Thank You For Not Smoking - Complications Ensue
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Wednesday, August 01, 2007

I'm going to be on Philadelphia's NPR station, WHYY, tomorrow, on Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane, arguing about when, if ever, it's right to have your movie characters smoke. You can tune in from 11:30 to noon at 91 FM if you're in Philly, or on the Web at www.WHYY.org. There will also be archives and even a podcast. You can also listen in on NPR's Sirius channel, NPR Talk.

Morally, I think it's almost never a good idea to have your characters smoke. It is very hard for the movies not to glamorize the people you see on screen. Your hero is cool. Your love interest is cool. Even your villain tends to be cool. Kids start smoking because they think it's cool. You do the math.

But I think there's an even better argument to keep smokes out of your characters' mouths. Smoking rarely adds to the story. It is almost always a crutch. Give an actor a cigarette in a scene and he will do all sorts of cig business with it. But that's not acting. That's business. That's David Caruso putting on his sunglasses. Give your actor a cigarette, and he'll hide behind it. Take it away, and he'll be forced to actually act.

What does it tell us that a character smokes? They're naughty? They're self-destructive? There are fresher, more distinctive ways to tell us that. All sorts of people smoke in real life, many of them homeless men. Putting a cigarette in a character's mouth wastes precious story time -- all story time is precious -- that you could be using to show us that he has stuffed animals posed in suggestive positions around his bedroom, or scars on her wrist.

I don't buy that you need to have people smoke in period pieces, either. Sure, everyone smoked in the 50's. That's exactly why it adds nothing (except visual coolness) to your movie to have your characters smoke in the 1950's. People did lots of things in the 1950's that you won't see them do in movies. People threw the "n-word" around with abandon, for example. People made anti-Semitic comments. People went to the bathroom, too. Are you going to show that?

The exception, I think, is when cigarettes are part of the story. Joe Gideon smoking in the shower in ALL THAT JAZZ is part of the story. Here's a man who's dead bent on killing himself with work, cigarettes, speed and women. On creative grounds you could almost even justify the smoking in BASIC INSTINCT because the story is about Nick Curran's addiction issues -- addiction to cigarettes, addiction to Catherine Trammell. (On moral grounds you'd have to deal with just how very cool Sharon Stone makes smoking look.)

But by and large, cigarettes are a creative crutch. When you're tempted to have a character smoke, why not see if you can come up with something cleverer, something that forwards the story a little more?

Labels: ,

6 Comments:

Couldn't agree more.

Frankly when I'm writing it never even occurs to me to have a character smoke. It's just a bizarre thing to do in my mind.

By Blogger Dante Kleinberg, at 11:44 AM  

And yet, Alex smoking is a huge character point and part of the total atmosphere of MAD MEN.

By Blogger Bill Cunningham, at 12:10 PM  

Though I despise smoking and agree with many of your points, I hardly think having a character smoke can be considered a moral issue.

People smoke. Surely a writer should feel free to write characters who do too.

What about having a character drink? Do drugs? Cheat on a spouse? Wear leather? Eat a burger? Speed down the highway? Shoot someone? All of these things are considered immoral to some people. But writing about them never is.

Though I'm patently anti-censorship, I'd be more likely to question the morality of the writers behind the gruesome rape and torture scenes plaguing today's horror flicks.

If you want to talk about crutches, let's talk about "stereotypical gay jokes," "violence towards women," and "token (insert race here) characters." Perpetuating misconceptions of race, sex and sexuality does far more damage than showing people smoking.

By Blogger Andy M., at 4:02 PM  

Yes, people drive too fast. I would hesitate to write a scene that made driving too fast look cool and fun. I might write a scene where they drove fast, but you'd see that they were terrified. I might have a scene where the hero shoots somebody. But I don't think I'd have him be flip about it; unless what I was writing was patently a cartoon. ("Consider it a divorce.")

When you have a character do a bad thing as part of a story, that's fine. My point is it's immoral to have casual cigarette smoking that has no bearing on the story, because it glamorizes smoking. I wouldn't have a moral problem if you had an ugly homeless guy casually smoking; but I would still think it wasn't a very interesting creative choice.

Censorship is another issue. I think Quentin Tarantino is an evil man who glamorizes smoking, violence and heroin, among other things. But I wouldn't suggest anyone censor him. Just don't invite him to your parties.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 4:25 PM  

I'm with you that choosing to have a character smoke should always be deliberate and well thought out. Having people smoke for no reason is sloppy and stupid. Still, I'm not sure I'm with you on the idea that showing certain behaviors necessarily glamorizes them.

Anyway, I love your blog and appreciate that you responded to my comment. Thanks!

By Blogger Andy M., at 2:40 PM  

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

By Blogger chantix, at 6:06 AM  

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