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the film criticism aspect of cyber | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Are movies and vices made for each other?

What’s the latest bullshit Avatar “criticism”? It promotes smoking. You know, because Sigourney Weaver smokes in the film and she’s also one of the good guys, that automatically means that James Cameron took a gazillion dollars from Big Tobacco to hook all the poor little childrens on the cancer stick.

Cameron has responded to this nonsense, but a far more cogent reply comes from New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, who insists that movies and vices are made for each other:

As long as there have been movies, there have been scolds who condemn the movies for glamorizing vice. And the scolds have generally been right: one of the great pleasures of movie watching is that it allows us to witness and vicariously take part in all kinds of behavior we wouldn’t dream of (or would only dream of) undertaking in our daily lives.

And I love this:

In the golden years between the repeal of Prohibition and the publication of the Surgeon General’s Report on smoking, two perfectly legal, highly profitable vices were allowed to flourish on screen. It did not hurt that the only thing that looks better in black and white than a highball glass is a plume of cigarette smoke. In the real world, smoking rarely looks cool, and usually smells pretty bad. But on film there is no smell, no desperate, compulsive puffing.

Is Scott right? Are movies and vices made for each other?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)



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  • What would the earliest film noirs be without smoking?

  • MaSch

    Ah, Michael, I have to disagree. It’s not the smoking that is essential to film noir; it’s the lighting of the cigarettes.

  • joey d.

    that’s so stupid. so what if a person smokes in a movie. it doesn’t mean the director or the film is endorsing smoking. what is happening to society.

  • joey d.

    that’s so stupid. so what if a person smokes in a movie. it doesn’t mean the director or the film is endorsing smoking. what is happening to society.

  • Keith

    I condemn Avatar for its promotion of space travel. Space travel is a far more expensive habit than smoking. Without filters it’s far more lethal, too. Young kids will see this and want to go into space. It’s shameful! (Hehe

  • Keith

    I also think some people are both uncreative and want attention. If they can’t get the attention they crave by doing something creative, they try to get that attention by attacking something that is.

  • JoshDM

    I wonder when the next season of Mad Men is coming out.

  • misterb

    Is your question about smoking in Avatar or vices in general? Cameron silences his critics in the response you link to. As far as vices in general, movies can’t help but hold a mirror up to society – we’re really discussing what kind of fun-house this mirror is in. Not only can we experience vices vicariously but we can also experience virtues. Do I think that movies need to accentuate the vices? Maybe – that certainly seems to make the movies more interesting. Soviet era tractor films don’t seem very exciting today. But as with the Hayes code, we tend to feel cheated if vices aren’t punished by the fadeout. Perhaps that’s cinema’s saving grace.

  • It is science fiction. The smokes didn’t say “Marlboro” on them or have any prominent brand. I prefer to think they are medicinal Marijuana and are perfectly legal prescription smokes.

    Or maybe they are Oxypuffs – a hybrid plant that exudes a mild euphoric that is healthy for you but won’t pollute or trigger allergic reactions from those around them.

    In sci-fi unless it is pointed out specifically that something is what it appears to be…it probably isn’t

  • Paul

    I actually think it’s rare for a movie to put forth the negative consequences of lots of behavior, unless the negative consequences are the point of the movie.

  • mortadella

    Wow. I thought it was danerous to transplant your essence into a genetically engineered body made from human/alien DNA. What about a technologically advanced race repeatedly trying to exploit the resources of an indigenous people? That’s a bad habit.
    Weaver’s character smoked. Who cares? I guess Cameron’s critics won’t be happy until all film heavies are nibbling on carrot sticks. Can you imagine Mr. Blonde chewing on celery instead of smoking? Oh yeah, that’s a slick visual.

  • Bluejay

    What about a technologically advanced race repeatedly trying to exploit the resources of an indigenous people? That’s a bad habit.

    Avatar does make sure that that particular vice is punished. ;-)

    I guess Cameron’s critics won’t be happy until all film heavies are nibbling on carrot sticks.

    I think I’d pay to see a movie that shows that. ONE movie.

    Maybe a film where the villain is a vegan crime syndicate?

  • That is cool and so is Avatar. This Avatar fansite is cool too. http://www.Naviblue.com

  • gene

    The main objection to Sigourney Weaver’s smoking in Avatar is that the cliche anachronism takes the viewer out of the world Cameron’s trying to create. The audience is suddenly going “WT–? Smoking 150 years from now? And in a lab?? What’s up with that?” Without an explanation, it takes people out of the movie.

