We finally got around to seeing “The Big Short” this week, an excellent film that actually manages to be entertaining explaining the mortgage crisis and resulting massive economic collapse that happened in 2007 and 2008. Steven Carell is amazing in this film as an intense hedge fund manager right on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
Being a tobacco nerd, I noticed something kind of interesting about the movie. It’s very much an R-rated movie, with plenty of F bombs scattered throughout the film and a couple of brief scenes of nudity. (You can show as much smoking as you want in an R-rated movie, smoking is discouraged — not banned — in PG and PG-13 movies.)
However, there is virtually no smoking. There is a very brief scene of smoking in the first two minutes of the movie, flashing back to the boring old days of banking in the 1970s. A couple of bankers are shown smoking in boring-looking banking office. So, it’s historically accurate. Smoking rates were still really high in the 1970s.
After that very short scene, the movie quickly moves to the 1980s and then the 2000s. I don’t believe there was another smoking scene in the entire movie. Which is interesting, because it featured a bunch of richer-than-crap high rollers living it up in Las Vegas, Miami, etc. But, no smoking.
Here’s the part I actually found interesting, and I’ll be paying attention to see if I notice this in any more movies. During the closing credits of “The Big Short,” they showed a disclaimer that the producers did not receive any payments from the tobacco industry for the depictions of smoking in the movie (I got a screen capture of the disclaimer).
I had never seen one of these before. Why I thought it was so interesting is that one of the conditions of the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement barred product placement in Hollywood movies 18 years ago. So, supposedly, studios have not been receiving payments from tobacco companies for nearly two decades.
I emphasize supposedly, because a very weird and inexplicable thing happened after the 1998 MSA … depictions of smoking in movies marketed to teens actually went UP, not down. Apparently, movie directors were giving tobacco companies all this advertising free of charge, out of the goodness of their hearts. I’m not being snarky, I really think they were doing this for free. Because Hollywood was extremely stuck in its way when it came to smoking and that cigarettes somehow made characters seem more cool and sophisticated.
Anyway, an interesting observation about “The Big Short.” It didn’t have all that much to do with the actual movie, but this disclaimer was a new thing to me.
I’m not sure how I feel about this, it certainly seems a bit extreme. But, an interesting tactic here, nonetheless.
A class-action lawsuit was filed recently to force the MPAA to require an automatic “R” rating for any smoking in a movie. As it stands now, the MPAA has kind of a convoluted policy to discourage smoking in PG-13 movies, but not outright ban it. Smoking is allowed under a complex set of conditions — as long as it isn’t pervasive, if it’s historically accurate (say if the film takes place in the 1950s), if smokers are shown hating cigarettes or getting sick from smoking.
It’s under this convoluted set of rules that you get an early 1960s movie like “Man From U.N.C.L.E” that is rated PG-13 but has virtually no smoking, or a PG-13 movie like “Bridge of Spies,” which takes place in the late ’50s and early 60s and has several smoking scenes, or a really violent, foul-mouthed R-rated movie like “Deadpool” that despite its extremely hard R rating, has absolutely no smoking in it (mostly because of a Disney/Marvel studio policy that forbids smoking in its movies now).
The lawsuit was filed in federal court in California in late February. It seeks monetary damages for the promotion of tobacco use among kids and an injunction to immediately stop PG-13, PG and G ratings for any movies that depict tobacco use.
The lawsuit points out that since at least 2003, Hollywood has known that tobacco imagery in films rated “G,” “PG,” and “PG-13,” is one of the major causes of children becoming addicted to nicotine. Disney, Paramount, Sony, Fox, Universal and Warner Bros. are said to have been given recommendations from health experts at leading universities throughout the country as well as the American Lung Association, the American Heart Association and the American Public Health Association, and yet are allegedly continuing to stamp “their seal of approval” on films meant for children that feature tobacco imagery.
Among the films cited are Spectre, Dumb and Dumber To, Transformers: Age of Extinction, X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Amazing Spider Man 2, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Iron Man 3, Men in Black 3 and The Woman in Black.
According to the complaint, “From 2003 when the defendants were notified that exposure to tobacco imagery in films causes children and adolescents to smoke, through 2015, youth-rated movies recruited approximately 4.6 million adolescents in the United States to smoke, of which approximately 1.5 million are expected to die from tobacco-induced diseases in years to come. And, at current rates, if defendants continue their current practice of certifying and rating films with tobacco imagery as suitable and appropriate for children and adolescents under the age of seventeen unaccompanied by a parent or guardian, defendants’ conduct will cause an additional 3.2 million American children alive today to smoke, and one million of those children to die prematurely from tobacco-related diseases including lung cancer, heart disease, stroke and emphysema.”
