Thursday, July 26, 2007

Smoking on screen

So the Walt Disney Co. has decided to ban smoking from any movie that carries the Disney name. (Meaning, family-oriented films.) The corporation also promises to “discourage” the depiction of smoking in all of its Touchstone- and Miramax-branded movies for grown-ups.

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.


Anonymous said...

I applaud Disney's decision. Unless you're a parent of small children, your opinion on Disney's policy regarding Disney-branded movies are as relevant as Lawrence Auster's opinion of his least favorite hip-hop artist. I am a parent and I'd rather have my kid watch chainsaw-toting Columbian drug dealers or some ass-to-mouth videos, because he's less likely to get cancer from emulating them.

As for "discouraging" smoking in other movies, smoking is grossly overrepresented in movies. They're always showing people smoking who would probably not really smoke. Saw II was made in, what, 2005, and they showed the detective smoking in his office. If it's important to the story, or for characterization, that's one thing, but most of it is gratuitous.

justjudith said...

i think the policy is ridiculous. bleeping the bad words and not showing smoking isn't going to make the unpleasant things in the world go away. people will do what they want all the time until they don't want to.

"I am a parent and I'd rather have my kid watch chainsaw-toting Columbian drug dealers or some ass-to-mouth videos, because he's less likely to get cancer from emulating them."

really, anonymous? that statement alone validates my thought.

Anonymous said...

I think it's flawed logic to say smoking should only happen in movies if it's somehow important to the story or the character, because that fails to represent reality. The reality is that a whole bunch of people smoke and it largely doesn't effect the way they go about living their life.

Plus, I've always felt that cigarette smoke makes a great cinematic visual. Whether it's in all those great film noirs of the 40s or as recently as in Mad Men. I don't want to see smoking leave my cinema screens because frankly, and I know that we're not supposed to say this anymore, it looks so cool.

Anonymous said...

I am a parent and I'd rather have my kid watch chainsaw-toting Columbian drug dealers or some ass-to-mouth videos, because he's less likely to get cancer from emulating them.

The kid won't get cancer, but they might get killed in some drug war crossfire. Or pick up a sexually transmitted disease.

As for smoking in films, what about the case of period films? How are you going to make a movie set in the 30's, 50's, 60's, without showing people smoking?

Undercover Black Man said...

Andrew: Are you now, or have you ever been, a smoker? I'm curious.

Invisible Woman said...

At Vic: You took the words right out of my mouth. At Undercover: I had no idea you worked on The Corner and The Wire...excellent.

Anonymous said...

I work at a library, and a few years ago a couple of my co-workers and I were involved in a project where we would make displays of mystery novels. When we decided to use the classic hard-boiled detective novel as our theme, we thought that the best illustration to use on the display was a picture of Humphrey Bogart in a trenchcoat and fedora. The picture also showed him holding a cigarette. Another co-worker, not involved in our project, said that she thought we ought to use another picture because people might think that the library endorsed smoking. We asked her if she thought that it would be better for us not to do the display at all, because considering the books we were featuring, people could get the idea that the library was endorsing murder.

I was bothered by the guy who was doing a project that he said involved the kind of characters who would smoke, but he not only chose to have them not smoke, he used them to promote an anti-smoking message, as if he has to atone for the bad karma generated by even thinking of having someone smoke onscreen or something.

Undercover Black Man said...

^ Anti-smoking types can get a bit zealous, I guess. But I'm glad there's a lot less smoking in movies and TV than there used to be.

I bought some "SCTV" DVDs, and those guys were smoking like mad... in comedy sketches! John Candy especially.

Edshugeo The GodMoor said...

I've never smoked, unless you count the time as a kid, I broke off the burning end of an incense stick and tried to inhale. But smoking is cool as are many dangerous activities.

If Barack Obama still smoked, I'd almost be compelled to vote for him just for being badass. Democrats can't be baddass, though, so he quit at the beginning of the campaign (or just before).

