THE PORTRAIT photographer Marion Ettlinger once told me that the worst thing to ever happen to her art form was the demise of smoking. A cigarette, after all, not only gives a subject something to do with his hands, it seems to provide an uncanny cure for camera shyness, allowing a facial expression and a physical posture to integrate into some ineffable moment of truth.
Ettlinger is known for her portraits of authors, a species historically known for prodigious smoking as well as a spectacular discomfort during photo shoots. It's easy to see how the stigma now attached to cigarettes might feel like a color removed from her palette.
Let's just get this out of the way now: I know smoking is bad. No one should do it (except at Ramones concerts) and kids, who are discovered to be impressionable in new ways each day, shouldn't be overexposed to smoking in the media any more than they should be overexposed to other things that kill people — like, say, violence.
I also realize that the MPAA isn't threatening to automatically assign an R rating to any movie in which someone happens to light up. According to the announcement, it will consider the following: Is the smoking pervasive? Does the film glamorize smoking? Is there a historic or other mitigating context?
Inevitably, this will raise all sorts of confounding and fascinating ethical and demiurgic questions. Can a villain be "glamorous"? Is smoking OK if the smoker is trying to quit? Or if he dies of a smoking-related illness? What if he dies of something else (like being hit by a bus while smoking)?
Indeed, such inquiries are the sediment from which slippery slopes are born, not to mention the kind of thinking that could potentially result in something like "101 Dalmatians" getting slapped with an R rating thanks to that villainous yet resoundingly glam chain-smoker Cruella De Vil.
But let's not overreact. In these anti-tobacco times, the only kind of on-screen smoking that carries enough mystique to possibly influence a teenager is the kind that goes along with sex (or the neurosis brought on by its absence) — and that will most likely garner an R rating anyway.
So, on one hand, nothing is lost. Even the Directors Guild of America has come out in support of the MPAA on this one. But this sudden focus on celluloid smoking reminds me of how, as an impressionable youth, I was profoundly affected by certain films not in spite of their depiction of smoking but, at least on some level, because of it.
I'm talking not only about classics like "Casablanca" and "High Noon" (and just about every American film made before the 1970s) but about the French new wave cinema, the work of Italians like Fellini and Pasolini, Germans like Wenders and Fassbinder, and independent American directors like John Cassavetes, Peter Bogdanovich and Jim Jarmusch.
By studying these films as a high school and college student, I received an education not just in cinema but in sensuality. These movies put a premium on a gritty ambience that managed to seem totally sexy even if there was no sex happening at all. And they did this almost entirely with cigarettes.
How come every film student I knew in the 1980s and '90s, making a 16-mm black-and-white short, asked the actors to smoke? Because it was easier than asking them to take their clothes off, and the effect was about the same, maybe better.
When it comes to getting your attention, cigarettes, with their radical, hipster connotations, are the art world's best advertisement, a sly form of pornography that's so sexy it transcends sex. Watch John Lurie smoking away in Jarmusch's "Stranger Than Paradise" and you'll see what I mean. It seduces us into watching challenging, or at least unconventional, material.
Of course, filmmakers can become as overreliant on cigarettes as the people who smoke them. In independent and studio productions alike, it's all too easy to forget the hard work of character development and portray the bad guy as economically disadvantaged, mentally ill or just plain mean by sticking a Merit in his mouth or, if you want to go for slutty, make it a Virginia Slims in her mouth. But ever since the early days of cinema, the body language of movies has been largely rooted in the fluid, self-possessed gestures that cigarette smoking enables. It may be time to bid it farewell, but it also deserves some grudging respect for supporting the arts.