    Here’s what the tobacco PR maven trying to hook kids in “Thank You for Smoking” said:

    –Nick Naylor: Now, what we need is a smoking role model, a real winner. . . . two packs a day. . . .

    –Jeff Megall: Sony has a futuristic sci-fi movie they’re looking to make.

    –Nick Naylor: Cigarettes in space? . . . But wouldn’t they blow up in an all-oxygen environment?

    –Jeff Megall: [long pause] Probably. But, you know, it’s an easy fix. One line of dialogue: ‘Thank God we created the, you know, whatever device.’

    A second objection is that Cameron/Weaver go 150 years into the future to spout 80-year-old tobacco propaganda.

    In the 1920s, American Tobacco Co. hired Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays to get women smoking. His solution: promote smoking as freedom and independence. Bernays hired debutantes to walk down 5th Ave during the 1929 Easter Parade dressed as the Statue of Liberty, holding their cigarettes aloft as “torches of freedom.”

    Bernays later deeply regretted his work for tobacco companies.

    Independence/rebellion is an ad theme Cameron falls for and promotes with Rose’s character in “Titanic,” too.

    Weaver’s stress-relief is another tobacco advertising mantra, used since the 30s at least, with lots of jet pilots, sports stars, etc., “calming their nerves” with cigarettes.

    Cameron’s unconscious swallowing of tobacco propaganda shows he really doesn’t understand the issue; his rationale is specious. He is fooling only himself.

  • MaryAnn

    The main objection to Sigourney Weaver’s smoking in Avatar is that the cliche anachronism takes the viewer out of the world Cameron’s trying to create. The audience is suddenly going “WT–? Smoking 150 years from now? And in a lab?? What’s up with that?” Without an explanation, it takes people out of the movie.

    It didn’t take me out of the movie. How can it possibly be an anachronism? We don’t know what the world 150 years from now will be like, but it seems more likely that some people will still be smoking than that no one will be smoking.

    If there’s a way to fix a spinal (as Jake says), maybe lung cancer and other health issues we know today as consequences of smoking will no longer be a problem 150 years from now. How is that any less likely than “no one will smoke in the future”?

    –Nick Naylor: Cigarettes in space? . . . But wouldn’t they blow up in an all-oxygen environment?

    Um, that movie was satirical. Humans could not breathe in an “all-oxygen environment.”

    A second objection is that Cameron/Weaver go 150 years into the future to spout 80-year-old tobacco propaganda.

    Is there some use of smoking in a movie that wouldn’t qualify as “propaganda,” short of showing anyone who takes a puff dying slowly and hideously of lung cancer?

    Do we need to start doing that for any behavior that could result in early death or disease?

  • gene

    How can it possibly be an anachronism?

    Because in something as fast-changing as nicotine addiction, it is extremely unlikely the preferred method 150 years from now would be _exactly_ what it is today. 150 years ago the it was chewing, cigars and rough roll-your-owns. Before that it was snuff. Even today, you see burgeoning changes–orbs, snus, mini-cigars, e-cigs, etc.

    Check message boards and friends: many people do find it shocking and out of place, raising all sorts of outside-the-movie issues. So when Weaver lights up, while the viewer is busy rationalizing the act away, like MaryAnn on steroids, several minutes of the movie pass with less than her full attention.

    If the filmmaker wants to comment about the persistence of nicotine addiction 150 years from now, fine; but to repeat for the dimmer bulbs: this particular smoking ad is a thoughtless cliche, a clear anachronism and a distraction.

    And it will go down in the history of film as a very poor directorial choice, in more ways than one, in a movie that is, after all, a kids’ flick.

  • Paul

    Worldwide, I think there is actually more smoking than there used to be. Smoking companies have just taken their products abroad. China has more smokers than America has people (mostly men). Offering a guy a cigarette is like offering him a hand to shake.

    And I’d be surprised if I didn’t live to see a cure for cancer, and I only have almost 50 years left to go (judging by my grandparents) never mind 150.

  • LaSargenta

    Humans could not breathe in an “all-oxygen environment.”

    Yes, they can. But, only very carefully and without creating any sparks, like those you can have when you scuff your feet over carpet or walk around in the wind on a really dry day! Apollo I taught that lesson the hard way, if I recall correctly, because I think the cockpit was a high O2 content to make up for the decreasing atmospheric pressure and the expected respiration rate, etc. (Not my field, and I may be mis-remembering what I read many years ago.)

