Fatal attraction: the vanishing culture of smoking

A deadly addiction they may be, but the place of cigarettes in popular culture is inescapable. As a pub ban looms, Nicholas Lezard examines how tobacco has filtered into our subconscious
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Indy Lifestyle Online

I once proposed, satirically, during the days when Hollywood was indulging a craze for "colorizing" its black-and-white films, that they could go one step further. Why not use the available technology to erase all images of smoking from the archives? True, Humphrey Bogart would be seen raising an empty hand to his lips a puzzlingly large number of times, but it was surely worth the aesthetic compromise in order not to encourage any number of youngsters into thinking they could metamorphose into Bogart merely by lighting up.

That was the joke, and the time in which it becomes a reality approaches. Already America has airbrushed the cigarette from Paul McCartney's hand on the cover of the re-released Abbey Road, and even France has removed the cigarettes from the images of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus chosen to adorn stamps. Each writer would have considered this a betrayal, especially Sartre, who, even when told to give up or face amputation of both legs, replied to the question, "what is the most important thing in your life at present?" with the words: "Everything. Living. Smoking."

For smoking has a significance beyond the personal: it's not only something you do with your own fingers, lips and lungs; it's something you tell others about yourself. And it doesn't just tell them "I smoke"; it tells them a lot of things, many of them powerful and interesting. As the habit becomes demonised, these powerful and interesting things aren't going to be diminished. Rather, one suspects, to the contrary.

One scene that my imaginary film doctorers are going to have a lot of trouble with is the infamous one in Basic Instinct in which Sharon Stone crosses her legs. One's attention may have wandered from her hand at that point, but it is important to remember that in that scene she is also smoking, and doing so despite having been told not to by the interrogating officer. "What are you going to do?" she asks. "Arrest me for smoking?" It is a memorable line, and one that raises a smile among all but the most intemperate anti-smokers; its poignancy nowadays is increased by the uneasy suspicion that in the immediate future, yes, they will be able to arrest her for smoking.

Which itself only increases the most powerful association cigarettes have: with that of independence bordering upon insubordination. Smoking has always been an illogical habit. The shamans of the Americas would smoke it in strengths and quantities which would nearly kill them, in order to experience the hallucinatory contact with the spirit world; by the time Oscar Wilde was smoking mass-produced cigarettes, the nicotine content may have become more manageable but he was able to say that "a cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?" It is a habit that has always infuriated the unimaginatively utilitarian.

The puritans, too: and they can't have liked the subliminal connections between sex and smoking. One does not have to labour the point about putting something rigid between one's lips: the mere idea of women being liberated into smoking was enough to alarm many men (and women). The cigarette was both pre-coital and post-coital. But it wasn't, pace all you Freudian symbolists out there, so much a phallic symbol: it was a symbol of freedom, and the image of a free woman is sexy. "You've come a long way, baby" was the strap-line of Virginia Slims adverts in the 1970s: by the time those posters had come out, the implication seemed to be that women had now become liberated to the point of being beyond sex: the woman in the poster was just enjoying a cig, and not sticking one in her pouting lips and asking for a light, as a means of initiating an erotically charged contact with a man carrying a lighter. (All men had to carry lighters, whether they smoked or not, in case a woman asked for a light. My mother, who never liked the idea of my smoking, nevertheless gave me a Pierre Cardin lighter when I was still in my teens for precisely such a purpose. I have always thought this was rather classy and generous of her.)

The third association of cigarettes in popular culture is rather more complex. Let us imagine the moment in films when the hero lights up. It is a truism that so many cigarettes were smoked in films because it solved the problem of what actors were supposed to do with their hands when they weren't speaking. I prefer to think instead that cigarettes solved the problem of how to express an ambiguous inner turmoil without having to use dialogue. A cigarette, lit at just the right moment, can do wonders for a film's tension. The right moment is in extremis, recalling subliminally the cigarette smoked in front of the firing- squad. James Bond (say) will light a cigarette not only because his creator, Ian Fleming, smoked like a chimney, but because he wants to express nonchalance in the face of grave danger. Jesse Custer, the hero of Garth Ennis's superb "Preacher" series of graphic novels, smokes at an almost self-parodic rate: he will even pause to light up (with the smoker's favourite iconic lighter, the Zippo, of course) just before getting into a fight, as a writer might pause to light up before putting pen to paper.

