Where there's smoke, there's a film


Smoking may be increasingly unwelcome in the real world, but not at the movies, where cigarettes are almost as prevalent as Demi Moore's cleavage. Some movies, in fact, couldn't exist without them.

Take "Smoke," the engrossing new drama by director Wayne Wang and novelist Paul Auster. Largely set in a New York tobacco shop and told as a series of overlappingshort stories, "Smoke" features a cast of characters -- a widowed writer, a one-armed auto mechanic, a teen-age runaway -- all of whom, at one point or another, light up. The shop owner (played by Harvey Keitel), puffs his way through the entire movie.

"Smoke" is an admittedly extreme case: The movie uses tobacco smoke as a metaphor for the randomness of its characters' criss-crossing destinies, so the constant puffing is essential to the story. It's "art," you know?

But "Smoke" is not the only movie to showcase the act of inhaling. In a 1994 study of movies from 1960 to 1990, researchers at the University of California concluded that while the number of Americans who smoke dwindled from 42 percent in 1960 to 25 percent in 1990, modern movie heroes are three times more likely to light up than their off-screen counterparts. People may kick the habit in real life, but on celluloid, cigarettes are sublime.

They've always been, really. In the pre-surgeon-general-warning days, cigarettes were such an integral part of film noirs and romances that they were immortalized right along with the actors who smoked them. Humphrey Bogart made a fine art out of dangling a cigarette from his lips just so.

It's hard to conjure up an image of Bette Davis without a cigarette in her hand. James Dean made cigarettes a fashionable accessory of 1950s teen-age angst. Today, however, the cloud of smoke doesn't necessarily follow an actor off the screen. In "Basic Instinct," Sharon Stone wielded her cigarette like a lethal weapon, leaving a squad room full of veteran policemen in a daze with a smoke and a cross of her legs. But when you think of Ms. Stone, you don't see a cigarette between her lips. Instead, you think "sex."

Still, smoke continues to fill the silver screen. Andwith reason. There is something inherently cinematic in the act of smoking -- the tapping of a cigarette, the fiddling with a lighter -- that can make almost any scene more compelling.

In "Pulp Fiction," director Quentin Tarantino made a simple dinner conversation between John Travolta and Uma Thurman more visually intriguing by having Travolta roll his own cigarettes. The device gave the actors an extra bit of physical business to concentrate on while trading lines in an essentially static setting. It also provided a way for Mr. Travolta to flirt with Ms. Thurman by rolling her a smoke of her own. And that helped define Mr. Travolta's slow-witted hit man character; sharing a cigarette was his idea of romance.

Which explains another part of the appeal: Smoking allows a filmmaker to define a character in quick, easy strokes. In "Thelma and Louise," Susan Sarandon smoked, Geena Davis didn't, and that told you a lot about who those women were.

Cigarettes are great mood-setters, too. In "The Bridges of Madison County," Clint Eastwood breaks the ice with Meryl Streep by offering her a smoke, and accidentally grazing her exposed knee reaching for the pack.

Above all else, however, cigarettes look great on screen: The twirling bluish fumes, the slow drag, the seductive exhalation all cry out to be captured on film. So don't expect movies to kick their nicotine habit any time soon, no matter what the surgeon general recommends. And if you're trying to quit, take our advice: Don't go to the movies.

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