    –Nick Naylor: Cigarettes in space? . . . But wouldn’t they blow up in an all-oxygen environment?

    Space ships, like all controlled atmosphere environments, aim for more than 19.5% O2, ’cause that’s what humans need. Our atmosphere usually has about 21% O2 (at sea level) and 78% N. The space shuttle goes for something close to that. Over 21%, you’re heading for an oxygen-rich atmosphere and that throws off a number of monitoring instruments that I’m sure a space ship would have.

  • @gene: “And it will go down in the history of film as a very poor directorial choice, in more ways than one, in a movie that is, after all, a kids’ flick.”

    how in the name of all that is cinematical, do you think that Avatar is a “kids’ flick”? just because it’s CGI heavy does not make it a child’s cartoon. also… grow up. we all have vices; some religions are against coffee and tea or soda, and they do have some health detriments as well as benefits… shall we eliminate everything that makes us human from movies? i grew up in an era where *everyone* smoked in movies. not just bad guys. good guys, attractive women, gangsters and doctors… do i smoke? no. and neither do millions of other people. get over the smoking thing people. concentrate on the story (and if you’re so easily distracted by a cigarette, how did you ever manage to make it to the end of the movie?)

  • Bluejay

    Because in something as fast-changing as nicotine addiction, it is extremely unlikely the preferred method 150 years from now would be _exactly_ what it is today. 150 years ago the it was chewing, cigars and rough roll-your-owns.

    It’s highly doubtful that Cameron put any conscious effort into predicting how smoking would be different 150 years from now. If we go that route, why not also criticize him for failing to make the humans’ hairstyles and speech patterns substantially different from today? After all, people spoke and wore their hair differently 150 years ago too. For the purposes of this story, I think putting effort into making everything futuristic and unfamiliar would have been even more distracting than keeping some identifiable elements the audience could relate to.

    Predicting the future is always tricky, and sometimes SF gets it wrong. The facts of our present reality that we assume will always be true sometimes aren’t, and vice versa. How many SF stories written before 1989 assumed that the Soviet Union would be around way into the 21st century? Conversely, how many of those same stories assumed we’d all have our flying cars and jetpacks by now? Always in motion is the future, as Yoda says.

  • Accounting Ninja

    Honestly, if there’s anything that’s been a constant for the human race, it’s been our propensity to chew, smoke or drink drugs. I don’t find it that hard to believe that these “vices” will exist in the future.

  • Paul

    If you want to take a look at how a writer can miss the future, you should read Mary Shelly’s “The Last Man” which supposedly takes place after our own time, and yet so little had changed. In many ways it’s a good book, but not as ambitious as “Frankenstien.”

  • gene

    The only thing that gave this movie a PG-13 is the ultra-violence at the end–and that was possibly purposeful, to earn it a PG-13, so people _wouldn’t_ think of it as a kids’ flick.

    But it is. Why?

    1. The sophistication of the plot line–please, it’s cowboys and indians on another planet. The special effects certainly enhance the plot, but really, this is an old, hoary plotline, suitable for children of all ages, that’s been oft-used in sci-fi since the 1920s. Well-crafted, certainly, but as adult entertainment, it is kept alive and interesting only by the special effects and some good acting. Even as sci-fi, it is far less challenging to the imagination and intellect than, say, the recent Doctor Who TV series (PG). As a poster mentioned, the hair styles, easy English translations, and demarcations of “alien” mostly by weird foreheads a la Star Trek (although the size differential was very well done) are hallmarks of simplistic sci-fi. As it was going along, at times interminably, I kept thinking there’s no reason it couldn’t have worked just as well as a plain old ordinary animated feature.

    2. Check out the number of kids in the house, and especially the STACK OF BOOSTER SEATS(!) outside the theaters in which it plays (at least at Bow Tie cinemas in the ‘burbs).

    For those shouting “realism” —

    Realism?? Why does NO ONE else in the movie smoke? No one. Not even the military.

    Realism?? This would be a seriously atypical scientist. 44% of cigarettes are sold to the mentally ill; most smokers are poor and uneducated.

    Realism?? Cameron has said the smoking was to show she didn’t take care of her non-Avatar body. How do you get Sigourney-Weaver-buff at 60 if you don’t care for your body? Sigourney will tell you, it’s not easy. Cameron’s feeble excuse would have been more palatable if Grace had been slobbily obese, and woken up shouting, “WHERE’S MY TWINKIE?” (Actually, an obese Grace would have been a more interesting choice.)

