`Smoking' is about thinking for yourself
By Nell Minow
Special to the Tribune
Published March 30, 2006
"Thank You For Smoking" is a satire with particular bite in Washington these days, as it hinges on the exploits of Nick Naylor, a seemingly soulless tobacco lobbyist.
But though lobbying scandals have been in the news recently, that's just a coincidence, say the film's creators.
"This film is about parenting more than it is about cigarettes," said screenwriter/director Jason Reitman. "You can select your friendships, you and your wife can get divorced, you can distance yourself from your family and surround yourself with people who agree with you, but you can't separate yourself from your kid." At the heart of the story is an indictment of "the Yuppie Nuremberg defense," which is how the film refers to characters who use "I'm just trying to pay the mortgage" as a moral rationale. The film makes it clear that the "mortgage" excuse is one way of saying we want to care for our families.
But it also points out the yearning to be someone our children will respect and want to live up to.
The example set by parents is clearly an important issue for both Reitman and for Christopher Buckley, author of the best-selling book on which the film is based. Both followed well-known and highly accomplished fathers in their choice of careers: Ivan Reitman is a Hollywood producer and director ("Animal House," "Ghostbusters"), and William F. Buckley is a writer and editor (National Review, "God and Man at Yale," the Blackford Oakes series of spy novels).
In the movie, Nick tells his young son Joey that what matters most is thinking for yourself.
"It's not a pro-smoking movie; it's not an anti-smoking movie. It's about political correctness," Buckley said. His inspiration for the book was a woman from the Tobacco Institute he saw on what was then called the "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" on PBS. She was responding to yet another set of statistics about the harm caused by cigarettes. When Buckley heard her say, "We try to work with these so-called scientific organizations," he says, "I fell in love. What an interesting job that must be."
Buckley met with her, and "the Yuppie Nuremberg defense" sprang from their conversation.
"I said, `There's a question I'm dying to ask but I feel a little awkward.' She said, `I know. What is a nice girl like me doing in a place like this? I'm just trying to pay the mortgage,'" Buckley recalls.
"Who at age 10 wanted to grow up and be a tobacco lobbyist?" he asks.
"Life has a way of inflicting compromise on us. I recently saw former Congressman Howard Baker greeted by another Washington lion, who said, `Howard, I hear you're flying the flag for Toshiba these days!' Bob Dole was doing Viagra ads. It's always about the mortgage. The world would really be better off if everyone rented."
"I couldn't have invented [disgraced lobbyist] Jack Abramoff," Buckley says. "It seems curious that the movie is coming out as a big Washington lobbying scandal is unfolding. There's a weird fortuitousness, but it's a different cat. [Tobacco lobbyist] Nick's not in it for the money. He has a weird nobility, a kind of defiance, and a libertarian streak. He doesn't like being told what to think or do."
In the film, Nick and his only friends, the lobbyists for the gun and alcohol industries, are not the only ones who have to decide what compromises they will have to make to pay the mortgage. Among other characters facing some moral quandaries in the film are anti-smoking crusaders -- a senator from Vermont and Lorne Lutch, the one-time star of a series of cigarette ads, now dying of lung cancer.
In one of the movie's key scenes, Naylor brings the former advertising icon of independent cowboy spirit a suitcase full of money. At first, Lutch refuses the money. Naylor begins by agreeing with Lutch and the next thing you know, Lutch is switching positions.
"That scene is absolutely artistic," Buckley says. "Naylor walks him through a series of doors until he finds himself saying, `I don't suppose I could denounce you for half the money.'"
Reitman wanted Sam Elliott, best known for cowboy-loner roles in films such as "The Hi-Lo Country" and "Tombstone," to play Lutch. Elliott at first said no, for moral reasons. He did not think the character should accept the money.
Reitman went to talk to him, knowing he had to be every bit as persuasive as his fictional lobbyist.
"You've played these noble characters your whole life," Reitman told Elliott. "This is a real character, vulnerable."
Elliot took the role, and Reitman thinks that his scene is the best one in the film. The characters are "doing this complicated dance, almost like choreography. The control is constantly switching. Who has the power? It switches every four or five lines."