Paradoxically, the cigarette smoked at such moments expresses not only nonchalance, but also unease (for why smoke a cigarette except to calm one's nerves?), and therefore feigned nonchalance. But the ability to feign nonchalance at such moments is itself a kind of nonchalance. All this complex whirl of subtexts in the time it takes to click a lighter. And this is without even mentioning the discomfiture it causes when one offers one's enemy a cigarette, turning the tables, so to speak, upon the aggressor. A shared cigarette, whether between lovers, ex-lovers, comrade or enemy soldiers, can charge a scene better than pages of schmaltzy dialogue.

The rule of thumb, formulated brilliantly by Richard Klein in his Cigarettes Are Sublime, the last word on the subject, is that the further one holds the cigarette from the body, the greater the degree of confidence and inner peace. He also notes the enormous number of cigarettes smoked in Casablanca, and not only by Humphrey Bogart. It is the expressive fug of the film, he says, that gave the film a significant degree of its clout; had they smoked less in the film, he cautiously proposes, then Roosevelt would not have wept at his private 1942 screening of the film, and then would not have set up the meeting in Casablanca with Churchill and de Gaulle which ended official American policy towards the Vichy government and paved the way for the liberation of Europe. That Hitler was a vehement anti-smoker also made it virtually a patriotic duty to smoke.

I recall watching Saving Private Ryan with the film critic Tom Shone, and racing out of the cinema after it had finished in order to find a packet of untipped Lucky Strike, by way of saluting the American contribution to D-Day. (We had to settle for filtered Luckies with the filters ripped off.) The final significant association cigarettes have is with cogitation. The hack rolls his sleeves up, inserts the paper in the typewriter, lights up, and only then starts hammering away.

In Misery, Stephen King's writer rewards himself with a solitary cigarette, placed temptingly to the side of the typewriter until completion of the work in progress. People forget, due to Sidney Paget's illustrations and Basil Rathbone's incarnation of the man, that Sherlock Holmes smoked cigarettes at least as much as he smoked pipes; and if he referred to a spectacularly fiendish conundrum as "a three-pipe problem", it didn't stop him from puffing away at cigs.

It is interesting, incidentally, to note the different smoke signals sent by pipes as opposed to cigarettes in films: Bond's boss, M, smokes a pipe in the novels and films. When someone lights a pipe in a film, he is in effect saying, "shut up", so absorbing and fiddly is the business; when someone lights a cigarette, he is very often saying "keep talking". I can't help regretting that snuff-taking almost completely died out as a habit before the invention of cinema; for only once it had been filmed would we have known what to make, semiotically, of the habit.

And that is the fascination of images of smoking in popular culture: they turn us quickly into instant and highly competent decoders of images. We know, at once, without having to have it spelled out for us, what is going on beneath the surface when someone lights up on screen. Rebellion, sex, bravery, cerebral activity, or a combination of all or some of them: all interesting things. No wonder the images entrance us. The danger is that images of smoking in popular culture make it seem glamorous, while there is nothing glamorous about emphysema or lung cancer. That is to take "glamorous" in the wrong way. I refer to glamour in its more ancient meaning as "enchantment", in the sense of a magical spell, the kind that makes you act contrary to your nature or your own best interests. In the light of that, the glamour of smoking makes perfect, circular sense.

For what is addiction but a compulsion, the enchantment placed upon the smoker by the very ingredients of the leaves being smoked? We're gripped, even if we're not inhaling ourselves.