Thursday, November 10, 2016

Thank You for Smoking: Personal Analysis through Visual Literacy Lens

**Note: I wrote this blog post a long time ago, but for some reason it never published! I just found this in my drafts. I guess I need to be more careful about making sure my posts are actually shared for you to see!**

Thank You for Smoking (2005) is a comedic drama about Nick Naylor, a spokesman for Big Tobacco. Nick is in a tricky situation due to his two jobs: promoting the use of cigarettes and role modeling for his son, Joey. In the movie, Nick has been tasked with selling and defending cigarettes amidst all of the allegations coming from the opposition that smoking cigarettes is bad for your health. Nick's main opponent is Senator Ortolan Finisterre, who is pushing for legislation that would require cigarettes to have warning labels on them. There are many instances in the film in which Nick has to "spin the truth" to fight for cigarettes; for example, he cons former Marlboro Man Lorne Lutch into taking a suitcase full of money in return for keeping quiet about the fact that smoking cigarettes led to his deadly cancer. These experiences help Nick teach Joey about the power of a good argument and the determination not to give up, even if his cause is questionable. Nick has to live up to his lessons when it is revealed that he shushed Lorne Lutch with money, was working on deals to put more cigarettes into movies, and met weekly with the Merchants of Death (a group consisting of Nick and two other people, one who works for rifle rights and the other who defends alcohol use). Though he has been shunned from his work and feels meaningless, Nick is able to convince the court that warning labels should not be placed on cigarettes because most things can be bad for our health; Nick argued that cheese should have warning labels about the potential for clogged arteries. At the end, Nick becomes the ultimate role model for his son not only by going to court to make a good argument, but also doing what's right by quitting Big Tobacco.

Check out the trailer for Thank You for Smoking:

What do you feel is the message the director is trying to express in this movie? Support your answer with examples.
In an interview with ABC, Jason Reitman said, "What I wanted people to think about was political correctness. I wanted them to think about ideas of personal responsibility and personal choice." I think this idea was highlighted throughout the entire movie. The government's position in the film was that cigarettes are bad for you; they lead to cancer and other ailments, secondhand smoke affects people who aren't even smoking themselves, and the problem extends all the way down to teenagers who think smoking is "cool." However, as Nick argued, smoking should be a personal choice. People can eat cheese and risk developing heart disease, so people should be allowed to smoke and risk the diagnosis of lung (or other) cancer. Personal responsibility came into play in the film through Nick's son Joey. Nick knew that cigarettes were bad for humans' health, and he had a responsibility to teach that to his son. However, Nick admitted that if his son wanted to smoke cigarettes, he wouldn't stop him, because that would be Joey's personal choice (once he was old enough to smoke). I think that through this film, Reitman pointed out that while everyone can have their own opinions and act upon them however they like, we can't force others to share our opinions or act upon ideas they don't believe in.

If applicable, discuss if you think this movie has accurate depictions of minorities or if they are situational? Why or why not?
I don't think this movie was created to depict minorities. The film took place in America, and all of the main characters were white, English-speaking, heterosexual (as far as we know) people. (That is not to say that those are the only categories of diversity; there just wasn't much if any diversity in the film.) While I think that diversity in the film would have created a more accurate representation of the American population, diversity was not an integral part of the message in this film. The same point could have been made regardless of the identity of the characters.

Used with permission from Lou Gold on flickr

Explain if you think the director’s ethnic/cultural/professional background played a role in directing this film?
Jason Reitman is also a white American man, so his personal background may have influenced his casting choices. In regards to his decision whether or not to smoke, this interview with confirms that Reitman does not smoke himself. I think this just adds a layer of beauty to the idea behind this movie. Reitman does not smoke, so this is not an appeal for smoking. Rather, Reitman argues, through the film, that people should be entitled to their own choices about whether or not to participate in that behavior. 

What groups (people of color, nationality, culture, class, gender etc.) may be offended or misinterpret this movie and why?
This movie did not represent any diverse populations. I don't think the people portrayed in this movie gave an accurate depiction of the population of the United States. People who do not identify similarly to the characters in the film may be offended by the lack of inclusion.
I think people who smoke (or even those who don't smoke) may be offended by the movie. People who smoke may not appreciate that their personal choice comes under fire in this film. I am sure they do not like to be reminded that their behavior is deadly and dangerous. However, I think they should find comfort in the message of the movie that people are entitled to make their own decisions as long as they are not putting others in harm. People who don't smoke may not like how the opposition to smoking is depicted. Senator Ortolan Finisterre's character is a little goofy and over-the-top, and I am sure there are people in the world who feel that this is a more serious argument. 

Used with permission from Wikifreund on WikiMedia Commons

What kind of artistic and/or visual means did the director use in the movie to focus our attention?
One thing that I noticed regarding visuals in the film was the use of light and dark. When Nick's life is going well, everything is light. The most obvious example in the film is when he visits the movie producer to inquire about getting cigarettes in the films: the producer's office and the home he allows Nick and Joey to stay in are both stark white and minimalist. Another example is when Nick wakes up in the hospital; the hospital is bright white, and we are surprised and elated to find out that Nick has survived. On the other hand, when Nick has been exposed by the journalist and is asked to take a step back from the company, he falls apart. The apartment is shown as cluttered and dirty and everything is in dark hues. I thought the director's contrasting use of light and dark helped drive home the way we were supposed to perceive the events from Nick's perspective.
(I am trying to think of a good joke to insert in here about "lighting up" and the "dark humor" of this film, but nothing is coming to me. If you've got a good one, please share it in the comments!)

What did the movie add to your visual literacy?
I think this movie reiterated that there are two sides to every story (and sometimes more than two sides). While someone may look at a pack of cigarettes and think about the terrible effects they can have on his/her body, another person may look at that pack as their lifeline and what is going to get him/her through the day (similar to the effects coffee has on many people in the morning). Additionally, this movie points out that things are not always as they appear. Nick had a way of spinning arguments over cigarettes into support for smoking. The way that he stated his argument was not bad, and I may be lured into agreeing with him. However, I as a non-smoker have to be the devil's advocate and think about what Nick (and other advertisers, promoters, etc. outside of this movie) may be covering up to make a point. Lastly, we have talked about the importance of creativity a lot throughout this class, and I think this movie showed many great examples of how Nick's creativity was able to get him out of sticky situations.

Are there any additional comments and/or analysis?
At first, I really did not like this movie. I thought that it was too stretched out (the content could have been fit into less time), and I was uncomfortable with the normalization of smoking cigarettes. However, the more I thought and reflected about the movie, the more I understood and appreciated it. I think Reitman did a great job of using this movie to explain the importance of choice in our daily lives, and he was brave to do so through such a controversial issue such as smoking.

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