Jack Valenti may be dead, but the MPAA’s draconian practices are not; as of today, the organization will view the smoking of cigarettes in movies as a determining factor in their already screwy ratings system. This decision has been a long time coming, particularly for an industry based in a state that’s led the way in anti-smoking legislation for the past two decades. But, all told, it’s actually a minor victory for anti-smoking lobbyists, who were pushing the MPAA to deem any kind of smoking worthy of a mandatory "R" rating. Instead, the ratings board will consider the following criteria: a) is the smoking pervasive, b) is it glamorized, and c) is there an historic "or other mitigating context"?
Depending on how much that historic context counts against the other two pieces of criteria, this means every film noir ever made could retroactively be slapped with an "R" rating. Hell, Out of the Past, which Roger Ebert once called "The greatest cigarette-smoking movie of all time", might earn a NC-17.
I am not, and never have been, a smoker. Of cigarettes. The fact that my parents both smoked well into my teenage years probably had something to do with this. But I’ve never been virulently anti-smoking, and, strangely, have probably dated more smokers than non-smokers (though I maintain a strict no-smoking-in-the-bedroom policy). Obviously, I’d prefer to be in a non-smoking environment, but I can put up with indoor smoking so long as the room is well-ventilated.
I am even less bothered by smoking on film. Yes, it’s a stupid habit to pick up in this day and age, and, undoubtedly, it places a heavy burden on our health care system. But just as you can’t blame The Matrix for Columbine, you also can’t lay into Hollywood for the enduring popularity of smoking amongst teens. This is an issue of personal responsibility best left to the parents – who, by the way, will absolutely know when their kid is smoking (or, at least, is around smokers) because their clothes are going to reek of cigarettes. Though their child might be tempted to try a cigarette because they see Scarlett Johansson making unconvincingly like Lauren Bacall in every other movie, the real pressure is, as always, going to come courtesy of their peers.
Here’s the other thing about smoking in movies: it looks great. It enhances mood, does wonders for the cinematography and reveals a great deal about character. Think about Jeremy Irons as Claus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune and the way he ostentatiously clutches a cigarette, or Michelle Monaghan simultaneously talking and exhaling as she pours her heart out to Robert Downey Jr. in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, or that classic first shot of Humphrey Bogart painfully expelling smoke as he plays himself at chess in Casablanca (another master class in smoking on film). I could go on. Smoking is as much a part of film as killing and fucking and blowing shit up. Many of our favorite movies just wouldn’t be the same without folks brandishing cigarettes.
Here’s the crux of my problem with the MPAA’s decision: people in conflict very often smoke and/or drink. And what is drama if not people in conflict? I suppose we should wait until we see how stringent the MPAA is going to be when applying these new criteria, but its very introduction is already a problem for an organization that cannot consistently adhere to its hazily defined rules. I guarantee you there will be a major showdown within the next six months, and the movie in question will probably be a rite of passage exercise aimed at teenagers. Until then, good luck you incompetent, puritanical bastards!