Does Big Tobacco Still
"Product-Place" In
Hollywood Films?
By Michael Goodspeed <>

Since the age of 14, I,ve been a committed marathon runner, triathlete, and cyclist who values almost nothing more in life than physical wellbeing. I haven't smoked tobacoo or taken a drink of alcohol in over 6 years. Thus, I am quite puzzled as to why, upon leaving many a Hollywood flick, I want nothing more than to taste and smell the sweet, rich aroma of a cigarette.
I,ve often wondered why directors choose to have actors smoke in movies, even when it does nothing to define the characters or create atmosphere in the story. In virtually every crime-noir picture on the market, and in many action-touch guy flicks starring Bruce Willis, Van Damme, Kurt Russel and the like, smoking is portrayed as an ultra-cool, almost spiritual activity which can be used to relax, lose weight, aid in conversation, and improve one's self-confidence. Actors with physiques that are obviously the product of personal-training sessions can be seen puffing away at a rate that would make Joe Camel nauseated. Is it possible that Hollywood only does this because filmmakers are too lazy and talentless to try something else, or are the producers, directors and studios secretly reaping some financial benefits?.
Product-placement has long been a staple in motion pictures and on television, and continues to this day. Businesses shell out good money to have their restaurant chains, coffee houses, computer software, soft drinks, and various other products featured in movies, where they will be seen by millions of people. The tobacco industry has openly admitted to using this advertising technique in the past, but claims that it's been discontinued. However, I can point to numerous films in recent years which challenge that assertion.
In 1997, Quentin Tarantino directed "Jackie Brown," a gritty crime-drama adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel. Pam Grier stars as Jackie, a flight-attendant turned drug-runner/money launderer who gets caught in the middle of an FBI investigation into her bosses, dealings. About the only thing I remember from this movie, other than the general plot, is that Grier had attached to her lips an ultra-light menthol in virtually every scene. In one conversaiton with co-star Robert Forster, the two share this exchange which heartily endorses the fine tobacco product:
Forster: "I don't smoke."
Grier: "You gain weight?"
Forster: "Sure, 10 pounds."
Grier: "That's why I don't quit." (Grier then takes a 5-second drag from the cigarette, culminating in a moan of delight.)
1996 featured the Renny Harlin abomination "The Long Kiss Goodnight," starring Geena Davis and Samuel L. Jackson. It's the truly idiotic tale of a government-trained assassin who has her memory erased, only to spontaneously recall her true identity. Both Jackson and Davis chain-smoke throughout, and director Harlin features gratuitous close-ups of long-drags that do nothing to advance the story. "Long Kiss" also has such memorable lines as "A woman's face is never more beautiful than when it's fully elongated in pain, " and Davis rebutting a romantic advance with, "No thanks, I,m saving myself for when I,m raped." Harlin is probably the most successful filmmaker never to display any discernible talent. He is also single-handedly responsible for burying the career of wife Davis, who recently had the good sense to file for divorce.
The 1993 release"Tombstone" stars Val Kilmer as the tubucular, murdering outlaw Doc Holliday, who was as reputed for his smoking, drinking, and gambling as his criminal successes. In this film, the image of Kilmer smoking is an almost surrealistic vision. His admittedly funny quips are uttered with smoke smiultaneously billowing from his mouth. With the possible exception of John Travolta in "Saturday Night Fever," no actor has "succeeded" in making smoking seem more appealing.
In 1988's "Die Hard," Bruce Willis does battle with a team of pretentious terrorists, but not before inhaling an entire pack of German-brand cigarettes. What makes this so disingenuous is that Willis, character is obviously physically fit. In real life, would a guy who can sprint a dozen flight of stairs, bungy-jump off a building and outbrawl a trained assassin be a chain-smoker?
The 1981 film "Body Heat," directed by Lawrence Kasdan, features the memorable scene of William Hurt taking an invigorating, five-mile jog on the New Orleans bayouand stopping to light up a smoke.
Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone are apparently impervious to the effects of smoking in 1991's sex/bloodfest "Basic Instinct." The dozens of cigarettes they smoke throughout the film do nothing to damage their perfect skin or toned bodies, nor does it hamper their Mortal Kombat style "love-making." "Basic" was the product of writer/director team Joe Estzerhas and Paul Verhoeven, who we also have to thank for the genuinely funny "Showgirls."