Reitman says he chose Buckley's book because, "I'd never read anything that funny that was kind of brashly libertarian. It seemed to be a book about taking responsibility for your actions. Nick at first says he does it to pay the mortgage, but he cares about his son and teaches his son to be a decent human being."
"Joey gives [Nick] a chance to be a parent, to teach him to be an independent thinker. You can't just say to your kids `Don't smoke.' You have to teach them to make decisions. Joey is a window into Nick's soul."
Nell Minow reviews movies each week as The Movie Mom for Yahoo! Movies and for radio stations across the country. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thursday, March 30, 2006
`Smoking' is about thinking for yourself
Saturday, March 25, 2006
I interviewed Jeff Feurzeig, director of The Devil and Daniel Johnston, a documentary about the artist/singer/songwriter who has struggled with bi-polar disorder but produced prodigious amounts of highly acclaimed work.
I have to begin by asking why your interview of Gibby Haines [of the Butthole Surfers] takes place as he is in the dentist chair. Were you making a statement, was that his only availability, or both?
Both! I had seen the Butthole Surfers in their first tour in the 1980's. They projected medical films, like operations, on the screen in front of their fire, strobes, and naked dancing girls when they played. It was quite a spectacle. So this was a reflection of that, plus that was when he was available. He had seven cavities. But he was under novacaine and just kept on talking. The dentist was really into it.
I saw that you referred to Daniel Johnston's view of the world as "unfiltered." In what way? Isn't mental illness a filter?
Madness is the key that removes the filters we all have from our exterior and interior life, our public life and private life. Most writers, musicians, whatever,
their goal is to present their raw emotion what they're feeling inside. But I don't think everyone's able to do that. Daniel is able to do that and that is the
power of his music and art. Anything that he is feeling inside comes directly out all his thoughts and feelings, so incredibly raw and honest. To my ears
and eyes that is very refreshing. It sucks you into his mind.
He is an enigma. The only way to know him is through his music and art. I don't feel i know him because there is no give and take in that relationship. Any relationship is a two way street and he can't do that. Kathy [McCarty, who appears in the film] fell in love with the art and couldn't love the man. She did a tribute album and married his best friend.
In many ways they're all heroic, his parents are heroic. Jeff Tartakov [the manager who devoted his life to Johnston and then was replaced] -- this is a tragic story but out of that tragedy there is incredible beauty. Jeff was like [the Beatles' first manager] Brian Epstein, so devoted, believed so deeply. The movie is very much a tribute to him, for him as much as Daniel.
Do people respond to Johnston's real-life story or his art?
People laugh and cry. That's real. That's talent, period. All art is subjective and its up to the audience to walk away with everything or nothing. If they have open hearts and ears its a wonderful epic journey to take.
Why was making this film important to you?
That was my life's work. I thought about making this film since 1990. I've been obsessing about his art and music since 1985. It all came together on the radio show.
All the theories I had about him presented themselves as truths; there was incredible humor and comedy that should not be overlooked. The radio drama was just another medium that he did so well, like when he was playing all the roles and directing himself in those early films, making humor out of the darkness. He was like [the Woody Allen character] Zelig. He could transform himself. He is in control of his art. I believe he plays the guitar that way intentionally, not that he is not as good on the guitar as the piano. That authentic, straightforward, simple guitar music is his signature sound. This is the first time we've had a chancde to go as close to that fire that burns where madness and art and genius meet, but doesn't glorify it or sugar coat it on purpose.
Who understands him best?
If anyone understands him, it's probably his mom and dad. But the only way even the dad knows what's going on in his mind is when he reads the captions over his shoulder, to really know him is through his music and his art. Daniel is always the smartest person in the room but has arrested development. He's stuck in this high school world, those characters are very real to him and he has relationships with them. He's having a party in his head at all times. You can't really reach him. Maybe Casper the Friendly Ghost is closest.
The Johnston family asked me to do this. They said I should share their story to help other families. They made me make them a promise to tell the truth. They said, "Don't leave out the drugs and LSD. Just make sure you tell everything."
