'Automatic R': Should Smoking in the Movies Get You Censored?
The critics have finally spoken up about the trouble (or lack thereof) with smoking in movies, with one even going so far as to call for an automatic R-rating when characters light up onscreen. Well! It's about time we had this talk! We all knew Avatar would be a game-changer! That said, someone needs some straightening out, so let's get right to it.
A day after anti-smoking proponents exploited Avatar to restate their case for penalizing tobacco use in the movies with an R-rating, New York Times critic A.O. Scott ventured his support for the depiction of smoking on screen. While he didn't address the ratings squabble in particular, he did make a persuasive case for letting films depict a world that's both entertaining, real (yes, people smoke! And now we're even less likely to get diabetes! Yay!) and imminently obsolete. "Make it something akin to time travel," Scott wrote, "or slapstick, or a mad drive to the airport to stop the one you love from getting on that plane -- something that only happens in the movies."
That's... nice, but absurd, replied David Edelstein on Tuesday. Even after fuming over erstwhile anti-smoker editors who once blocked his own description of a chain-smoking interview subject, the New York Magazine critic nevertheless joined the ranks of puritans who would have filmmakers punished for their own choice of expression. But because tobacco companies are receiving much of the benefit, and because we need to protect the children, apparently it's all right (and I quote at length for full context):
I don't believe that the anti-smoking crusaders are so out of line, at least in their demand that movies with cigarettes get an automatic "R" rating. No, that doesn't mean we expunge smoking from movies already made. We just make it tougher for new films with cigarette use to influence kids. Just as important, when tobacco companies pay to put their wares in a film, that information needs to appear in the credits -- prominently. It's one thing when everyone lights up in Good Night and Good Luck, in which the ubiquitous tobacco smoke evokes the era better than anything onscreen. (Too bad there was no list at the end of all the characters' real-life counterparts who died of lung cancer or associated heart disease.) It's another when cigarettes are a product placement akin to Cheerios or Apple computers.
This isn't an easy call. I treasure the image of William Powell and Myrna Loy attempting to out-drink one another in The Thin Man -- I think of it often as I order my fourth or fifth whiskey. Somewhere, I still have a poster of Cheech and Chong in Up in Smoke, which probably retains the aroma of the bong that sat proudly beneath it in my dorm room. And damn if Bogie and Belmondo aren't still the apogee of cool. Scott is dead right in arguing that vice in movies can be very entertaining. But for our kids' sake, let's treat the addiction to deadly chemicals as a vice and not as a normal, healthy part of everyday life.
Hey, I like kids, too. But really? A mainstream critic is arguing that films featuring smoking -- either one cigarette or 100, from Avatar to Good Night and Good Luck -- should be regulated and made restricted viewing for children under 17? I wouldn't be lazy enough to argue against this on the basis that kids so impressionable are smoking already anyway (even if it's true), but I would ask Edelstein to reconsider the implications of that R-rating.
Simply put, the restriction of artwork from an audience on the basis of its content is censorship. Even the MPAA would have to admit that, if only because its ratings board was originally established for self-regulation in lieu of government oversight. And with that in mind, we all kind of live with it -- viewers, filmmakers and studios alike. We live with exactly the kinds of arbitrary standards that Edelstein cited almost 11 years ago writing about Eyes Wide Shut's NC-17 threat, in which he concluded that a realistically depicted fight -- one punch, broken bones and tons of blood -- is likelier to garner an R-rating than the cartoonish, choreographed fight sequences in any number of PG, PG-13 or even G-rated movies.
That backwards judgment is to blame for a lot of the frustration with the ratings system, particularly for independent filmmakers and distributors for whom the difference between a PG-13 and an R can means millions of dollars in revenue. Thus they cut material as cited (never suggested, of course, because that's unquestionably censorship) by the ratings board, and the enactment of those cuts perpetuates those same arbitrary standards for the sake of the bottom line. If a modestly budgeted film with no otherwise objectionable material -- no violence, language or sexuality of any kind -- features a character who smokes, or one who is around characters who smoke, you're telling me that the ratings boards should automatically stamp that film with an R rating? You could always argue that the film could have been made without smoking in it, but then you're getting into the issue of curtailing expression, and you're right back to censorship.
David Poland addressed this as well earlier this morning. "I have no problem with telling filmmakers, 'Keep this in mind before you do it for cheap effect,'" he wrote. "You just have no right to tell them not to do it or to try to intimidate them into making an alternative choice." Furthermore, where do we draw the line? Are documentaries exempt? Should we make handgun use an automatic R, lest kids be influenced to acquire and use a weapon? If this is just about vice, I would think alcohol, gambling and cigarettes must fall under the same standard.
Anyway, I love how so many people who discuss this matter inveigh on how they don't smoke before reinforcing movies' rights to show this filthy, icky, cancerous habit onscreen -- like their support is some gesture of moral, magnanimous largesse. Bullshit. The point is that smoking is legal, it's taxed (to the tune of $15 billion annually) and it's a pastime enjoyed by millions of people. Is it deadly, destructive and addictive? Of course it is; that's part of its psychic appeal, and that's often exactly why characters in movies do it. (Not to mention that when you film it right, it looks better than anything filmable ever except maybe Grace Kelly. And Grace Kelly smoking? Forget about it.) I've said it before, and I'll say it again, hopefully for the last time: We refuse to be rated R. The kids will have to get over it.