What many young people don't realize is that, more often than not, the actors in these films aren't even smoking real cigarettes. Herbal, tobacco free cigarettes are often featured in films and in movies. Even William B. Davies, the infmaous "Cancer Man" on Fox's "The X-Files," relies on herbal smokes, and hasn't touched a real cigarette in 15 years. And action stars Russell, Nicolas Cage, Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Van Damme work out regularly with personal trainers, but that doesn't stop them from lighting up on the big screen.
Most people agree that Big Tobacco's advertising in the first half of the century was profoundly dishonest. It can be reasonably said that Hollywood's depiction of smoking in the late 20th century has been equally dishonest, and it's impact as great.
This is just one of many examples why parents should be concerned with the pop-culture influence on their children. All previous moral restraints on film content have dissipated. Smoking, drinking, drug use, and murder are often portrayed as mere lifestyle choices by modern filmmakers, and one can't help but wonder if the country has suffered. History has show that words and images do mean things, and no person is completely immune from the influence of mass media.
But there is another side to this discussion, and it should be addressed.
In the ongoing debate over the impact of media on our collective mental health, a key question has long been a matter of dispute: Is it more harmful for society to "hide in the closet" aberrant behaviors such as murder, rape, drug addiction, drinking, and smoking than it is for filmmakers, pop-musicians, and television producers to do what they,be been doing for decades: exploit and glamorize these phenomea for their own monetary gain?
For many years, Hollywood apologists have argued that those who protest movie amorality are driven by a desire to live in a fantastical Netherworld, where they are safely ensconced from the harsh realities of our modern times. They claim that those who feel ":threatened" by the impact of popular culture are weak-stomached, anal-retentive folk without the gumption to face the darker aspects of the human condition. This cowardice, they argue, is responsible for the US, poor history of race relations, gender equality, crime, and chemical addiction. "We are better off when aberrance is shone in the light of day," they say, even claiming that recent improvements in racial and gender equality is attributable to new trends in film.
I recently wrote an article entitled "Cold-Blooded Socipaths: The New Protagonists in Modern Film," in which I postulated that a recent trend in popular movies (the replacement of the morally centered hero with the ego-centered, often lawless anti-hero) could potentially have a corrosive effect on our society as a whole. I was met by responses which accused me of everything from witch burning to McCarthyism to wife-beating. "You want to return to a time that never existed," one person wrote, saying that the "Golden" era of movies and TV was also a time when spousal abuse, child-molestation and racial-lynching thrived in secrecy. Some also argued that I lack the intellectual depth to grock the subtle symbolism of filmmakers who use violence and drug-use as metaphors for "significant" social commentary.
I would like to a moment to refute these highly spurious assertions.
Let me pose a simple question to those of you who believe that I hate amorality in film because I,m afraid to face reality: SINCE WHEN DID MOVIES AND TV BECOME THE REAL WORLD? Do you honestly believe that movies like Pulp Fiction, Natural Born Killers, A Clockwork Orange and Reservoir Dogs are
true-to-life in their depiction of murder, drugs, alcohol and sex? If anything, these films are guilty of the most profound dishonesty, because the problems of violence and drug-use are sugar-coated to a degree where they can be tolerated by mass audiences. Hollywood has long understood that most people have a finite tolerance for real-life horror, so they "lighten it up" to make it more accessible. In the real world, murder, rape, drug and alcohol addiction are not funny, cool, or the least bit entertaining.
The truth is, it's possible for movies to ADDRESS real-life aberrance without ADVOCATING it. One of the things that made the Cohen brothers masterpiece "Fargo" so great was that it depicted crime as it really is, in all its moronic splendor. The same can be said for Carl Franklin's film-noir classic "One False Move", which unfolds the story of three small-time drug dealers/murderers whose paths cross with a small-town sheriff. Both movies were laced with extraordinary levels of random violence, but the reason I don't object to them is because the filmmakers correctly chose not to make the villains into heroes, or the unspeakable seem admirable. Totally absent was the usual Hollywood pretense of amoral coolness.
If parents wants to give their kids a rude awakening to the Big, Bad World, the last place in the world they should take them to is their local cinema. There they will only find the brain-dead products of mediocre minds, pre-packaged and sold with corporate calculation. They should take them to nursing homes, veterans hospitals, hospice facilities, and homeless shelters, places where they are forced to confront their pre-condtioned judgments and prejudices. By drawing kids away from the influence of popular culture, parents can OPEN doors to reality, not close them.


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