Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Let the Cleansing Begin

This is a sad day for Nick Naylor. Just months two months after the MPAA announced that depictions of smoking in cinema will figure greatly into the ratings system (essentially saying that smoking equals a higher rating), Disney today announced that it will purge all representations of smoking in their films. From Reuters:

"LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Walt Disney Co. on Wednesday became the first major Hollywood studio to ban depictions of smoking, saying there would be no smoking in its family-oriented, Disney-branded films and it would "discourage" it in films distributed by its Touchstone and Miramax labels.

Disney Chief Executive Robert Iger also said in a letter to U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, whose committee last month held hearings on the effects of movie images on children, that the studio would place anti-smoking public service announcements on DVDs of any future films that feature cigarette smoking.

He said the company would encourage theater owners to show screen anti-smoking public service announcements, or PSAs, before such films.

Iger cautioned, however, that "cigarette smoking is a unique problem and this PSA effort is not a precedent for any other issue."

Markey described Disney's commitment as "groundbreaking" and urged other studios to follow suit.

Dr. Cheryl Healton, president and CEO of the American Legacy Foundation, commended Disney's move but said the studio left "some ambiguity about what would happen in relation to Touchstone and Miramax."

Research cited by American Legacy, a nonprofit created out of landmark litigation between the tobacco industry and states attorneys general, shows that 90 percent of all films depict smoking and children with the highest exposure to smoking in movies were nearly three times more likely to start smoking.

Tobacco is featured in three-quarters of G, PG and PG-13 rated movies and 90 percent of R-rated movies, the studies showed.

The independent Weinstein Co. already is using PSAs produced by American Legacy ahead of its films that depict smoking, Healton said."

I'm sure child advocacy groups and those in support of "cleansing" entertainment will rejoice when they hear of this news. Yet the implications for these actions are massive as well as unsettling. What troubles me most about this report is that Disney will now "discourage" its subsidiary brands -- Miramax and Touchstone -- from employing images of smoking in their films. But there is something even more troubling about all of this.

Gradually, the movies are becoming the equivalent of the advertisements they are purported to be by the MPAA and other lawmakers. Rather than invoking a dialogue concerning matters of representation and consumption in the digital age, these "clamping down" effects actually limit our perceptions and interpretations of electronic media, imposing particular ideologies onto the collective so as to build a world of commodity and hypercommercialism. Disney's decision in reality has little to do with the harmful health effects of smoking or promoting more positive lifestyles in American youth. If it did, than the diet-promoting Shrek probably would not have had the endorsement deals with McDonald's or Coca-Cola. No; this is about something much larger and discomforting. Smoking is now just the trendy target for the massive corporate interests whose influence set the larger ideological agenda.

Once again, we seem to be hung up on the message, while the real changes are happening on the level of the medium, which is continually shifting so as to serve these interests. Under the guise of public health interests, institutions of power are really promoting a larger movement of commodifying everything to the point that we are gradually becoming numb to it. It seems that we are being lured into gentle complacency as we learn to be better consumers.

Of course, the "cultural cleansing" had to begin with Disney.


Anonymous said...

Good article.

I've been watching a fair share of American films from the '40s, '50s and '60s recently, and I'm stunned at how cinematic the cigarette is. How it's manipulated, used, filmed can alter emotion, create menace, convey eroticism. A scene in which a character, in essence, does nothing can, with a cigarette, be about something.

Therefore, in addition to the very good political/ideological reasons you give, I think that by banning the cigarette, cinema loses a little of its established aesthetic, too.

Ted Pigeon said...

Good observations, Pacze. Your comments concerning the cinematically evocative nature of smoking is partly what has inspired my post. There are few who would argue that cigarette smoking is harmful to one's health, but since when are movies nothing more than advertisements? The cultural understanding of representation (especially visual representation) is so misplaced in its being geared towards the promotional end of signification, as if movies are nothing more than advertisements.

Especially in the 40's and 50's smoking was much more a cultural touchstone than it is today, for sure, which is why it was practically fetishized in noir cinema and most of mainstream Hollywood movie making. Now, of course, its the punching bad of institutions of power, and it is really just the trendy thing to do.

So affected are we by these notions of commodification that we seem to have culturally bought into to these movements of "cleaning up" entertainment. Movements such as banning smoking in cinema only appears positive from within this mold and the fact that this movement has so much support and is now beginning is indicative of our saturated state of consumption.

Sure, Hollywood cinema is beginning to embody productness in its movies, as many of them are watered down, PC-style advertisements with no aesthetic value, meant to bludgeon viewers into passivity and turn them into consumers. Representations of smoking in said movies are usually restricted to villains or heroes in need of saving.

Smoking, like many things, can no longer aesthetically exist and mean outside its simple representative comparrisons of evil, villainy, or addiction. It is on this level that we are conditioned to interpret images, which are much more complex than this. However, this movement has invaded our culture to the point that images are now embodying the cliches and easily swallowable representations.

The Disney ban on smoking likely won't mean much for Disney movies. But I fear that it represents the beginning of a greater inching towards passive consumption and mindless representation. All one needs to do to understand how this war on smoking affects all of cinema is look to the changing ratings process. The MPAA in many ways holds the keys to our cultural interpretation of movies. By implementing a harsher ruling on images of smoking, small studios are just as affected as the larger ones, which means even movies that reject Hollywood commodification are influenced by this. In fact, they are perhaps more influenced by it since ratings affect many economic factors contributing to distribution and promotion, which all movies need to be seen and in turn produced.

These are just some of the reasons why this news really, really scares me.