    No, there is no valid rationale for her smoking whatsoever; it was outside the world of the future, it was outside the world of a controlled-environment lab (nicotine gets _everywhere_), it was outside the world of the movie itself.

    Judging by the number of kids in the house when I saw it, an entire generation of children are being sold on cigarettes _in exactly the same way_ cigarettes have been marketed to girls since the 20s. And the message will last as long as the movie; it will be reinforced over and over, with each viewing, on all the TV reruns, for decades to come:

    Strong, tough, independent, smart, healthy, buff women smoke.

    This is propaganda, pure and simple. Avatar is an ad for smoking.

    And millions of kids are getting its message.

  • Bluejay

    As a poster mentioned, the hair styles, easy English translations […] are hallmarks of simplistic sci-fi.

    That wasn’t my point, Gene. I was responding to your argument that the smoking was anachronistic. My point was: so were a lot of other elements in the human environment, because it wasn’t necessary to the story to have everything be “futuristic” and therefore unfamiliar. Having the humans look and sound familiar and do familiar things makes a more effective contrast with the alien world outside.

    I’m sorry that “an ad for smoking” is all you saw in Avatar. And if your hatred for smoking comes out of a bad personal experience, I’m sorry for that as well. Given everything else going on in Avatar, though, I don’t think kids will pick up on any message about smoking any more than they were inspired to become smugglers because of Han Solo. In any case, as others here have said, I don’t think that depicting only perfect, vice-free characters is possible or even desirable. The “PG” in the rating stands for “parental guidance”; it’s our responsibility to talk to our kids about what they see, hear and read, to better prepare them for society at large, rather than censor any negative messages from the outside.

  • gene

    >>I’m sorry that “an ad for smoking” is all you saw in Avatar. And if your hatred for smoking comes out of a bad personal experience, I’m sorry for that as well

    Oh, please, I’m sorry for you, and your gurgitation of that entire simplistic, truism-packed message, so mindlessly trite it’s pitiful.

    And aren’t you one WISE fetus to have chosen to be born with two parents? And parents well-off, educated, caring and supremely capable, too! Good choice!

    All those kids not quite wise as you? Hell with them. Let’s leave them entirely in the tender hands of the tobacco cos–who’ve paid fortunes to have their ads in kid films like Superman I and II.

    Too bad parents can only do so much–they couldn’t make you smart.

  • Bluejay

    ???????

    *throws up hands*

    I tried to be civil, gene. You can disagree with me, but if you’re going to engage in personal attacks–sorry, not interested.

    Have a nice day. :-)

  • Realism?? This would be a seriously atypical scientist. 44% of cigarettes are sold to the mentally ill; most smokers are poor and uneducated.

    Perhaps I’m biased because I’ve seen my sister smoke, my middle brother smoke, my late father smoke and various co-workers smoke but I have a hard time believing such statistics without a link. And this from someone who generally prides himself on never having used any form of tobacco.

    Besides, haven’t we tried a similar “shame” method against the users of less respectable drugs. And hasn’t that proved to be a bit of a failure?

    I’m no fan of RJ Reynolds but I can’t help but wonder whether or not such self-righteousness does more harm than good. And considering everything else that goes on in Avatar and the fact that most young women I’ve talked to don’t necessarily identify with Sigourney Weaver, I can’t but wonder if the fuss about the cigarette scene is much ado about nothing.

  • @ Tonio: When hardcore haters hate, they pick on everything. If someone hardcore hates you, they will pick on your hair if they have to (or lack there of, I don’t know if you have hair or not).

  • Gene

    >>I have a hard time believing such statistics without a link. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/11/16/AR2007111601618.html

    –Smoking Keeps Its Grip on Urban Poor
    http://healthday.com/Article.asp?AID=632024

    I hope Mrs. McGillicuddy appreciates my help.

  • @ Tonio: When hardcore haters hate, they pick on everything. If someone hardcore hates you, they will pick on your hair if they have to (or lack there of, I don’t know if you have hair or not).

    In other words, don’t feed the troll.

    I should have heeded your advice, Paul, but I guess I’m laaazy. And stupid.

    That said…

    If I know smokers who aren’t poor and who aren’t mentally ill, should I just ignore any lesson I could learn from them about why people smoke? Or should I just assume that any fact that doesn’t already exist on the Internet obviously isn’t important?

