6 August 98
I believe that the tobacco industry is surreptitiously subsidizing the making of movies with favorable portrayals of cigarette smoking. Usually Occam's Razor is the only tool you need to disassemble these sorts of hypotheses, but I haven't managed to cut this one up yet. From the tobacco companies' point of view, it makes almost perfect sense: their outlets for conventional advertising are drastically constrained by law, and there are next to no celebrities willing to formally endorse a carcinogenic addiction, but there are no restrictions at all placed on the depiction of smoking in movies, and no shortage of actors willing to help define a sense of cool with cigarettes at its center. We laughed, back in college, when we watched Now, Voyager in one of my film-studies classes, at all the dramatic romantic scenes that revolved around cigarettes, but after seeing Henry Fool, Whatever and Polish Wedding in quick succession, I can no longer recall why the smoking in Now, Voyager seemed anachronistic. One could argue that the smoking in Henry Fool, like the drinking and the sex, is intended to emphasize the self-destructive amorality of the characters, and Whatever at least makes an issue out of it, but the ever-present haze in Polish Wedding is used, completely without apology or caveat, as a convenient medium for family bonding, as if the characters would have flown kites together if there was more open space in their neighborhood, or played Scrabble if any of them could spell or read, but have fallen back on smoking cigarettes for purely logistical reasons. It's fantastically infuriating and depressing: all the Surgeon General warnings, health-care-expense lawsuits and Joe Camel injunctions in the world are likely to accomplish nothing as long as people can, without any risk of repercussions, make movies that show young children smoking, pregnant girls smoking, parents smoking, and parents condoning the smoking of young children and pregnant girls and each other. Polish Wedding features Claire Danes, whose acting career is based on playing one of the most thoughtful fifteen-year-olds in modern fiction, smoking cigarettes with apparent relish, and I can't remember the last time a single scene in a movie filled me with such violent disgust. Who do you think the next generation of tobacco-industry marketing targets are going to trust, an ex-Surgeon General who looks like an Amish Wilford Brimley, or Angela? If we truly cared about our children and ourselves, we wouldn't put up with this. Smoking is bad. It's bad for the person doing it, it's bad for the people around them, it's bad for society as a whole. It combines the worst qualities of selfishness, suicide and procrastination. If you smoke, you should stop. This is a really simple issue. Quitting is hard, but so are lots of things. If this country had any convictions at all, we'd toss every last tobacco-company executive in jail for five times the length of their industry career, use their fields as a convenient dumping ground for all the napalm we've got left over from Vietnam, confiscate their non-tobacco divisions and turn them over to Junior Achievement, sponsor a pampered week in detox for anybody who needs it, ask Zippo politely to think of some other lovable pocket gadget to manufacture, and get on with facing all the problems that have some challenging ambiguity to them. The fact that we haven't done this yet is attributable to exactly two things: human weakness and corporate profits. If there are clearer examples of the systemic flaw of capitalism as a social organizing principle, or sadder jokes than the "No Smoking" signs on the theater doors, I can't currently think of them.