Even someone like myself, who has never smoked in his life, understands the aesthetic. You take a long drag and stare at your enemy with narrowed eyes. You flick your cigarette away in tired resignation. You breathe in deeply, hold it for a moment, and shoot twin jets out of your nostrils, illuminated by a bare bulb overhead.
Can you even have film noir without cigarettes?
It’s more than that. Smokers like James Dean and Humphrey Bogart are loners and rebels. Or perhaps romantics, such as when Paul Henreid lights two cigarettes and hands one to Bette Davis in Now, Voyager.
Of course, those days have passed. U.S. consumption of tobacco has declined by nearly 100 billion cigarettes over the past decade (The peak was 640 billion cigarettes in 1981). And now, perhaps the nail in the coffin, the MPAA has announced that it will start rating movies based, in part, on the portrayal of smoking.
We do take a lot of our social cues from pop culture, everything from the sneakers we wear to the whipping off of our tops on Daytona Beach. But I don’t believe that the proper role of culture is to act as nanny. The research I’ve seen on the influence of media on our behavior presents a muddled picture.
All the while chanting “Correlation is not causation,” I can point out that there are studies showing a relationship between the amount of smoking viewed in TV shows and movies and intentions to smoke by the viewers. There are beginning to be a lot of studies showing a correlation between amount of time spent in front of a screen and obesity. There are numerous studies showing a correlation between viewing violence on TV and later exhibiting physical aggression. But in the end, most of the studies have their flaws and it’s unclear if they merely show that people with a pre-existing propensity exhibit certain behavior or if the viewing causes that behavior.
I don’t recall any study that shows people exhibiting good behavior as a result of seeing positive behavior in movies or TV shows. If it were true, we could solve World Peace overnight. Or at least we could ensure that every movie character fastens their seat belt at all times.
Let me briefly acknowledge here that there does seem to have been a great deal of smoking shown in movies over the last twenty years, with smoking shown in recent years at the same levels as it was in the Fifties, despite the fact that smoking in the Real World has decreased. It also appears that, in addition to the aesthetic reasons outlined above, the display of smoking in films is not always accidental, but sometimes the result of deliberate efforts on the part of tobacco companies.
In spite of this, rather than singling out smoking, I’d just like to see more realistic portrayals of human behavior, complete with repercussions. After all, if a character smokes or drinks or shoots heroin because it makes sense for their character, then go ahead and show it. I’m loathe to let the MPAA start down any path of affecting film content for the betterment of society. As the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated amply demonstrated, that organization has a very bad record in their dealings with sex and violence. I’m pretty sure I don’t them them mucking around in health issues.
Because if they do, I see a grim future:. “This film has been rated T for the excessive display of foods with trans fats.”