Disney has already excised smoking from one older film that was released on video a little while back and an old UK children's show, The Thunderbirds, which was an hour long and featured characters smoking and drinking, has been cut down to a half hour after all that stuff was edited.

Susie said...

I get it in the sense that when I took my Goddaughter to see Ice Princess she left wanting to buy ice skates and had the cute boy in the movie been smoking a cigarette that would've made it cool in her mind because she's boy crazy - but it seems that if you're making a movie that little kids are going to see that would be a decision that would be made by the filmmakers and if you're making that kind of movie you don't put the cigarettes in the mouth of the latest boy babe du jour.

You could however put it in Kris Kristofferson's mouth (he was in Dreamer) and that would give a pretty apt depiction of what happens to people who smoke - they wither and wrinkle at a faster pace - and I don't think any 10 year old would leave wanting to sneak a smoke out of grand dad's pack.

I have no problem with Disney discouraging or even making a policy against glamorizing smoking in kid's movies, but I think it's ridiculous that the MPAA would get involved.

Responsible parents probably don't let their young children watch The Wire and movies like Saw II but it seems to me that the place where most kids see people smoking and think that it's cool is in their own homes and that's really where policy needs to be made.

Anna Laperle said...

Like nudity, I think there is an appropriate time and place for smoking in film and TV. Cigarettes can be very important to characterization (as in UBM's example of Namond). Think of Johnny Sack or Omar Little without their smokes - impossible, right? Or Alonzo Mosley in "Midnight Run", stealing everyone's cigarettes. Or the whole sexy "Got a match?" scene in "To Have and Have Not".

Even notorious smokers should get some respect. The U.S. Postal Service removed a smoke from Robert Johnson's mouth when they issued a stamp bearing his picture. What's next? They going to put shorts on Michelangelo's David?

Elwood said...

Walt Disney was a chain-smoked all of his life, and died of lung cancer. I even remember watching the Wonderful World of Disney as a kid, and seeing him smoking a pipe or cigarette in the opening monologues. It's all his fault I started smoking years ago, clearly.

Obama quit for the same reason I did: his wife threatened him with bodily harm and involuntary celibacy if he didn't. That and being a positive role model for the kiddies. Or something. I wonder where he hides his stash now; which aide is in charge of making sure there's a few single Marlboro Lights in the briefcase.

This is just another case of the Nanny State gone amok. We clearly can't be trusted to make any decisions for ourselves (what to eat, when to talk on our cell phones, what to watch on TV, what movies we want to see, whether or not to smoke, drink, or take drugs), right or wrong.

There's clearly a solid lack of evidentiary information out there, preventing us from being able to make any informed or educated decisions about our lives, right?

To the parents worried about little Mikey and Jenny picking up the habit from watching it on TV: turn the fucking TV off, then. Same goes for shows you think might be a bit heavy or even lewd. If you don't think your kid can handle it, then turn the TV off. If you can't life's issues yourself, enough to have deep, genuine, and continued conversations with your children about just how much up and down their lives will have to offer? Work harder at it. The TV is not your babysitter, anymore than the computer or your teachers are. Be the parent to your own children, not to me or mine.

Invisible Woman said...

Agreed Anna...Susie, I think you are on point with Johnny Sack and Omar Little, it emphasizes much about who they are and where they came from.

Undercover Black Man said...

If Barack Obama still smoked, I'd almost be compelled to vote for him just for being badass. Democrats can't be baddass, though, so he quit...

Funny funny funny, Edshugeo. How freakin' COOL would it be to see those nine other Democratic contenders lined up for a debate... and Obama standing up there puffin' and looking badass!

Also, funny about that "Thunderbirds" show. I barely remember those puppets ("Captain Scarlet" I remember)... but never knew they smoked.

Undercover Black Man said...

