May 09, 2007

A Salesman for Cigarettes

Thank you for Smoking is an interesting directorial debut from Jason Reitman. It has a nice light and humerous touch, as Roger Ebert argues in his review. This film though is no light piece of froth- though it is amusing and watched without thought could ressemble such a piece, rather it exposes some interesting things about the practice of argument within a democracy. The film concerns itself ultimately with an ancient practice- that has gone by the name ever since it was eloquently skewered by Plato of sophistry. Sophistry the art of making an argument serve an end which serves the arguer is a preserve one might say of both all the lobbying, advocacy and advertising industries. The main character of Thank you for Smoking is by any classic definition a sophist- he argues in such a way that his indefensible arguments become defensible. He even educates his son in the practice- suggesting to his son various rhetorical strategies in order to make it look as though vanilla icecream is better than chocalate icecream. Ultimately, all of the characters involved in the film are paying their mortgages, from Nick Naylor the main character to his bosses in the tobacco industry and even to the anti-tobacco senator, they are all ultimately out for themselves. We don't see principle here, we see the practice of argument.

Some critics have therefore suggested that the film is empty of substance, such a conclusion is wrong. Actually there is a lot of substance in the way that the film investigates the consequences of sophistry, of turning the whole of society into salesmen. Its worth contrasting the film at this point with the classic American treatment of salesmen- Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Insofar as the film treats Naylor, his family and friends, the film is a direct attempt to answer Miller's account of a man whose success in sales turns into an illusory confidence that a smile and a quick word is the sum of life. Naylor like Willy Loman has a deeply unhappy private life- he betrays his friends to a journalist for a quick bout of easy sex, he has a good relationship with his son but its based upon the fact that he is bringing up his son to admire moral flexibility and his relationship with his ex-wife seems uneasy. Despite that he arouses loyalty- but on the basis that his friends and family expect his betrayels. Naylor's allegiance to the tobacco corps even goes only as far as it will: if offered a brunette with a nice face and body, he is willing to betray the company and leak all sorts of information.

Naylor's charm is maintained throughout the whole film. What it means though is that the watcher becomes tricked into endorsing his sophistry. So for example in the senatorial hearings at the end of the film, by the end of the hearing one almost beleives that placing a sign which says that cigarettes are poison is the same as restricting their sale and freedom of choice- of course it doesn't it means that you supply information which might influence the choice, it doesn't mean that people can't buy cigarettes with skulls on them. Similarly during the hearings Naylor tells the senate that parents and teachers have a responsibility to tell their children about the dangers of cigarettes- but of course when it comes to his own son, or to his son's classmates, Naylor encourages them to think for themselves and distrust experts. Naylor's libertarianism is actually a form of encouraging license- because Naylor refuses to take any responsibility for his own actions- he speaks, but cares not what he says, he makes love, but cares not to whom, he has friends, and is willing to betray them and he has a son, but ultimately tries to convince him that irresponsibility is the way forwards.

At the end of the film, Nick establishes that his talent lies in speaking, in words and convincing people that they are right to do things. What is interesting though in his view and the view of everyone else in the film is that they have no responsibility for the impact of their words- they care not for morality, they care to connect people. Such an argument for liberty becomes ultimately an argument which absolves anyone of the responsibility of their actions- if I persuade you to jump off a cliff, then I have no responsibility for what the end that my words have helped achieve. Everyone in this film seduces- from Nick and his lobbyist buddies, to the young journalist with her inviting eyes and soft skin, and though the film partially absolves them of the responsibility and the consequences of their seductions- I don't beleive we can.


ashok karra said...

I don't know if you've seen this review, but I thought I should bring it to your attention.

ashok karra said...

Is there a way, btw, to get all your essays on film in one place?

If you make an index post in that regard, it'll be easier for those of us who want to promote your work to do so. Your writing on film is easily some of the strongest I've seen, period.

Gracchi said...

Thanks for the compliment.

Yeah I think at the moment, if you click on the cinema tag at the bottom of the posts or on the side you should get them all.