Thursday, October 21, 2010

Where there's smoke, there's a cinematic stereotype

In “Thank You for Smoking,” tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) does battle against a culture increasingly hostile towards cigarettes. Using his considerable charm, gift of gab and the aid of a Hollywood agent, Nick tries to spin cigarettes back into the realm of acceptability, all while dodging his son’s questions about his vocation. The film is a hot-button satire that’s sure to ignite debate among co-workers and bar patrons (at least until the smokers have to go outside to light up).

“Thank You for Smoking” couldn’t have been made during Hollywood’s so-called golden age. Not because smart satire didn’t exist (see 1957’s “The Sweet Smell of Success”) and not because movies were afraid to take on the corporate world (see 1956’s “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit”). The simple reason is that in films, as in real life, nearly everyone DID smoke.

Nick and Nora, Captain Spaulding, Charles Foster Kane, Rick Blaine, Bugs Bunny, Gilda, George Bailey, Stanley Kowalksi, Joe Friday, Holly Golightly, Rooster Cogburn, the Man with No Name and a thousand other movie characters all lit up, and usually for no particular reason. They just smoked, as did most Americans.

But these days, a cigarette is almost always a metaphor. Some directors still love the visual impact of wafting smoke and glowing embers (David Lynch seems to put an extreme close-up of a burning butt in every film). But for the most part, in these politically correct times, smoking in films has to MEAN something. To wit, there are a handful of archetypes that are still allowed to smoke in contemporary films. Let’s count ‘em down, shall we?

• Those Whose Primary Tool of Trade is a Gun
We were going to say “Bad Guys,” but then we thought of James Bond and “Die Hard”’s John McClane (Bruce Willis) and Vincent Vega (John Travolta) from “Pulp Fiction” (an anti-hero, to be sure, but not a “bad guy” in the film) and we realized that there’s some strange connection between shooting a gun for a living and smoking. Maybe nerves need to be cooled so as not to miss the target? But what about smoke getting in your eyes?

• The Newly-Minted Cuckold
Let’s say you’re a movie character that’s just caught your spouse in bed with the pool guy (or mailman or pizza delivery guy or your best friend, whatever). What’s the first thing you do? Okay, you go to a bar and order a shot of whiskey. But then you chase it with a cigarette, ESPECIALLY if you’ve never, ever smoked before. Drag deep, cuckolded friend, your life just went in the dumper!

• The Soldier in the Foxhole
It doesn’t matter if the setting is Virginia in 1862, France in 1944, Vietnam in 1972 or Iraq yesterday, any movie soldier facing death is likely to find solace in a cigarette. The whole “Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em” rationalization comes into play when the character seems about to buy it: Why worry about your health now? Too bad there aren’t any juicy steaks in that foxhole.

• Europeans
There are a number of visual shorthand devices to indicate to an American audience that a character is from another country (if ethnicity is not obvious). If the pretentious artist or spoiled royal is from one of the European countries, they will inevitably light up, usually at an inappropriate time. Like say, when the heroine is trying to enjoy her dinner or Grandma is dying of emphysema. Bring on the Freedom Fries!!

• The Devil
Almost every human manifestation of Satan in movies... Al Pacino in 1997’s “The Devil’s Advocate,” Robert DeNiro in 1987’s “Angel Heart,” Elizabeth Hurley in 2000’s “Bedazzled,” Billy Crystal in 1997’s “Deconstructing Harry”... smokes. And, in typical devilish fashion, they usually smoke giant, obnoxious cigars. That ol’ Beelzebub... so rude! Well, at least the devil never has to fumble for matches.

• Catholic Priests
While we’re on the subject, you rarely see a Catholic priest in a movie who doesn’t have a cigarette between his holy fingers. Father Karras (Jason Miller) in “The Exorcist” (1973), Archbishop Gilday (Donal Donnelly) in “The Godfather, Part III” (1990), Father Casey (Vincent D’Onofrio) in “The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys" (2002) and Father Bobby (Robert DeNiro) in “Sleepers” (1996) all smoke like they’re anxious to move on to the Great Reward! We guess when your calling denies you so many earthly pleasures, a stick of tobacco may be your only vice! Well, hopefully.

• Drug Addicts
Actually, this one not only makes sense, it’d be unbelievable if the movie addict DIDN’T smoke. While they may not wanna spend money on the relative minor high of nicotine, most habitual drug users are likewise addicted to that still-legal substance.

• The Wall Street Tycoon
Film characters who are all about making money are usually portrayed in a negative light (which is ironic since many would argue acting is the most overpaid profession on Earth). Picture the silk-suited arrogance of Ricky Roman (Al Pacino) in “Glengarry Glen Ross” or, of course, Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) in “Wall Street” (1987): Narcissistic slimebags who don’t care about anyone other than themselves. Having them blow second hand smoke (usually from the same cigar the devil favors) in the faces of others is an easy, but effective metaphor.

• That Punk Johnny Down the Street
In movies of the past, juvenile delinquents all came in the same package: Cuffed dungarees, greased hair, dirty white T-shirts, leather jackets and a butt dangling from every lip or cocked behind an ear. These days, most of those fashion choices are ubiquitous and bad kids in movies can look as innocuous as Macaulay Culkin (what? He’s 25 now? Get out...). Okay, as Rory Culkin (pick a Culkin, any Culkin). But any underage character with a cigarette is still movie shorthand for BAD (while in real life, it’s usually shorthand for “trying to look cool / older”).

• Most Characters in a Period Piece
Would choosing cigarettes for a film fall under the auspices of costume or production designer? Usually, smoking is indicated in the screenplay, but if the movie’s a period piece, set in, oh, say the offices and studios of CBS News in the 1950s, it goes without saying that there had better be a dozen cartons of Kents sitting nearby. As last year’s “Good Night, and Good Luck” shows, smoking was so pervasive in the hard-boiled 50s that newscaster Edward R. Murrow did so ON THE AIR! And he wasn’t alone. We’re not sure, but we think Lassie may have lit up once or twice.

As we move closer to a smokeless society, we have to wonder if, like fedoras, land-line telephones and indie record stores, the gray swirl of cigarette smoke will one day be relegated solely to the period piece. Geez, we hope Johnny Depp can handle it.

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