Burn, Baby Burn

By: Holmes Charnley

A recent report in The Independent revealed that smoking in Hollywood films is making a comeback. Recent research at the University of California has shown that stars smoking in films is back to the levels of the 1950s. This is causing worries amongst many health experts because it has been found that many teenagers, whose screen idols smoke, are likely to smoke themselves.

Let me take you back a bit, away from Hollywood, to a certain incident that took place in my life many years ago when I was a teenager. (Not that many years ago then Holmes, surely…) I settled down with a friend to listen to a record he had brought round to my place one evening.

He had with him Lou Reed’s Take No Prisoners. The record is a bootleg recording, fairly rare to get hold of, and is of Lou Reed live. During one of many rants during this particular performance, Lou Reed lights up a cigarette, then turns to the audience and says, and I’ll never forget this: “You can’t have attitude without a cigarette." High-voltage Lou Reed, and what an insight it gives us into the use of smoking within films!

Now, between you and me, Hollywood has never been one of my favourite industries. I am an awful watcher of films, I tend to fidget. I once went to a screening of The Exorcist and fell asleep. I can’t help it.

It’s not a genre of the arts I find particularly engrossing.

But that aside, I do have some films I will watch time and time again and one of these films happens to be Casablanca. Now, health issues aside, role modeling aside, how in God’s name am I to find Bogart’s portrayal of Rick half as enthralling if he doesn’t chain-smoke his way through a breakdown? Sipping a mineral water and shrugging “C’est la vie" is not going to happen. The man is at the threshold to emotional hell, no, is in hell and as such, has scant regard for his cardiovascular system. He also looks cool. Through a haze of smoke, he contemplates on what has been, in all honesty, a bit of a balls up of a life.

But not all characters smoke; not all these people down on their luck immediately reach for the fags. Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining doesn’t reach for a cigarette despite suffering from what we can only describe politely as a mild bout of depression and paranoia.

In a likewise manner, take Taxi Driver, starring Robert De Niro. De Niro plays the part of a Vietnam veteran sickened by society. If ever a character needs to relax with and spark one up, it’s our friend Travis Bickle, yet, no, he decides to relax by doing some DIY that involves a pistol secreted up his arm and a mirror into which he can imagine conversations.

And whilst we’re at it, I don’t want to see Clint Eastwood riding into town, sipping delicately from a bottle of Evian. The subtle nuances would be lost; there’d be something missing.

Smoking exists in society. Therefore, if Hollywood is to reflect society, then there is always going to be the characters who smoke and those that don’t. If a character is stressed out, he or she are still unlikely to reach for a Geri Haliwell yoga video.

And are teenagers, whose screen idols smoke, more likely to smoke themselves? I’m more inclined, as others are, to go along with the idea of peer pressure, of influences closer to home. I smoke because my friends and parents smoked. I didn’t see Casablanca as a teenager. And it certainly hasn't encouraged me to continue smoking.

Film-making is one of the arts. Art reflects life. The semiotics of smoking suggests several traits within a single character, this much is true, yet it is so ingrained within Western culture to see a character who smokes as being cool and having a shed load of attitude that this overrides all else. Society must change first, then films will follow suit. Not the other way around. Hollywood isn’t that powerfulFree Web Content, nor should we ever let it become so.

? Copyright Holmes Charnley mmiv. All rights reserved.

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