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My bud Adam Villani wrote to me, demanding to know why I love THANK YOU FOR SMOKING, which he called
[A]n unfunny, obvious satire that might have been timely about 15-20 years ago but just seems like kicking a man (or an industry) when he’s already beaten now. The only defense of this movie I can think of is that it is “not about smoking.” I mean, yeah, OK, but that is kinda ruined by the fact that it is about smoking and it would be pretty obvious even if it weren’t about smoking…
Well, as Adam hypothesizes, the film fundamentally is not about smoking per se. It’s about politics, about sophists and bullshit artists. About their charm and our regard for them. At the end of the movie, Naylor has a completely different shill job, and it doesn’t feel like anything has changed. Yet, like the greatest intellectual jujitsu artists (I think I am one), not only has he turned on a dime cause-wise, but he’s even turned on a dime argument-wise, by granting that smoking is dangerous and then getting what he wants (on labeling) based on arguments he was denying five minutes ago (that smoking is harmful).
I used the word “bullshit” deliberately — THANK YOU FOR SMOKING is the equivalent of Harry Frankfurt’s short philosophical book “On Bullshit,” which also verges on the edge of self-parody and self-referentiality, but thus is made more effective becuase of the audience’s desire for bullshit and ability to see through it and yet not really care (the difference Frankfurt draws between “bullshit” and “lies”). This is why Aaron Eckhart’s performance is perfect … a word I use rarely .. it’s not simply that he had Nick Naylor’s greasy charm down pat, but that the charm and style and existing persona so utterly defines the performance, an analog to why Naylor only exists because of our love for that charm and our need to be bullshitted. There’s elements of Henry’s interview with “Hillary” near the start of PRIMARY COLORS (and yes, he uses the same b-s word, which is why I was reminded of it):
I was always curious how it would be to work with someone who actually cared about … I mean, it couldn’t have always been the way it is now. It must have been very different when my grandfather was alive. Hey, you were there. You had Kennedy. I didn’t. I’ve never heard a president use words like destiny and sacrifice without thinking, “bullshit.” And, O.K., maybe it was bullshit with Kennedy too, but people believed it. And, I guess, that is what I want. I want to believe it too.
Or … read Michael Gerardi, who did a lot of the heavy lifting a few weeks ago, though I liked the movie more than he did.
Also, read Adam’s take on why the Democrats have all the secular advantages for the mid-terms including the ability to run against an incumbent president mired in an unpopular war, but still might blow it. They can only talk in “motherhood and apple pie” terms:
[I]f they can’t come up with any more compelling reasons for people to vote for them than this, they aren’t gonna win control of squat … Thanks for taking that bold step to show America that there’s a good reason to vote for the Democrats besides “we’re not George Bush.” Man, that’s sad. Can’t the Democrats find somebody with a modicum of charisma or strong ideas?
What also further resonated with me was Adam’s commenters and the way they called the platform the equivalent of “XXX Against Cancer” or “Children Must Eat” monikers. There was a famous and possibly apocryphal (but nevertheless very revealing) exchange that supposedly occurred between the two greatest silent clowns at the home of one of them, when discoursing on politics (quoting from memory):
Charlie Chaplin: What I want is that every child should have clothes on their backs, enough to eat and a roof over their heads.
Buster Keaton: But Charlie, do you know anybody who doesn’t want that?
Ever since, it’s never mystified me why I preferred Keaton to Chaplin. In college, I saw a flyer for a rally for a group called “Students Against War” and I decided I would never back any group that had a name that you couldn’t imagine a sane person taking the semantically opposing opinion. (I also decided in grad-school that I could never buy Thomism because the first precept of the natural law struck me similarly.)
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