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Bad? Yes -- The Flicks Made Us Do It

September 03, 2003|Nick Gillespie | Nick Gillespie is editor in chief of Reason magazine.

In a courageous admission that they no longer have any serious work left to do, attorneys general in two dozen states recently sent a letter to the Motion Picture Assn. of America asking that Hollywood minimize smoking in movies so youngsters won't be gulled into lighting up.

Taking a page from movie gangsters, who tend to threaten vaguely rather than make explicit demands, the attorneys general didn't insist on a specific remedy. Rather, according to a spokesman for one of the signatories, California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, they were merely expressing "concern for the health of our kids." The attorneys general referred to a June study from Dartmouth Medical School that claimed 10-to-14-year-olds who watched movies with a lot of smoking were more likely to smoke than those who viewed less on-screen puffing.

Whether this study proves anything is very much open to debate, but that's beside the point, isn't it? Just about everyone knows that movies are the main source of bad behavior in contemporary society. Which leaves one to wonder: Why are the attorneys general limiting themselves to reducing only smoking in movies?

There are many other equally pressing social problems that are caused by movies. The list is endless, but it certainly includes:

Car chases as problem-solver. At least since the groundbreaking car chase in 1968's "Bullitt" -- in which Steve McQueen also dangerously glamorizes cops who play by their own rules -- virtually every movie features the sort of unsafe motoring that keeps the nation's driver's ed teachers up at night.

Only a tool of the automotive industry would deny that impressionable adults ranging from O.J. Simpson to South Dakota Rep. William J. Janklow have been negatively influenced by what they've seen on the big screen.

Mutation as a viable path to self-improvement. In movies ranging from "Spider-Man" to "The Hulk" to "Daredevil," the protagonists benefit from exposure to radioactivity and other sources of gene-altering materials. If TV shows and films such as "Jackass" routinely induce high school honor students to roll down concrete embankments in shopping carts -- and by all accounts they do -- then how long is it before we read about valedictorians bombarding themselves with home-brewed gamma rays and blinding themselves with stolen nuclear materials in the hopes of gaining superpowers?

Career criminals pulling off one last heist before retiring. How many youngsters have entered the underworld believing in this version of the golden parachute? It's a dangerous, long-lived motif that formed the core of "The Score," which starred Robert DeNiro as Nick Wells, a thief whose confusing dream is to run a jazz club. Not only is Nick coaxed into a final job before getting out of "the business," he outmaneuvers his double-crossing partners and walks away fabulously wealthy.

That's clearly the wrong sort of message to be sending, and not just to would-be jazz club owners. Absent movies such as "The Score," would septuagenarian New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg have emerged from retirement for one last run after scandal-plagued incumbent Robert Torricelli dropped out of the race? Not likely.

Crusading attorneys and paralegals are attractive, romantic, selfless do-gooders -- and we need more of them. Whether it's Al "And Justice for All" Pacino chewing scenery like Marlon Brando at an all-you-can-eat buffet, Tom "A Few Good Men" Cruise unconvincingly demanding "the truth" or Julia "Erin Brockovich" Roberts indefatigably unearthing alleged corporate misdeeds, films glamorize the very profession that supports attorneys general who have nothing better to do than intimidate and harass an entertainment industry that has broken no laws. If even one impressionable youth has gone into law because of such movies, it's one too many.

Once the attorneys general have succeeded in extinguishing smoking in the movies, perhaps they can move on to less pressing matters such as ensuring that all citizens are guaranteed the right to free and creative expression.

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