Avatar is taking on very special distinction for me. Of all the films I’ve never seen, it has, in a very short time, become the one that I seem to know the most about. There’ve been so many blogs, so many conversations and so many appurtenant behind-the-scenes stories, exposés and think-pieces that I almost feel like an expert. Now, two-plus weeks after its release, Avatar is still punishingly ubiquitous and the news keeps coming. The latest item concerns cigarette smoking. It seems that Sigourney Weaver’s character, an environmental scientist, is seen during the pic taking some loving drags on a cancer stick. No big deal, right? Well, it is if you’re part of anti-smoking watchdog group. The New York Times reported today that Stanton A. Glantz of the Smoke Free Movies Initiative announced he’d soon be mounting an informational campaign to counter what he perceives as the film’s pro-smoking message. Still worse, Scenesmoking.org, another group that monitors cigarette use in films, awarded the film its “black lung” rating. What does James Cameron think of all this? He very nicely and patiently calls bullshit.
(‘’)In a statement given to the Times, Cameron defends himself as follows:
I wanted Grace to be a character who is initially off-putting and even unpleasant. She’s rude, she swears, she drinks, she smokes. She is not meant to be an aspirational role model to teenagers, in fact our young protagonist, Jake, through whom we experience this story, finds her to be obnoxious at first. Also, from a character perspective, we were showing that Grace doesn’t care about her human body, only her avatar body, which again is a negative comment about people in our real world living too much in their avatars, meaning on-line and in videogames. In addition, speaking as an artist, I don’t believe in the dogmatic idea that no one in a movie should smoke. Movies should reflect reality. If it’s okay for people to lie, cheat, steal and kill in PG 13 movies, why impose an inconsistent morality when it comes to smoking?
I do agree that young role-model characters should not smoke in movies, especially in a way which suggests that it makes them cooler or more accepted by their peers. In the same way that I would never show lying, cheating, stealing, or killing as cool, or aspirational, I would never portray smoking that way. We need to embrace a more complex set of criteria than simply the knee jerk reaction “smoking is bad, therefore cannot be shown.” It should be a matter of character, context, and the nature of the portrayal. I think the people who are earnestly trying to do some good in this area would be more supported by the artistic community if they were less black and white in their thinking. Smoking is a filthy habit which I don’t support, and neither, I believe, does Avatar.
Cameron’s argument is perfectly reasonable and sound, but I’m certain it won’t deter any of the afore-mentioned anti-smoking campaigners. Mr. Glantz likened the smoking scenes in Avatar to someone putting “a bunch of plutonium in the water supply.” This is an aggressively ridiculous assertion which neatly underscores the extremity of his views. I’m almost sorry that Cameron felt obliged to answer back at all, as it suggests a willingness to be part of this trivial and trivializing conversation. He doesn’t owe the art police a thing, but now they’ll know he’s listening. That’s usually their cue to get louder.