MPAA CONSIDERS WARNING LABELS RELATING TO SMOKING IN FILMS
By Lee Pfeiffer
As though lousy profit margins and the need to charge the equivilent of a 30-year mortgage for a popcorn and soft drink combo isn't enough to drive movie theater owners into despair, now comes word that the Motion Picture Association of America may bend to pressure from health groups to factor "pervasive smoking" into their ratings decision for feature films. This means that at a time when theaters are finally getting bums in seats for major movies, the MPAA may provide an impediment to getting younger viewers to see certain movies if they are deemed to have scenes of excessive lighting up. No sane person would argue that smoking is a terrible and self-destructive habit - and among all the stupid things I've done in my life I can say with pride that smoking cigarettes has never been among them. (In fact, it's just about the only stupid thing I've never done!) However, we are now issuing so many warnings for so many acts of personal misbehavior that the situation has become ludicrous. We have safety labels on everything ("Do not attempt to swallow this pitchfork!") and their sheer number has rendered them all but meaningless. The MPAA has been coy about their plans. It's unclear whether the smoking warning would only apply to films in which it is deemed to be shown irresponsibly, or whether it would apply to even period films that depict eras in which smoking was much more accepted.
A NO-NO FOR DR. NO: IT'S OKAY THAT HE WANTS TO CAUSE A NUCLEAR HOLOCAUST, BUT FOR GOD'S SAKE LET'S NOT LET HIM LIGHT UP ONSCREEN!
It's also unclear whether older films would now have to carry a warning regarding their smoking content. In an age in which tweens are routinely exposed to bloody video games and televised sexual content that would make the Marquis de Sade blush, does anyone think this latest feel-good remedy will accomplish anything? The very act of warning young people away will only cause them to emulate this behavior even more. Can you imagine a 15 year-old saying to his pals, "Hey gang, we'd better not go see that new Indiana Jones movie- my mom says the Nazis smoke in it!" Trying to discourage kids from smoking is a noble goal. Cigarettes are the only product that, if used correctly, will ultimately kill you. However, the same people who are lobbying to get smoking in films regulated are generally those who cry that artistic freedom is in danger if anyone even suggests that the garbage spouted in certain rap songs might carry warning labels. ('Lest you think this is a conserative vs. liberal issue, please remember that it was Al Gore's wife Tipper who incurred the wrath of the political left years ago when she suggested ratings for music CDs.) The proposed smoking warning would have no more impact than those that prohibit you from tearing a manufacturers tag off the bottom of a couch.
BOGIE: HIS HABIT CERTAINLY CONTRIBUTED TO HIS UNTIMELY DEATH, BUT SHOULD HIS CLASSIC MOVIES NOW CARRY WARNING LABELS?
In a perfect world, no one would smoke cigarettes. However, if the health police have their way, movies will have to carry so many warnings that the newspaper ads will look like Roman scrolls. ("Warning: This film depicts excessive digestion of Dunkin' Donuts!") What about drinking? Don't indications of excessive alcohol use merit an equal warning? Don't alcoholics deserve the same nurturing from the MPAA? If so, those old Dean Martin Matt Helm films will be rated with more restrictions than The Devil in Miss Jones and George Clooney's superb Edward R. Murrow film Goodnight and Good Luck would be banished to the salt mines.
For decades the MPAA under Jack Valenti walked a tightrope of trying to please everyone. Occasionally, ratings were adjusted to be in synch with changing societal values, but overall the MPAA kept it relatively simple and uncluttered. Critics often carped that certain ratings were too restrictive or permissive, but by creating the ratings system, Valenti and the MPAA avoided the establishment of government censorship boards that many other countries had formed. If that philosophy proved workable for the esteemed and recently-departed Mr. Valenti, it should hold true today as well. Otherwise, where do we draw the line? Global warming is the latest passion of many deep thinkers in Hollywood (don't worry, next year they'll be on a new kick). I don't doubt that it, too, poses a real threat, but I also don't want Sheryl Crow trying to ban every movie but Ice Station Zebra.
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