Saturday, May 12, 2007

Is an ‘R’ Rating the Right Choice for Smoking in Movies?

I remember quite well the first time I ever tried smoking a cigarette. I will not disclose all the details to protect others involved. I was about twelve and had a friend whose brother was just a year or two older than us. He was already a confirmed smoker; and, as kids tend to look up to older kids, we wanted him to let us try it out.

My friend’s brother was not one to look out for his little brother’s interests and certainly not those of his friend’s, so he took us out into the woods to try a puff or two. Well, two is all I got out of it before hacking so violently I decided to step back out of the woods. Maybe he was trying that old fashioned lesson of giving the boy too much of what he wants to turn him off of it.

The Motion Picture Association of America decided this week that it was no longer going to exercise the old fashioned approach of just allowing anyone to witness the act of smoking in movies. From now on the MPAA will “consider smoking in movies” when rating them. In a statement on Thursday, the MPAA said that they would award an ‘R’ rating to movies with “depictions that glamorize smoking or movies that feature pervasive smoking outside a historic or other mitigating context.”

MPAA CEO Dan Glickman went on to say, “There is broad awareness of smoking as a unique public health concern due to nicotine's highly addictive nature, and no parent wants their child to take up the habit. ... The appropriate response of the rating system is to give more information to parents on this issue.” This move has garnered a good deal of support from within both the Hollywood and medical communities. The Directors and Screen Actors Guilds of America have both offered statements of support, and the American Cancer Society has said that the new rating guideline will help to keep parents and children away from the health issues caused by tobacco usage.

As a critic, I have to wonder what impact this new precedent will place upon the film community. For decades smoking was an acceptable public practice, and in many classic films a cigarette in the hand was as common as a handkerchief in the pocket of a gentleman or a scarf on a woman. Actors smoked in movies as often as they drank or ate, sometimes more so. Does this new rating criterion mean that hundreds of Hollywood classics are now considered unacceptable for younger viewers, who already struggle to gain an appreciation for the great art of the Golden and Silver ages of cinema? When a classic, like “Casablanca”, is re-released for a revival run in theaters in the future, will it be subjected to a new ratings review and be forever branded with an ‘R’ rating from that time forth?

More importantly, what effect will it have on new movies? The MPAA is notorious for being a controlling factor in the artistic content in movies by utilizing an outdated and sometimes arbitrary system of rating films, more conducive to profiteering for the major Hollywood studios than in the interest of presenting the public what is in its best interest. The IFC Films documentary “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” is a shocking uncovering of the MPAA’s often corrupt policy in their rating practices.

Already, sex is a subject that is off limits to teenagers in film if it is dealt with seriously but perfectly acceptable if it is treated as a silly, degrading joke. Filmgoers must pretend that drugs are a problem to be dealt with only by adults, and therefore children are not allowed to see their destructive nature depicted in film. The MPAA still operates under the antiquated notion that teenagers do not know the meaning of the work “fuck” and certainly would not use it out of context in their everyday speech. And for some reason only a certain amount of “shit” is dirty.

What power will the MPAA now wield over smoking? Their vague definition of the smoking policy in films leaves a lot open for consideration. Can a main character purchase a pack of cigarettes? In a historical context, is the bravado of which smoking is talked about in a film like “Thank You for Smoking” unacceptable, even though it is a critique of our government’s permissive relationship with the tobacco industry? What if someone is smoking in the background of say… a bar scene (in the Midwest, because you probably can’t even smoke in bars on the coasts anymore)? Is that considered “pervasive”? And how will the tobacco industry get the proper amount of product placement into the studio films now?

Now, I understand that the purpose of the MPAA is to inform parents of the appropriateness of film content for children. I certainly don’t feel that smoking is something in which we should be encouraging children to partake. An ‘R’ rating has been proven to cut into ticket sales for a film, especially for that coveted teenager crowd. In theory this will keep kids from seeing it, but if it is a film a teen wants to see, he will.

I’ve seen death from lung cancer, and it is appalling that a preventable condition could have been so easily avoided by the person who dies such a painful death from a smoking induced illness. Smoking related illnesses are one reason for exaggerated medical costs and even uninsured patients in this country. Try getting a worthwhile health insurance policy with a claim that you are a smoker. It seems to me, however, that placing smoking restrictions on the film industry is like putting a band aid on your thumb when it is your throat that is gushing blood.

People smoke. That is a fact in our society. Film is supposed to be a reflection of that society. How can you make something essentially illegal on film that is not illegal in reality? Film can show us the dangers of smoking. Now, if someone wants to make a film about that, it is going to get slapped with an ‘R’ rating and will not be able to reach the people who need the education the most. Our children follow our lead. Why not make greater efforts to ban smoking all together, before taking away one resource that could actually show us why we should?

Buy it: Thank You for Smoking
Buy it: This Film is Not Yet Rated

Now, this may seem counter to my point, but here is an anti-tobacco ad featuring clips of smoking in popular movies:

1 comment:

Alan Bacchus said...

Great article.

Directors and cinematographers won't be happy because a billowing cigarette always look so cool on screen. It might put Ridley Scott out of business.