The lawsuit demands a declaratory judgment that the industry’s film ratings practices amount are negligent, false and misleading and a breach of fiduciary and statutory duties. The lawsuit also aims for an injunction where no films featuring tobacco imagery can be given “G,” “PG” or “PG-13” ratings.
One of the reasons I’m not wild about this lawsuit is the current MPAA policy is more or less working. Is it working a bit too slowly for my tastes? Yeah, a bit, it’s certainly not perfect, and Hollywood has shown to be damned stubborn about the issue. But, studies have shown that smoking has dropped dramatically in PG-13 and lower-rated movies since the policy went into effect about seven or eight years ago (It’s been cut roughly 50 percent from 2008 and about 60 percent since 2004). It hasn’t been eliminated, but it has dropped. Mostly because studios just don’t want to expend the energy defending smoking scenes to the MPAA board. And some studios, like Disney/Marvel, have voluntarily banned all smoking in its movies. (And for the record, movies can depict all the smoking they want in R-rated movies as far as the MPAA is concerned.).
According to the New York Times, the lawsuit, if it’s allowed to move forward, could result in blowing up the MPAA system, a voluntary rating system agreed to by all the studios in the 1960s to ward off potential governmental interference in movie ratings.
But judicial interference might also crack the ratings system wide open, exposing it to similar challenges by those who would like to see tougher ratings for portrayals of gun violence or drug use.
Key decisions are still months away. But the Forsyth suit, currently just a skirmish in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, has the look of a future battle royale — perhaps the biggest since 1968, when Jack Valenti, then president of the motion picture association, established the voluntary ratings system with an eye toward keeping the courts and lawmakers away.
While I may not be on-board with this lawsuit (my attitude is I actually do believe in the First Amendment. Give the MPAA another 10 years or so with the current policy — frankly, it’s working, so I’m not sure this lawsuit is necessary.), the issue of smoking in movies is a very valid one. One of the main pro-tobacco influences on kids for decades were movies, as smoking characters such as Lauren Becall, Humphrey Bogart (who died of esophogal cancer in his 50s) and James Bond were shown to be cool and suave and sophistated. And all this advertising for the tobacco industry was free. It wasn’t until 1980 that the tobacco industry actually started paying Hollywood studios to promote smoking and tobacco products, and disgustingly, this practise actually began with a kids’ movie — Superman II.
The practise of tobacco product placement in movies was banned by the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement. However, shockingly, depictions of tobacco use in PG-13 and PG movies actually went UP between 1998 and 2008 — the movie studios just kept giving the tobacco industry advertising … completely free of charge. This resulted in a grass-roots effort to change the MPAA rating system to include tobacco use as a factor.
Not only has smoking cigarettes all but been eliminated in Hollywood films, it’s also controversial in Bollywood.
Hollywood had a long and sordid history with smoking. Directors had their characters constantly smoke in movies beginning in the 1930s and Hollywood played a HUGE role in defining cigarettes as cool and hip.
About 20 years ago, people started becoming really alarmed by this, especially when it was revealed that beginning with Superman (yeah, Superman, the 70s film … you know, the one aimed at kids), the tobacco industry started paying Hollywood studios millions to place their products in kids’ movies.
Even after the tobacco payments were exposed and stopped by the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement, Hollywood continued including smoking in PG and PG-13 films … again, long after they were getting a dime from the tobacco industry (as far as anyone knew). It was like running on inertia. Hollywood was stuck in this time warp believing that smoking made you (and your character) look cool.
Anyway, about three or four years ago, the MPAA finally decided to add smoking to what makes film R-rated. Studios hate R-rated movies because they’re hard to market to families, so that effectively killed the chronic smoking in Hollywood movies.
Anyway, India has this strange rule requiring an anti-smoking message be shown on the screen if a character lights a cigarette. One director, Anurag Kashyap, is fighting this requirement for his newest film, taking the case to high court of Bombay. Woody Allen also recently pulled his latest movie, “Jasmine,” to protest the requirement.
(Funny anti-smoking ad from India)
“Such unreasonable conditions clearly fetter the rights of filmmakers to free speech and expression enshrined by the Constitution of India,” said Kashyap’s petition, according to a statement from his publicist. “Running a scroll not only destroys the aesthetic value of cinema but also diverts viewers from the film,” he added.
I dunno, this is a strange way to deal with the problem.
