VICE IN THE PICTURES

movie

Written by: Lucas Thomas

As long as there have been movies, there have been people who judge them for glamorizing vices. And the scolds have generally been appropriately placed: one of the great pleasures of movie watching is that it allows you to witness and pretend to take part in all kinds of behavior we wouldn’t dream of (or would only dream of) doing in our daily lives.

It’s very possible (though never proven) that what we watch actually influences what we do or what we want to be, and that possibility has always been part of the reasoning for the various systems of censorship and classification that have been in much of film history. Starting in the 1930s, the Hays Office and its successors publicized a code limiting just what kind of “naughtiness” could be permitted on the big screen. Unmarried couples could not go to bed together, and even married couples were encouraged to sleep in separate beds. Punishment had to follow a crime, and language spoken in films had to be fit for Sunday school.

Now, of course, cigarette smoking in movies is basically an anachronism, and also the cause of the latest round of argument. that cgi snorefest, “Avatar,” has attracted special attention because the movie is so popular and also maybe because it implies that the future may not be entirely smoke-free ( In 2154, a work place as tightly protocol-governed as the Pandora earthling base permits an employee to smoke on the job.) Yet surprising, some years ago, in Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor,” the United States military of the 1940s was a smoke-free environment.

Tobacco use is a large part of western history — movie history in particular, And in course of that history smoking is synonymous with rebellion, of sophistication and being sexy. This is something that will be hard to eradicate despite how old the controversy may be. This is clearly the case in “Nine,” by far the most obsessively smoke-filled movie I’ve seen.

The cigarettes are actually the best part of “Nine,” the only genuine vicarious pleasure which that misbegotten movie is able to offer. And an on-screen smoke should remain an available pleasure, a signifier of the kind of romance only movies can deliver. What I’m trying to say, as a weak-willed former smoker and incurable addict, is this: by all means, let smoking become an obsolete, discredited real-life habit. Make it something akin to time travel, 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.

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