Preaching Through Stock Footage
I don't understand smoking as a concept. It just doesn't make any sense to me. I mean, don't get me wrong. I know that, once you've started, it's extremely difficult to quit. More so than heroin, I've read. That, I do know. But the basic concept of voluntarily inhaling smoke into your lungs? I've sat around many a campfire, and the fun part is watching people trying to avoid the smoke. Even if you've seen them a minute before with a cigarette, once they've stopped, they'll then go back to trying to avoid inhaling smoke into their lungs. What's more, you can't live in the Western world and not know it's bad for you. As I've cited before, even King James I wrote a pamphlet about the evils of smoking, and one of the maintenance guys here was complaining yesterday about having to scrub nicotine out of a vacated apartment. People will talk about how it's cool, but why is it cool? Everyone's doing it, but why?
However, this is not really what filmmakers François Keraudren and Kevin Rafferty are exploring. What they seem to be delving into is our cultural heritage of smoking. However, through a complete reliance on stock footage--there is no voiceover--they are limited to about the last fifty years or so. (They could go further back by about another fifty years, but they didn't.) The movie is, at least in theory, strung together by testimony before Congress by various of the tobacco executives. Their testimony has become famous for its dishonest and self-serving nature, plainly evident even while it took place. They were fooling no one but themselves. Their testimony is here undercut with tons of stock footage, including old cigarette ads, clips from movies of various smokers, and old public service announcements about the evils of smoking. There is the curious clip from a sixty-year-old biopic about Columbus where he is snide about how smoking proves the Indians inferior.
I should make plain here that my father died in 1983 of what I've always assumed to be smoking-related causes. His parents were Julia Child's age, give or take, and they lived nearly as long as she did. My great-grandfather was at my parents' wedding, and they married late. In short, we are a long-lived family, and my dad died at forty-four. The only difference I know of for sure is that my dad smoked; Elaine says that Mom says it's one of the two things she never talked to him about, that and his politics. (I've often wondered how my own might have changed had Dad lived.) It's probable that my views on smoking are biased by that, but why shouldn't they be? Isn't it important to take such things into account? Henry Waxman is shown arguing with the tobacco executives, pressuring them about the deaths those self-same executives refused to acknowledge--not to mention the known addictive properties of nicotine, which they denied knowing about.
It's important information, but it's not best displayed here. For one thing, there's a lot about it everyone already knows. It's not, as we know, a surprise to anyone that smoking is bad for you. To me, the important part is that hearing footage. We're watching those men commit perjury. Fun as it may be to contrast that with a cheerful John Wayne selling cigarettes, what might well be more effective is contrasting it with those terrifying commercials from when I was a kid of celebrities dying of smoking-related illnesses, which were only aired after said celebrities were actually dead. It also fails to mention, because its format rather forbids, that cigarette smoking halved over about the time period covered--but the number of cigarettes smoked per person went up. One of the tobacco executives speaks slightingly of the idea that the tobacco industry sprinkles nicotine all over their cigarettes before letting them out the door, but there's evidence to suggest that they did something akin to just that.
I wonder, sometimes, why there's this assumption that all those tobacco farmers would be totally thrown out of work if the industry failed. If smoking were limited far beyond what it is now. It's true that the US history of tobacco is extraordinarily complicated; there was a time when tobacco could be used to pay taxes and so forth. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that some of that land has been used to grow tobacco for centuries, back to the days when it was the first American cash crop. (Which I think is true regardless of which use of "American" we're going for.) However, I'm not sure why something else couldn't be grown in its place, why no one thinks of that option. Not corn--we don't need more corn. But maybe a fodder cows actually have the stomachs to digest properly. Maybe a crop to make biodiesel out of. There are plenty of other plants, you see, and we have uses for many of them. Yes, it would be expensive to shift agriculture and industry that way, but more expensive than paying all those hospital bills?