I’ll be the first to admit that I go near-ballistic where cigarettes are concerned, from sprinting by smokers on a sidewalk to springing up to turn our window fan to exhaust mode. But, rude though I may be, I’m not as bad as the AMA. An R rating for smoking? Even when the smoker is an evil character, or when a would-be teen smoker lights up and doubles over coughing? What about random guy in the background on a busy street scene? How the hell are filmmakers going to deal with that?
Unfortunately, I have a guess, and it doesn’t involve parental permission cards. If this rating-system change does happen, the industry will know that any film involving smoking has no chance of hitting the PG-13 sweet spot for audience draw. Rather than making something like Forrest Gump inauthentic by leaving out the ubiquitious Vietnam cigarettes, they will instead add footage and sound that they may have held back on before, simply because they have that freedom under the measure. We will see films that are more violent and more full of sex and cursing where there is no cause for it, because there is nothing to lose. Imagine biographical movies about well-known smokers–Churchill, FDR, Einstein–done by John Woo, and you’ll have an idea what we’d be in for.
Now think of all the foreign films we import. They all have to be rated by our MPAA, and if you’re an aficionado you know how many of them depict smoking. And how few of them glorify violence, sex, and shameless demographic-hunting the way American movies do. They contain some elements American audiences cringe at, but they deal with them matter-of-factly rather than acting like a seven-year-old catching his brother stealing cookies. It’s not quite the difference between David and Ron Jeremy, or between video-game carnage and PTSD-level remorse, but it’s a difference. Thinking people sick of the crap churned out by Hollywood for the brain-dead masses need something besides Garfield that they can send their kids to without feeling like they’ve done them a disservice. (Sure, they’d probably want to go along if it’s really a good movie, but there’s such a thing as needing parent-only time.) Documentaries that already play to a small audience at select theaters would have more problems being viewable by an audience who could benefit from them. Japanese animated movies would get shoved back into the ghetto from which they’ve just begun to emerge in this country, as people would continue to believe that all anime is about alien hentai because of the rating.
I can’t imagine the alternate characterization of Gandalf that Philippa Boyens mentioned on the extended Fellowship DVD commentary: having just given up smoking, he now sucks toffees instead. Nor can I imagine the movie without his smoke ship, or what the Shire would have exported to Isengard if not Longbottom leaf. But this is the kind of change the AMA wants filmmakers to enact. If you think it’s ridiculous, rest assured that many of them do too. And unfortunately, whether they go along with it or simply fire their censors, if such a measure is enacted, it’s the audience that’s going to suffer.