In a courageous admission that they no longer have any serious work left to do, attorneys general in two dozen states recently sent a letter to the Motion Picture Association of America asking that Hollywood minimize smoking in movies so youngsters won't be gulled into lighting up. Taking a page from movie gangsters, who tend to threaten vaguely rather than make explicit demands, the attorneys general didn't insist on a specific remedy. Rather, said a spokesman for California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, they were merely expressing "concern for the health of our kids."
The attorneys general cited a June study from Dartmouth Medical School that claimed 10-to-14-year-olds who watched movies with a lot of smoking were more likely to smoke than those who viewed less on-screen puffing. Whether this study actually proves anything is beside the point. Everyone already knows that movies are the main source of bad behavior in contemporary society. Just like novels used to be.
Which makes you wonder: Why are the attorneys general dealing only with smoking? There are any number of other equally destructive social lessons taught by movies that need to be addressed. The list is endless, but it certainly includes the following:
? Car chases solve problems. At least since the chase in 1968's Bullitt -- in which Steve McQueen also dangerously glamorizes cops who play by their own rules -- virtually every movie has featured the sort of unsafe motoring that keeps driver ed teachers up at night. Only a tool of the automotive industry would deny that even adults ranging from O.J. Simpson to South Dakota Congressman Bill Janklow have been influenced by bad big screen driving.
? Mutation is a viable path to self-improvement. In movies ranging from Spider-Man to The Hulk to Daredevil, heroes benefit from exposure to radioactivity. If TV shows/films such as Jackass routinely induce high school honor students to roll down concrete embankments in shopping carts -- and by all accounts they do -- then how long is it before we read about valedictorians bombarding themselves with home-brewed gamma rays?
? Career criminals can pull off one last heist before retiring. How many youngsters have entered the underworld believing in this version of the golden parachute? It's a dangerous motif that formed the core of 2001's The Score, featuring Robert DeNiro as a thief whose confusing dream is to run a New York jazz club called Montreal. DeNiro's character screws over his double-crossing partners and walks away fabulously wealthy. That's the wrong message to send, and not just to would-be jazz club owners. Would septuagenarian New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg have emerged from retirement for one last run in 2002 absent such movies?
? Couples should work together. This problem is less a function of movies per se than of the larger Hollywood publicity machine through which personal lives are packaged for public consumption. As the latest offering by real-life love birds Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, Gigli, illustrates, this fantasy inevitably leads not only to relationship friction but to audience punishment. As Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor could attest, a relationship may survive infidelity, violence, and alcoholism, but no relationship can long withstand work projects that garner reviews such as "scene after scene makes you want to take a shower" (as one reviewer wrote of Gigli).
? Crusading attorneys and paralegals are romantic, selfless do-gooders. Whether it's Al "And Justice for All" Pacino chewing scenery like Marlon Brando at an all-you-can-eat buffet, Tom "A Few Good Men" Cruise unconvincingly demanding "the truth," or Julia "Erin Brockovich" Roberts foul-mouthedly unearthing alleged corporate misdeeds, such films glamorize the very profession that supports attorneys general with nothing better to do than intimidate and harass an industry that has broken no laws. If even one impressionable youth has gone into law because of such movies, that's one too many.