Smokescreen: Thoughts on Smoking as Influence (Andrew Hall)
I do not smoke. I do not desire it, and do not foresee ever beginning. The thought of smoking as an activity, as a physical process entailing the inhalation of chemical-laced smoke, is wholly unappealing. I bristle at the thought of breathing in even the smoke from a campfire at length, even if the smell is at times somewhat agreeable. On that note, having never understood the no-doubt varied reasons for which any person would begin smoking cigarettes, I can at least understand if there is an olfactory sense appeal. As much as my nose is jarred and disturbed by the smell of tobacco, there are at least a couple variations or formulas of cigarette that I can honestly imagine I would choose if I were in fact a smoker. This then lends to theories as to if I’m offended by the pure smell of most other smoke, or just reflexively avoidant of the health risks attached. A conditioned response. I can, if anything, say I’m legitimately disgusted by the smell of marijuana.
Having long been a proponent of humans as being underestimated as entities of free will, I’m inclined to roll my eyes at accusations of photo and video media being influential on human behavior to the great extents that some believe. I would like to think that most everyone is unique in how, and in what areas of thinking, they are influenced or manipulated. In my own case, no amount of movies I watch will ever convince me to try drinking, smoking, doing drugs, killing, etc. At best, some bands have influenced me to pick up musical instruments. That being said, I will admit that the mere image of some activities, from a fantasy point of view, can be greatly appealing. Case in point, whenever I have in my mouth short, thin, vaguely cylindrical objects for whatever reason, the image of smoking a cigarette comes to mind. Be it holding a pen or pencil in my mouth when my hands are busy, or being down to the last few inches of a piece of licorice, I will at times fantasize that said items are cigarettes. I recall being younger and even play-acting that I was puffing on these things. But at no point did the thought come into my head of, “I wonder what a real cigarette would be like,” much less, “Actually smoking would make me cool.”
With the exception of my father, who quit smoking while I was very young, neither of my parents smoked during my adolescence. I rarely knew anyone on a close and consistent level who did. As such there was no non-media influence on my occasional cigarette fantasies. Rather, to this day when I every now and then have a pen in my mouth, one of two film images comes to mind: Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray in “Ghostbusters”, and Samuel L. Jackson in “Jurassic Park”. What these films have in common, apart from being heavily watched by me as a child (the former more than the latter), are the manner in which the listed actors smoke cigarettes at particular moments. The cigarettes dangle from their lips precariously, never falling (other than for Aykroyd) even while speaking. To wit, the actors are engaged in smoking in an extremely casual, removed way. Maybe even “cool” is the word for it, insomuch as being aloof, not caring that they are smoking as they walk or talk or use computers. Ironically, they appeared so detached from their smoking so as to not even seem to be inhaling said tobacco, at least not directly. As if any smoke they breathed in would be as atmospherically second-hand for them as any bystander.
Maybe I’m not the only one that thought these guys looked cool while smoking. Maybe other young people shared a similar fascination and fantasy, based not on imagined tastes and smells but rather the pure look, the image of the action. And maybe the desire to try the action got carried over into actual nicotine addiction, and over time the younger fascination with the perceived look of it was lost in adulthood, to other reasons for smoking. I can only imagine, having never talked to anyone or read about the reasons for starting and continuing smoking. Maybe I got lucky. In a sense, the actors only looked like they were smoking; and that’s all I was interested in, was the look. Not interested enough to try the real thing, thankfully.
I’ve recently started a summer job that finds me surrounded almost entirely by coworkers that smoke. It’s going to be interesting trying to navigate around this, particularly during long job-related drives with them. Some seem more friendly and accommodating, more willing to refrain from smoking in vehicles with me. For others it seems an unavoidable way of life, casual and borderline unconscious, like uncaring movie characters. And something in me wonders if it would be easier to just start smoking myself, so as to connect to these guys on some level. If you can’t beat ‘em, join’ em. We differ on so many levels. They drink coffee, I don’t. They swear habitually, I don’t. They’re street-wise and mechanically oriented and into sports, I’m not. I’m no better, just different. The fantasy of chain smoking with them is there, but it’s just that: a fantasy. It’s not the same fantasy as wanting to look like Samuel L. Jackson with a cigarette dangling, but it’s one that occurs about as often. I.e. rarely. Reality is still reality. The health risks are still present, the fear of addiction. Another movie rings in my head: Benicio Del Toro in “Sin City” says to Clive Owen, “Nobody ever really quits … a smoker’s a smoker when the chips are down.” And of course this should be taken with a grain of salt too, not to be taken as fact any more than those who insist that movies teach kids to smoke. The sight of an actor smoking isn’t necessarily a direct influence to an audience member starting, but it can be a start. Fantasy can beget fantasy. And some dreams do come true.
– Andrew Hall, June 2014
© 2014 Andrew Hall Writes