Susie: Kris Kristofferson... that made me laugh. I saw what I thought was him in an LAX lounge a few months ago. I wasn't absolutely sure... partly 'cause he looked so scary.

Anonymous said...

Most of the time in film, I notice that the writers who have a lot of characters smoking, smoke themselves. I don't smoke and think it is disgusting, but have depicted some characters as smokers, but it is usually for a point. That they are an awful, fucked-up person. (Just joking). The bottom line, smoking is gruititous in film and I understand why Disney is doing what it is doing. Banning it completely is dumb. Artists tell their stories as they see fit. And if someone wants to inject that image into their work, whatever. I don't think, however, it makes anyone look cool. It makes them look like someone who has stained teeth, dark lips, and bad breath.

Anonymous said...

Andrew: Are you now, or have you ever been, a smoker? I'm curious.

I get asked that a lot, mostly because I'm fervently Anti-"anti-smoking", but I've actually only had one cigarette my entire life, and I was really drunk at the time, so it barely even registered. However, there are several smokers in my immediate family.

S.O.L. said...

Late to this party. I think this rule is just stupid. Anything that controls content is limiting to artists. The public is pretty good at telling us when we've gone too far, in my opinion. And you're right, UBM, the only right way to make art is to keep it real and if keepin' it real means having a character smoke cigs, then fuck the ratings fucks.

You know my story, too. I'm a lung cancer survivor. Not that it was related to smoking but I hate being exposed to cig smoke. I mean I dig that you can't smoke in most bars anymore but there's a reason for that -- the people who work there could get sick.

But the key to having freedoms is having the freedom to choose. And for art to have any meaning at all, it can't be hindered by censors -- of any kind on either side.

The problem isn't the bad stuff in this world. The problem is that we try to hide our kids from it, which is damn near impossible.

You can't stop your kids from being exposed to 90 percent of the bad shit in this world. But you can teach them how to deal with it -- and when to say 'no.' You can teach them how to deal when they're confronted by it.

Vercules said...

This whole witch-hunt against smokers has gone way too far. I don't even enjoy going to bars anymore. I mean come on...
Disney can do what they want.
As long as their internal governance want to ban smoking in films, then they certainly have that right.

I'm willing to bet that Obama hasn't quit cigarettes. He may chew nicorette and not smoke in public, but I'll bet he still puffs it up when he can. Of course Obama is no friend of smokers. These liberal Democrats are the ones who fall all over themselves to pass statewide smoking bans clearly infringing the rights of private property owners. The Feds are probably working to pass some nationwide smoking ban. They're trying to put tobacco regualtion into the FDA now.
It never ends, does it? Big government tyrannizing the populace.

Just in case you want to know, I'm voting for Ron Paul. I encourage every smoker out there to do the same. Well, I encourage EVERYONE to vote for Ron Paul.
America isn't supposed to be like this.

Keep voting for nanny-state politicians and we'll be losing more freedoms in the name of "our own best interest".
full disclosure:
I smoked a wonderful cigarette while I typed this.
I love smoking so much that I have actually found myself with an urge to light up while I was already smoking. Crazy, huh?

Oh yes, recall that much touted 2004 Dem National Convention speech Barry gave.
He say's we are our brother's keeper.

S.O.L. said...

I hate the term 'nanny state". It's just so full of hate and it's wrong and it's misogynistic. Another buzzword to throw out when you can't say what you really mean.

America shouldn't be like that.

Undercover Black Man said...

^ Yeah, S.O.L. ... let's look at what this "nanny state" has done for us...

How about the law that says you have to wear a seat belt? I mean, what business does the government have telling you you HAVE to wear a safety belt (you can be fined if you don't)... for your own protection... like a NANNY or something?

Well, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that, from 1975 to 2001, seat belts have saved nearly 150,000 lives.

Yep, that nanny state's a bitch... We have to find another way to thin the herd.

Anonymous said...

I don't care for the term "nanny state," either. Why does the concept have to be characterized as female anyway?