Posted by Nell Minow at 10:49 PM
Tuesday, March 21, 2006
In a shameful example of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em so you, too, can make money by pretending that something harmful to children benefits them, Sesame Street has tarnished its once-impeccable reputation by entering the "Baby Einstein" marketplace. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood statement calls on Zero to Three to avoid tarnishing its previously impeccable reputation by withdrawing its endorsement. Zero to Three founder Barry Brazelton expressed his dismay in a letter sent by CCFC, according to the Washington Post.
But perhaps even more stinging is the rebuke by T. Berry Brazelton, the famous baby doctor who helped found Zero to Three nearly 30 years ago. "I absolutely support the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation that children under two be kept away from screen media. It's too expensive for them physically as well as psychologically," he wrote late last week in CCFC's protest letter to Zero to Three.
Posted by Nell Minow at 4:29 PM
Thursday, March 16, 2006
I am a big fan of You Tube and Google Video. Yes, there are way too many clips of people lip-synching and dumb pranks and stunts. I know your babies/kittens/girlfriends are adorable, but forgive me for telling you -- not quite as adorable as you think. Many are dull, inept, and pointless. And people -- spelling and grammar count.
I keep going back because I really do enjoy the insouciance, irreverence, and immediacy of the best ones. I have particularly liked:
Why I Got Fired from Apple (featuring a poem about a Canadian Fed Ex lady)
A sweet song about true love and devotion from Tripod
The Star Wars Lego symphony, conducted, of course, by Darth Vadar.
Speaking of Star Wars, check out this very fine light saber clip, too.
Posted by Nell Minow at 8:18 PM
Friday, March 10, 2006
Thursday, March 09, 2006
Just as "The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things" is about to be released, the author of the book has been exposed as a fraud. Not a James Frey/CEO of Radio Shack
"I exaggerated to make myself look better" fraud, but an all-out "this person never really existed and all of the facts are made up" fraud. The book was supposed to have been written by abused child/child prostitute/recovering drug addict/transgendered J.T. Leroy. Touted and befriended by various glitterati like Courtney Love and Lou Reed, the author of books that were lauded for their freshness, frankness, and maturity, it turns out that "Leroy" was the creation of a 40-something woman who handled the writing and phone calls and had her sister-in-law handle the public appearances.
The studio is adopting the attitude that if you can't hide it, make it the reason to buy a ticket.
The movie's tagline is frank, if self-aggrandizing: "Behind the greatest hoax of our time is the heartbreaking story that started it all." The greatest hoax of our time? That's a pretty hotly contested title in this era of imaginary WMDs and the Enron trial.
I almost said that the movie tagline was as grandiose as its imaginary author. It's just about impossible to resist metonymy -- using the fake Leroy story as a symbol for the movie -- or using the movie's title to comment on "Leroy." I'm going to watch and see how the critics try to do that without being too obvious.
First one out of the gate is pretty good. The New Yorker's Anthony Lane
says: "In short, if you think the heart is deceitful, you should meet the author."
Posted by Nell Minow at 4:29 PM
Many thanks to the wonderful
cinematical site for directing me to this solo animation blog by Pixar's Jim Capobianco. Not only does it provide the pleasure of seeing a highly imaginative guy's highly individual effort (like a flute soloist having fun on a break from performing with a symphony), but he has some very worthwhile thoughts that apply to all of us when it comes to making time for the things that matter to us:
Here's the thing I realized, that what ever you can do on your project each day is valuable. May it be five minutes or five hours. 5 drawings or 5 feet of film. You are 5 minutes, 5 drawings closer to your goal. The important thing is that you do it. Even if you have to eventually throw out those drawings, you had to do them to get to the next five. So quit whining that you don't have the time because you do. By the way one show I can't give up is the Daily Show, which was a nice 30 minute break before diving into the work. Then they had to go and add the Colbert Report! Oh, the world and time are against you, fight back with those five minutes.
Posted by Nell Minow at 3:05 PM
Friday, March 03, 2006
Thursday, March 02, 2006
In this interview, Tyler Perry, writer/director/composer and actor in the title role and two other parts in "Medea's Family Reunion," lists his favorite African American movies. It's a great list, and I was especially glad to see the underrated "Josephine Baker Story" on the list. It must have been a special thrill for him to have its star, Lynn Whitfield, play the scheming Victoria in his films.
Posted by Nell Minow at 10:43 AM