    If I’ve seen attempts to shame smokers into quitting–for example, actress Brooke Shield’s famous ad campaign back in the 1980s, which was generally mocked by many of the teenagers who were its target audience–fail, should I not come to any conclusion about the effectiveness of anti-smoking campaigns that essentially preach to the converted? If constant references in the media to how users of certain illegal drugs are either crooks or idiots or general no-accounts prove fruitless and said illegal drugs tend to increase in popularity anyway, should I not draw a conclusion from that about how not to run an anti-smoking campaign?

    In any event, we’re talking about one scene in one movie. I remember a time when one saw ads for cigarettes almost every time you turned on the TV set. I can even recite some of the jingles by heart because I saw these ads so often when I was growing up. And both of my most important role models smoked.

    So why do I not smoke?

    I suspect people smoke for a variety of reasons–defiance of authority, stress relief, desire to fit in with a certain crowd, etc.–and as long as you ignore the reasons why they smoke, you’re not going to make much headway.

    If eliminating that one smoking scene make every smoker I know quit cigarettes, I’d endorse that otherwise foul attempt at censorship in a heartbeat. But human beings in my experience don’t work like that. They have their own reasons for smoking and cutting that scene isn’t going to change that.

    I’m not endorsing the act of smoking. If you want to write a screenplay in which only the bad guys smoke and everyone who smokes a cigarette suffers negative consequences, go to town. If you want to hand out free Nicoderm patches, knock yourself out. If you want to help a friend or relative quit smoking, be my guest.

    But if your only remedy to the smoking problem is censorship, then you might be suffering from a failure of the imagination.

  • If eliminating that one smoking scene make every smoker I know quit cigarettes, I’d endorse that otherwise foul attempt at censorship in a heartbeat. But human beings in my experience don’t work like that. They have their own reasons for smoking and cutting that scene isn’t going to change that.

    What I meant to say in that paragraph:

    If eliminating that one smoking scene could make every smoker I know quit cigarettes, I’d endorse that otherwise foul attempt at censorship in a heartbeat. But human beings in my experience don’t work like that. They have their own reasons for smoking and cutting that scene isn’t going to change that.

  • gene

    Trolls are people who post things so boneheadedly stupid they invite intemperate responses. And I admit it–I fell for them and responded, yes.

    This thread is a great troll object lesson, because there simply was no intrinsic reason for Sigourney’s smoking, although some trolls excused it on various shibboleths of free speech/artistic freedom/realism, etc, reaching into the stratosphere, any excuse they could find for their ridiculous– and provocative–nonsense. I’m sorry, trolls do get to me.

    BUT–

    There apparently _was_ a reason for the smoking, and Cameron was apparently sincere in his excuse about wanting to show that Grace doesn’t care for her own body. He wanted to show it, he apparently planned to show it, but — and this has been my point—he didn’t.

    No one here knew this, of course, all I knew was that the smoking–no matter the trolls’ intricately contrived rationalizations– just didn’t make sense; but here it is, the scene in the script–cut or never filmed–that would have explained at least part of the anomaly, and certainly would have softened any criticism:

    INT. SHACK – NIGHT

    Lying in the link, Jake looks exhausted, pale, thin. Norm helps Grace get him to his chair.

    GRACE

    You’re still losing weight. Here —

    She hands him a microwaved burrito. He looks at the now alien food. Bites into it without enthusiasm.

    JAKE

    I made a kill today. We ate it. I know where that meal came from.

    GRACE

    Other body. You need to take care of this body.

    JAKE

    Yeah yeah.

    GRACE

    Jake, I’m serious — you look like crap.

    You’re burning too hard.

    Jake takes the cigarette out of her mouth and stubs it out.

    JAKE

    Get rid of this shit, then you can lecture me.

    http://www.foxscreenings.com/media/pdf/JamesCameronAVATAR.pdf

    This scene, combined with an opening scene on 2149-Earth (“Most of the people wear FILTER MASKS to protect them from the toxic air”), indicates an auteur’s vision of a culture of pervasive ill health and destruction, a culture that Jake, understandably, is seeking refuge from.

    OK. That makes sense. I may or may not find it compelling, but at least it’s a consistent vision and even an ironic rationale for Grace’s smoking.

    It’s a vision and rationale that doesn’t exist in the current version of the movie. Maybe it’ll be in the Director’s Cut.

    Trolls, begone!

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