Along with buckets of money — more than $1.6 billion so far, worldwide — and a couple of Golden Globes, James Cameron’s “Avatar” has collected a smattering of controversy. Some of the hue and cry has involved matters of political allegory and theological implication.
But the fiercest attack on “Avatar” has focused on what may seem, compared to such lofty matters, like a minor detail — a line uttered by Grace Augustine, the scientist played by Sigourney Weaver, demanding to know where her cigarette is.
In the view of anti-smoking activists, the correct answer should be: Nowhere, at least not in any real or imaginary world governed by a PG-13 rating. The logic of the Smoke-Free Movies campaign, which seeks an R rating for almost all instances of on-screen puffing, is straightforward enough. If the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings board advises parents about sex, violence, language and drug use, why should it not also shield children from exposure to a lethal (if legal) product that hooks, sickens and kills hundreds of thousands of people a year? Since 2007 the MPAA has considered smoking when it makes its judgments, and one studio, Disney, has since then made all its family films smoke free.
In the movie-smoking debate, even clear positions — that children must be protected from images that might influence their behavior, or that filmmakers should be immune from censorship and interference — tend quickly to be fogged with questions of context and nuance. That is because underneath the public discussion about smoking (or gun violence, or sexual promiscuity, or whatever social problem has seized the momentary spotlight) is another, much more confused discourse: about movies and about the ways they mirror and occlude reality.
Social scientists doggedly pursue evidence of correlations between on- and off-screen behavior, while some commentators insist that no such connections could possibly exist. In recognition of the unique and dazzling impact of an art form that is also a mass medium compounded of big pictures and good-looking people, movies have always attracted the attention of censors. In the United States, regulation has been voluntary, a way for private enterprise to forestall the interference of the government. Elsewhere the state weighs in, either with outright prohibitions on certain content or with restrictions on who can see what.
Hollywood’s self-imposed system has tried both approaches. From the mid-1930s to the mid-’60s the Production Code kept a tight rein on what all audiences could see, and promised that “no picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it.” It is easy enough, in retrospect, to laugh at the starchy Victorianism of that language. But at the same time the idea that movies might ennoble their audiences and even improve us as we watch them, affirms a faith in cinema that is almost Utopian.
The code may have withered, but the ideal of movies as a universal and fundamentally benign form of entertainment has hardly gone away, and is indeed what informs many of the efforts to broaden and strengthen the ratings system.
In 2154, when “Avatar” takes place, it is possible that tobacco use will no longer exist. But if movies are still around, there will still be arguments about what they should be showing, and to whom. Such arguments are built into the medium and our complicated bond with it. We want movies to acknowledge what is real, but also to improve on reality, to give us a vision of a perfect world in which everything is permissible — a world that’s sexy, dangerous, scary and smoky and safe for children, too.
A.O. Scott / New York Times