Scarlett Johannson smoking a cigarette in "Lost in Translation". It's ok though: the film is rated R.
It's official: smoking has now joined the ranks of illicit sex, homosexuality, teen alcohol/drug use, extreme violence, and foul language as cinematically taboo, unless your film is rated R.
Some consider the MPAA's recent efforts to discourage smoking in the movies long overdue. When the news broke last week, there was a strange aura of positivity to the many reports published online and in print. Based on these reports and reactions to them, it appears as though this ratings system change is a good thing. It is only the culmination of something our movie culture has been moving towards for the better part of 20 years. The actual news itself is secondary to the point that this newer, more strict view of smoking has actually been in practice for quite some time in the MPAA's biased assessment of ethical standards in cinema. But the news reports seem to support the notion that it's long overdue and desperately needed. No doubt this news is constructed to be positive and that we - the recepients of news media - are conditioned to believe it. Those who don't support it are painted as promoters of poor health. Though this may seem appropriate on the surface, its implications are disturbing.
The big question is this: do movies promote/support/encourage smoking via their representations of it? In the eyes of many, yes they do. According to these folks, the entertainment industry "glorifies" decadent acts, among them mentioned above. From this perspective, a child's exposure to these acts in entertainment may lead them to consider partaking (Could you imagine all the kids who would be smoking if Peter Parker was a chain smoker?). This "life imitates art" stance, however, is numbingly simplified and too easy an explanation (if it can be called that) for the relationship of entertainment and a culture, or, more specifically, an image and a spectator. The common response to "life imitates art" ideology is, unfortunately, equally wrong-headed and simplistic. This is of course the "it's just entertainment" defense, held by those who claim to have no connection to that which they see. I suppose one naive view deserves another in response, one that only regurgitates the problem of simplification rather than enabling it to expand. The simple nature of these perspectives often demand that things exist in dualities.
There is no question that viewers are greatly affected by entertainment, individually and culturally. Not only does exposure to entertainment (television and movies) physically account for substantial portions of the average individual's day, but the narratives and images themselves reflect and project concerns, preoccupations, fantasies, fears, and desires both unconscious and conscious to an individual/culture. The question still remains, however, of just how much influence these narratives and images have. But there is no easy answer to that. One's relation to the social world and participation in it is dependent on so many factors, both subtle and overt. To simplify the innumerable contributing aspects to one's sociocultural existence greatly undermines potential for abstraction and nuance in relationships and institutions of the social, in particular artistic representation. Walter J. Ong (whose book Orality and Literacy is indispensable) claims that technologies and media outlets not only emerge from acknowledged existence of one another, but that they gradually restructure thought-processes so as to accord to the structures of those media. Framing this discussion through the Ong lens then suggests that simplified approached to media with a strict emphasis on content reshapes the medium to accord to its perceived content. In other words, the medium itself changes to enable the very content it's been perceived to promote. And the medium is commodification.
Ever so slightly, art forms and useful media are transforming into products. Obviously, the commerce aspect of cinema has and always will be exist; but in terms of classical US filmmaking, the commerce is progressively eradicating the art. The current sanctions of the MPAA best reflect and sustain the view that movies are nothing more than advertising enterprises meant for consumption. Rarely can an image, character, action, or idea serve the purpose of abstraction or aesthetic value. In this hyper-commercial culture, we are made to think that the only way of interpreting anything is from a standpoint of consumption, promotion, and advertising. Objection to product placement or ruthless advertising campaigns is secondary to the fact that their overwhelming prominence in all facets of society is restructuring how we view and act upon social institutions and members of them. Commodification has become a mode of cultural discourse. It's the air we breathe. Some claim that this only affects the young, but the recent news of the MPAA clamping down on smoking is evidence that this movement affects all areas of American culture. And as long that we remain focused on the ethics of smoking, violence, or any other controversial representation, we are missing the the real issue that commodification is the means by which we process and interpret lived experience in consumer culture.
Nowhere is this more evident than in mainstream entertainment, cinema, television, music, and beyond. In keeping with a discussion of cinema, the issue of smoking is an interesting manifestation of the problem of thinking in terms of consumption. Critics and film scholars aside, movies are largely perceived as endorsements. Given the amount of product placement in films, it's hard not to see them that way. An image can rarely exist outside the sphere of commodity insofar that even attempts to move away from this line of thinking is a self-conscious attempt at doing so and is still defined by it. In this model, product placement and advertising represent the medium, but the message is the image itself, the representation of an idea or lifestyle that becomes commodity. In a consumer-friendly PG/PG-13 movie atmosphere, a character cannot smoke unless: she or he is a villain or if the smoking is part of her or his character arc (representing something that must be overcome. Either way, that character must have a good reason for smoking that cigarette. This is a small example, but it succinctly exemplifies the cultural attitude toward mainstream movies and has contributed to shaping them as such. Replace smoking with sex, alcohol use, violence, etc. and the model is the same. These cultural ideas of consumption are so deep rooted in American cinema and economy and is perfectly reflected in the ever-shifting MPAA rating system, which infantilizes movies and conditions them to be neatly packaged products ready-made for consumer purchase. This affects how they are made and perceived and therefore shapes an understanding of cinema a consumer enterprise. While no one can deny the billions of dollars spent by studios to make films and the billions more their films make, this very machine keeps growing larger and larger our perceptions of the medium itself have gradually been conditioned to understand it as such.
The problem that is becoming ever-more pronounced in this heightened age of electronic commercialism is one of representation. In a medium/message model, the medium is the image and the message is the narrative. While I prize the collapsing of this duality, as it would enable greater ways of perceiving and building our social reality and technologies, it's hard to escape. Images do not intrinsically exist is symbolic representations, but they unfortunately become that in a narrative framework, and gradually we condition ourselves to not see the images and instead perceive them as representations of the narrative underneath. This results in an awkward tension between abstraction and cliche, one that underlies cinema as an art form. But if spectators move away from the comfortable familiarity of convention and a "film as commodity" perception towards cinema, the medium itself can expand and enable the depth of nuance of which it is capable. Outside the focus on plot, narrative, and representation, an image can exist differently, create abstraction, and yield a greater mode of thinking outside the same narrative and representative structures that enable their existence. While one must always acknowledge narrative, new narrative and image possibilities are only unlocked when narrative serves the images, rather than the other way around. Only then can we culturally de-commodify the moving image.