Monday, November 13, 2006

Thank You For Smoking

I didn’t really like Thank You For Smoking as much as I thought I would. I thought it would be a dry indictment of the tobacco industry and their overzealous crusade to drain the American legal system of justice and morality. I was thinking it would be kind of like The Insider from Big Tobacco’s perspective, but with laughs. That’s not to say that it wasn’t a good movie, because it was, it just wasn’t what I thought it would be, and what it turned out to actually be kind of pissed me off.

To me, there are only 3 reasons to give 20th Century Fox my attention: “Prison Break”, “House” and re-runs of “The Simpsons”. Other than those three things I usually avoid most of Fox’s output like the plague. Sure I watch Star Wars a lot (Fox fundamentally just distributes that) and they’ve also made some of my favorite movies of all time, but as a general rule of thumb, if it says “Fox” on the movie poster or television advertisement I’ll give it negative 10 points to start with.

Why do I dislike Fox so much? Well, if you don’t know the answer to that question, then you probably like Fox a lot. You probably enjoy the new episodes of “Family Guy” (which they’ve been patting themselves on the back for bringing back, which is kind of like flushing a turd then diving into the toilet after it). I’ll bet you even like “The War At Home” (only Fox could co-opt a phrase like that and make a shitty sitcom out of it).

I’ll bet you’re getting all wet just waiting for the next season of American Idol (which should be renamed “What’s Really Wrong With America and How We’re Too Fucking Dumb To Fix It.”)

American Idol is basically the worst television show to have ever existed. The first few episodes focus solely on degrading and poking fun of those of us who still dare to grasp onto that American Dream we were all told about when we were little: making millions of dollars for being famous; even people who were never actually on the show become famous (William Hung anyone?). The rest of the season is just a validation for millions of Americans of that very same dream: If they can do it why I can’t I? That’s why so many more people are tuning into it now than ever before, they all want to suckle on the golden teat of opportunity in the form of a TV show that further glorifies the mediocrity of Middle-America.

Not to mention the Fox New Channel, which is basically a punch line in and of itself (kind of like saying “Michael Jackson” or “Brokeback Mountain”), you already know what the joke is. But the thing about Fox News is that it’s not funny. It’s just kind of pathetic, sad and hateful.

Anyways, what Thank You For Smoking was really about was spin; how people use and manipulate information to their advantage (FOX NEWS CHANNEL). The main protagonist is a lobbyist for Big Tobacco, played by Aaron Eckhart (who is probably the best actor working today that no one gives a shit about). He is joined on-screen by a crazy leftist senator played by William H. Macy, whose own personal crusade is to put and end to Big Tobacco’s stranglehold on the American Public. The best scenes involve these two actors (although Robert Duvall’s turn as the prodigal Grandpappy of the Tobacco industry is pretty brilliant as well.) They aren’t always on the screen together, in fact they never even meet face to face until the end, but they play the spin game off of each other like a video game they already beat. They are still playing it to discover all the hidden icons, and because they’re really fucking good at it.

The rest of the film is filled with pretty solid performances as well: Rob Lowe as a hot shot Hollywood agent, Maria Bello as a lobbyist for Alcohol, David Koechner as a lobbyist for the firearms industry (doing his schtick with master precision) and Sam Elliot (who else?) as the original Marlboro Man. These performances are all well and good in their own right but they almost don’t matter because they’re just there for Aaron Eckhart to play off of. Aaron Eckhart is Michael Jordan and the rest of the cast are the 90’s dynasty Chicago Bulls, they’re all good, but Michael Jordan is the star. Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Bill Paxton, B.J. Armstrong and the rest of them all existed to make sure that Michael Jordan got the ball and did his thing. I don’t mean to discount the rest of the Bulls or even the rest of the cast of Thank You For Smoking, but it’s true.

Performances aside, the reason the movie pissed me off is because of Fox. I’ve got to imagine that a huge, massive corporation like News Corp. has a cold, calculated reason for taking part in every one of their investments. So why would a company so notorious for laying the spin on thicker than cheap cologne willingly promote a film that, pun intended, smokes them out and reveals them to be the giant assholes that we already knew they were? (the film never directly references Fox or any of its affiliates, but give me a fucking break, when you think of “spin”, who do you think of?) So why would Fox release this movie? You’d think they’d buy it and never release it, the way Big Oil does with alternative fuel technologies.

This reminds of the case of Boondock Saints. It was originally released to an extremely limited number of screens. With the help of Blockbuster Inc., Troy Duffy, the films director, managed to get a few more screens and a slightly longer theatrical run with not much fanfare. Part of Duffy’s agreement with Blockbuster stated that Blockbuster would receive exclusive rental rights when the film was released on video. Not so shady on the surface right? Boondock Saints is about two brothers who grossly misinterpret the teachings of the bible, basically: you sin, you die. It’s like The Punisher with a religious tilt.

So what’s so wrong about Blockbuster getting exclusive rental rights to Boondock Saints? Blockbuster has always claimed to be a family friendly company. They don’t even stock pornography. In the early nineties the MPAA created the NC-17 rating, originally intended to be for movies with strong adult themes, thought not necessarily involving sex or pornography. Blockbuster decided not to carry any NC-17 films. Why? Because Blockbuster has an extremely close relationship to the American Family Association, an organization devoted to setting the moral standard for America based on Christian values.

So Blockbuster, a company with heavy ties to a notorious conservative Christian organization, gets exclusive rental rights for a movie about two Christians who believe that they are the right hand of God and that they decide who is right and who is wrong and who deserves to be punished (i.e. die). Does anyone think that’s a little, I don’t know, scary as shit?

So why did Fox decided to distribute Thank You For Smoking, a movie that pretty much calls them out for being terrible people? I’m reminded of a recent South Park episode in which it is discovered that all the conspiracy theories about the government being complicit in the events of 9/11 are actually propagated by the government itself. I’m paraphrasing, but it goes something like this:

“If we convince people to convince people that we were somehow involved in the attacks of 9/11, then it appears as if we have maintained control of the situation all along.”

So by backhandedly promoting the ideas of your enemies, you are giving a slight wink that you have control over what is going on. Fox, promoting a movie that tells you that spin is propagated by near worthless shysters, is telling you, “We know what you are thinking, and we own what you are thinking, and even a tiny little movie like Thank You For Smoking won’t stop us.”