lost to their favorite “business”? The best Sherlock Holmes, Jeremy Brett, asked for smoking to be added to scripts. He was at or above six packs a day. Death from heart failure was certainly no surprise.
And isn’t smoking the least creative and imaginative business writers can give to actors? It’s a cliche. Swear off smoking in your scripts and you find a real challenge ahead. Come up with something new and the characters immediately become more unique and memorable.
ALEX EPSTEIN: When we created our series NAKED JOSH, we had a discussion about whether the characters would smoke. And they were, for sure, the kinds of people who would smoke. A lot.
We decided not to let them smoke. I didn’t want to be responsible for any kids picking up a cigarette because Eric, who is cool, smokes. (We did do one story where a hot girl tries to get him to start smoking again. He wound up dumping her.)
I also think it’s a crutch. It gets in the way of a good story. Instead of acting, actors wave around a cigarette. Instead of coming up with fresh business, writers stick a cigarette in the actor’s hand. Cigarettes are not only toxic. They’re so last century. If you want a character to have a neurotic quirk, come up with something original.
I’m all for the MPAA narcing on gratuitous smoking onscreen. Considering how little they narc on horrible behavior — driving dangerously, shooting people, punching people — this is a small step in the right direction. I agree with Craig: I don’t want my kids getting hooked on smoking because the cool villain smokes. And if it’s a restriction on creative freedom, I think it’s a mild one that can only encourage true creativity.
JOHNNY HARTMANN: RATED R FOR SMOKING - You gotta be friggin’ kidding me?
Think about it this way… Parents who give a damn about what movies their kids watch, are likely to give a damn about keeping them away from cigarettes anyway. So what’s the point?!
The point is more control for the MPAA.
An R rating in most cases (yes, “300” was an exception) means a potential loss in revenue. Ostensibly the MPAA isn’t forcing anyone to compromise their vision. When in fact, they are. The argument - “We’re not telling you what to do, but if you don’t do it you’ll suffer” is one of the oldests tools of facism, along the lines of “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.” It’s an order phrased as a choice. And it’s bullshit.
MATT: I once had the pleasure of being an extra on a movie being filmed in my hometown of Decatur, GA. One of the things that has stayed with me (besides how hot Neve Campbell is in person), was how almost every single member of the cast and crew smoked. I had never though about smoking and had no desire to ever try, but after spending 12+ hours a day for a week around people smoking constantly, I had a physical craving for a cigarette by the end of the week. It had nothing to do with the social pressures and everything to do with the addictive nature of nicotine. So in that sense I support the MPAA- although this is probably the only decision they’ve made that I do support. ...
STEFAN AVALOS: Can ‘implied’ smoking still get a PG? what if we never actually see the cigarette touch the lips?
Why isn’t the simple act of shooting someone with a gun an automatic R rating?
Now, if they’d give scenes with people talking on cell phones while driving a car an R Rating, I’d be all for it.
ARTHUR TIERSKY: Fuck yeah, Craig! In fact, let’s take this to its logical conclusion and make it a law that if you’re under 18, you can’t leave the house without being accompanied by a parent or guardian. Because an unaccompanied teenager wandering the streets could, God help us all, encounter AN ACTUAL LIVE PERSON SMOKING A FUCKING CIGARETTE. And if that evil, evil, smoker looked even slightly “cool” in the act, well…Might as well buy the kid a shovel and tell him to start digging his grave.
While you’re at it, let’s R-rate all movies that contain any kissing, because kissing, as cool as it can look, leads to sex, and sex leads to AIDS, and AIDS kills.
Let’s see…What other potentially fatal acts should we protect movie-going minors from witnessing, despite the fact that anybody can see them in real life, in public, on any given day? Driving, of course…Eating fatty foods…Walking alone…
I got more. Lemme get back to you on that. But either way…Fuck yeah!
MAZIN: [S]ome of you (Arthur, for instance) seem to be confusing R with NC-17.
An R rating does not mean we are protecting movie-going minors from witnessing certain acts. It means we are insisting that their parents give them permission to do so. No more, no less.