I went in to “The Grey” with my mind made up I was going to hate the movie, but then found it weirdly compelling for its existentialist themes. I knew this would be a highly controversial movie, many environmental groups have railed against the film. I was ready to defend its allegorical message … then I read an interview with the director Joe Carnahan claiming that his movie accurately depicted wolves, rambling about some “superpack” in Siberia that slaughters everything in its path. I found another interview in which he defends the wolves as just being metaphors for nature (so it sounds like he is playing both sides.) It reminded me of Zach Snyder, who gave interviews defending the accuracy of “300.”
I saw the wolves as metaphors for death and the fear of mortality always nipping at all our heels. I certainly didn’t see them as real wolves.
The cleverly done CGI wolves in “The Grey” were far too big (in one scene, the alpha male of the is about the size of a small lion), too black (virtually every wolf in the movie has black fur) far too vicious (killing for revenge and trespassing and playing mind games with their victims) and even psychotic. They didn’t act like real wolves; they didn’t even sound like wolves. Their growls were actually the growls of lions or tigers and their howls were the yippings of hyenas. I much preferred “Two Socks” in “Dances with Wolves.”
Many people will say, “it’s just a movie,” yet after Jaws, sharks were slaughtered by the thousands worldwide, in part because of the hysteria created by the film. “300,” helped do its share to create and inflame the narrative that Iranians and Easterners in general are evil, while it was the West and West alone that promoted freedom and justice. (Never mind the fact Spartans owned slaves and raped and murdered in conquest.). In fact, in many ways, “The Grey” reminded me a lot of “300,” — a technically well made movie that nonetheless embraces ignorance. Both movies are essentially fantasies.
I live in the American West, and I can’t buy into the rhetoric that “it’s just a movie.” I wish Carnahan had been a lot more assertive about that in some of his interviews. I live in country where wolves are considered the epitome of pure evil by many people. The stories run rampant in the West from hunters and ranchers of wolves stalking and chasing hunters and killing livestock out of pure malice. These stories have all been proved to be false. There is no evidence of wolves stalking humans and wolves do not kill for no reason. If they kill a sheep and leave it, that’s because they are caching it for later. Live in the West long enough and you will hear, “sooner or later they’re going to kill a baby.”
Wolves have come to weirdly represent everything wrong in America to some people — the federal government, environmentalists, rules, regulations. Wolves have become a metaphor for an out-of-control government bent on meddling in the lives of locals.
In reality, wolves are just animals. Animals at the top of the food chain that eat to survive. In fact, wolves have killed a grand total of two people in recorded history — two people in the past 150 years (perhaps wolves have killed some Indians before recorded history, but likely, this was very rare, as well.). More people than that die every year in the U.S. from domestic dog attacks.
Back to the film. In “The Grey,” the wolves are not just animals, but devils lurking in the mists and trees, waiting to claim their victims. The movie, filmed in British Columbia, takes place in the Alaskan winter. A motley crew of oil workers returning from a long shift in north Alaska, are plunged into terror after a plane crash. It is a grim, brutal, bleak movie.
One by one, the black devils, patient and efficient, come out of the mists and snow and take another victim. The survivors run, but they can’t hide from death. Each man faces their mortality differently, some stoic, others giving in to panic and then finally acceptance of their fate much like someone dying of cancer, while lead Liam Neeson like many of us, continues to fight and struggle against the inevitability of death because that is all he knows to do.
Two scenes in this movie stuck with me. One was a night scene in which the impossibly huge alpha male makes his first appearance. All you see is a single eye gleaming in the firelight (all CGI), the eye flickers from one survivor to the other, then the wolf retreats into the black. The message is sent. “You have all been noted.”
The other is when Neeson’s will is finally broken near the end of the movie. Earlier in the movie, the survivors talk about their faith. Neeson, contemplating suicide earlier in the movie, speaks of his atheism. After watching the rest of the survivors succumb, Neeson finally breaks down and asks God for help, but finds nothing in the grey sky. And finally mutters to himself, “fuck it, I’ll do it myself.”
Many of the survivors have reasons to struggle. Families and children back home. So they fight to survive and fend off death. The person who gives up admits he has nothing to live for, he has led an utterly empty life. In the end, we find Neeson has nothing to live for, as well. As he is surrounded by the demons of the snow and they back off and out of the mist enters the giant alpha. Liam Neeson decides to fight to the bitter end, facing death in his way, fighting for the sake of fighting, for the sake of life itself.
Again, powerful metaphor. Powerful allegory. Too bad the poor wolves are picked upon to represent it.