There is something quite off about Madonna’s W.E.. Besides the obvious lameness that I alongside many others took with Madge’s delivery, its is really hard to identify what exactly is so wrong about this film. I dare you to watch any interview with the egocentric director about her latest project, and count how many times she mentions ‘her film’, ‘my project’, ‘her passion’. One simply doesn’t have enough digits on their hands or feet to do this. Madge’s incessant sub-conscious boasting about ‘her film’ is an interesting case, because I think that it contributes (at least for W.E) to 90% of her harshest criticisms. Pointing so much attention at her ‘creative process’ has made critics and audiences alike find it very hard to separate her film’s pretension from promise.
W.E.certainly exuded decadence: its sets were lavish, costumes pristine, and acting well crafted. But at the base of it all, the obsessive smoking of cigarettes and the act of smoking became fore grounded so much so that it actually (and I say actually because I never would have imagined that I would take note of smoking in film or ever see it as a problem) became one of my most central gripes with the film.
Growing up as part of the generation of boys who idolized Edward Furlong’s love-able knuckle head/ bad boy persona in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), I am familiar with the popularization of ‘cool’ habits. These would be those traits that have been paraded by film and media industries for quite some time as actions or items that establish one’s certain hipness.
A good example of one these actions of the ‘cool’ would be the aforementioned act of smoking and the frequent use of profanity in film, both of which director’s somehow continue to make more varied and memorable (just listen to about 30 seconds of Jonah Hill’s dialog in Superbad (2007)). Smoking, whether being consciously pushed as a signifier of ‘cool’ by the industry or not, has always been synonomous with being hip. In the silent and classical days of film production, actors smoked on screen in order to look less idle Still, watching an icon like Humphrey Bogart let a cigarette turn into a long stick of ash was and still is considered ‘cool’. Even more so, it’s undeniable that the act of smoking was made even more debonair by someone like Bogarts’ unique and archetypal suaveness. It was his certain personality that added to the coolness of the act, and I still think there is something quite admirable about that.
Once major changes came about in Hollywood’s production code, essentially allowing us to see and hear more than before, it only made sense that the ‘coolness’ represented in that iconic way that players like Bogart carefully tailored (i.e. good dress, a cigarette, scotch, and a neat shave) became easier and easier to represent on screen. In American History X (1998), is Furlong only 7 years after his prepubescent appearance as John Connor in T2. Although Furlong continued to play the reckless-bad boy with swag role, the items that define his particular ‘coolness’ had matured as well. Here he is seen swearing, smoking a cigarette, and flaunting his Neo-Nazi attitude (only for the film of course). Still, its important to remember how odd it is that Furlong’s image transgressed into this, as he was not always a signifier of ‘cool’ because of his arguably bad habits, but originally because of his bad attitude.
This makes it clear that the days of unspoken style, where a cigarette was more an indication of adulthood rather than youthful hipness, are long gone. Thus, this is the greatest offence of Madonna’s W.E.. The film showcases nearly every shot, both in its past and present story lines, of the films’ protagonists chain smoking like there is no tomorrow. I don’t have any problem with cigarette and alcohol consumption in film, as if any film is really doing what it is supposed to be doing (translating thoughts and ideas with moving images) the real nature of these substances should be seen as secondary, if at all, to what is at play on screen. The difference with such behaviour in W.E. then is that this film fetishizes cigarette consumption and the act of smoking itself, glamorizing the act by making it intrinsically linked to the glamorous lifestyles of its characters. We live in a day and age where the hazards of smoking have become public knowledge, and seeing Madge flaunt and sexualize this act makes W.E. quite transparent in its desperate attempt to be stylish.
When is it okay to show the act of smoking and when is it not? When is this act being glamorized? What makes it look cool in these instances?
While its fair to say that all of these questions are open to debate, films like W.E. go to show that big budget productions companies the Weinstein Company still choose to endorse the likes of films that utilize smoking as a stylish and seductive act.
Well in 2011, public health authorities such as the Center for Tobacco Control and Research at the University of California and the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention researched the effects of smoking in film. Curiously, the results showed that smoking in film has shown to caused 13% less profit made at the box office. This caused me to ask: has all of the anti-smoking propaganda actually worked then?
There have also been many watchdog groups dedicated to the reduction/ elimination of smoking in film, namely Smoke Free Movies: an organization that proposes that all films with instances of smoking in them be given an ‘R’ rating, anti-tobacco adds be shown before the film, and government and state subsidies only be given to film’s that are tobacco free.
While its good to know that there are a group of people, somewhere out there, dedicated to monitoring the sometimes reckless attitude influential industries like those of film or the entertainment industry take towards depicting addictive behaviours and substances, it is really very hard to say if such stringent actions are helpful or detrimental. While a film like W.E. showcases mindless cigarette consumption at its worst, it also must be remembered that other filmmakers and production teams are much more aware of the implications of the habits their films portray, and to make them adhere to such rules would be out right censorship at the expense of the artist– an act that would no doubt impose on creative freedom.
It’s unfortunate that Bogart’s iconic image as the chain smoking, matter of fact tough guy took him to his grave: Bogart died from cancer of the esophagus in 1957. Whether the rally against smoking in film is right or wrong, it takes only one American cinema icon like Bogart to make us recognize that being ‘cool’ on camera is always an act that is linked with those scenes we see on the screen, that took place at that particular moment, and those images and ‘coolness’ can never live on and endure any longer than just that.