America the Taliban
The idea that any new film that depicts someone smoking will be given an R rating by the Motion Picture Association of America [MPAA] is an example of yet another buttinsky group of zealots worked into a lather about a tangential issue when the world is falling apart.
Is this wonderfully free society being gradually subverted by multitudes of muddled prudes who want to dictate how we think and act just like the Taliban in Afghanistan?
I am reminded of Cole Porter’s delightful—and deliciously racy—musical comedy, “Out of This World,” which opened in 1950 and was based on Greek mythology. I saw it at age 15 at the Century Theater at 59th Street and Seventh Avenue in Manhattan and was scarred for life.
To give you an idea of its horrifying content, the illustration at the end of this issue is a copy of the letter to the theater owner from bureaucratic censors in the Boston mayor’s office who demanded changes before it was allowed to open out of town and corrupt Boston audiences.
In the immortal words of Jimmy Durante, “Why doesn’t everybody leave everybody else the hell alone?”
About the Business of Smoking
I despise cigarettes. I am happy about non-smoking in public places. When Sammy Davis Jr. died, one of his obituaries described how this vibrant, brilliant entertainer was shriveled into a fetal position and weighed 60 pounds at his end. I multiplied the number of packs a day he smoked x the number of years he smoked x 20 cigarettes in a pack and came up with 750,000.
My father was a heavy smoker and, amazingly, lived a reasonably healthy life until I watched him drown in his own bodily fluids at age 76. My mother and uncle were all heavy smokers and died of cancer.
Etched in memory is a horrifying article by the late Alice Trillin, who was lying in a bathtub when she coughed up blood and realized she had cancer—not from smoking, but from years of breathing in secondhand smoke from her parents.
In these pages, I wrote about declining to meet Humphrey Bogart, because it was obvious to me he was dying of cancer—even though everyone else was oblivious to the situation—because I was uncomfortable at the idea of intruding. (http://tinyurl.com/2c9zul)
Every time I walk down raffish South Street around the corner from my house in Center City Philadelphia and see young people—mostly girls—smoking cigarettes and trying to look cool, I want to collar them and tell them about watching my father die. But, of course, I don’t. I am not a buttinsky.
Now, the MPAA has caved in to a virulent anti-tobacco group called SceneSmoking.com that launched a letter-writing campaign to film studios and actors complaining about on-screen smoking.
In justifying the R ratings, MPAA Chairman Dan Glickman said that “smoking is increasingly an unacceptable behavior in our society.”
No, Dan, smoking is a personal choice. If done in private, it is not unacceptable behavior.
Unacceptable behavior is having oral sex in the Oval Office with an intern and then lying about it, throwing up on Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa at a formal dinner in Tokyo or giving an unsolicited back massage to the chancellor of Germany for a worldwide TV audience.
A good friend of mine, an unapologetic smoker, put it this way:
I like cigarettes—vast quantities of them. I like alcohol—vast quantities of it. And if I am not allowed to smoke in restaurants and bars, I will stay home where I will eat and drink better and cheaper.
I remember spending six weeks in Rome with my father, who was writing a biography of the American ambassador, Clare Booth Luce. At a party, a priest said to me, “Give me a child between birth and five years of age and I will give you back a Catholic for the rest of its life.”
In my opinion, if a kid isn’t scared off smoking by parents and family by age six or seven, the MPAA R rating won’t make much difference.
I have to believe that the proprietors of SceneSmoking.com could save more lives if their time and money were spent dealing with the fact that a child dies of hunger every five seconds somewhere on Earth.
Meanwhile, the integrity of films and characters may well be diminished as producers and directors contemplate the threat of what the R rating will mean to the box office.
What’s next? The assignment of retro R ratings for smoking to 90% of the films made from 1902 to 2007?
Will this be followed by a law that forces every smoker to wear a giant scarlet “S” when out in public?
About Skewed Priorities
During the third weekend of this past April, 11 people were murdered in Philadelphia, bringing the total deaths by violence to 127 so far this year, more than one killing a day—and more killings than in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, which have much higher populations.
That same week, the Philadelphia Police Department discovered a little-known, 30-year-old state law which states that under the crime code, fortune-telling “for gain or lucre” is a third-degree misdemeanor.
That day, the Department of Licenses and Inspections ordered the police to shut down all storefront psychics, astrologers, phrenologists, palm readers and tarot-card readers who charge for their services. The week that saw 11 murders also saw the closing of 16 non-threatening, honestly run businesses with more closings expected.
In the words of the owner of Psychic, a fortune-telling shop on Walnut Street, “First of all, they’ve got to stop the 129 murders in this city. What we do is entertainment.”
Another Question of Priorities: Evolution vs. Intelligent Design
Two years ago, the country got all worked up about evolution vs. creationism with believers in both camps adamant that only one concept be taught in schools.
I took biology at Andover, where I dissected pickled animals (ugh) and studied their little organs, starting with worms and working up to a frog. Evolution made sense then and makes sense now.
At the same time, my wife, Peggy, and I have taken three photo safaris to Africa, where we saw wondrous sights. I especially recall one Christmas morning at Tanzania’s Lake Manyara where we spent three hours mesmerized by 100 hippos cavorting on land and in the water. Later that day, we saw a one-hour-old giraffe and the birth of a Thomson’s gazelle. Our guide explained that newborn animals on the plains give off no smell, thus keeping them safe from predators until they get their footing.
On these safaris, I believed down to my toes that some grand scheme was at work on the planet and in the universe—and that these magical events were the result of something far more powerful than simply a bolt of lightning striking some primordial goo 3 billion years ago.
Creationism or intelligent design? Why not?
So what happens when kids grow up and discover they were not allowed to learn about Darwin, the HMS Beagle and the Galapagos because some true believers felt that their lives might be ruined by this knowledge?
Conversely, what of those kids who were taught pure evolution and then reach high school or college only to discover that many people in the world believe in a creator or a higher being?
It seems to me that both groups of kids will think that school systems and the adults that run them are just plain nuts.
More to the point, why expend all this energy and money on an issue that will not change the world for better or worse any more than the classic argument over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?
I have to believe that if all businesses operated on these skewed priorities, we would all be one paycheck away from another Great Depression.
P.S. On May 1, Philadelphia officialdom came to its senses and allowed fortune-tellers to reopen their businesses. As David O’Reilly wrote in the Inquirer:
Andrew Ross, divisional deputy city solicitor, said yesterday that while the law was useful in fraud cases, “we felt it was hard to say what kind of evidence might be needed to prove someone was pretending to tell fortunes.”