Ghostbusting and Cigarettes

Max Wilson weighs in on his first time seeing Ghostbusters.

Ghostbusters

I had never seen Ghostbusters. It just didn’t seem like a big deal anymore. It’s an 80s movie. Wasn’t that the dark ages of American cinema? I got the references, or most of them. The giant marshmallow guy, the ubiquitous song. I even accepted that Dan Aykroyd used to be famous for some reason.

But then I actually saw the movie, and I realized: Ghostbusters is cool. And not in an ironic, so-retro-and-uncool-that-it’s-cool-again way. The ghostbusters, Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Raymond Stantz (Aykroyd), Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis, who co-wrote the film with Aykroyd), and Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson), are eccentrically, hilariously, and undeniably cool.

What makes them so cool? There’s the total confidence: they scope out blueprints while in jail, totally oblivious to the questioning stares of their fellow inmates. There’s the deadpan banter: “I blame myself,” says Spengler; “So do I,” responds Venkman. There’s the awesome, half-plumber, half-fireman uniforms and the retro car (converted hearse) and headquarters (converted fire station). They’ve invented their own profession, using makeshift everything, and yet it all looks effortless. On top of that, they’re all (with the exception of Zeddemore) doctors — PhDs in the dubious field of Parapsychology.

And last but not least, the Ghostbusters smoke cigarettes. And they do it in their coolest scenes: Venkman puffing away casually while he is threatened by EPA agent Peck, Zeddemore smoking as he drives while pondering the nature of the biblical apocalypse, Stantz lighting up as he acknowledges the crowd after the climactic destruction of the gate to hell. You get the picture.

It seems that I form part of the last generation of American youth who still see smoking cigarettes as badass, rebellious, and cool. In popular culture, there just aren’t any role models – I use the term loosely – who smoke cigarettes. As Nick Naylor, the fictional tobacco lobbyist in Jason Reitman’s Thank You For Smoking, explains: cigarettes are now solely the domain of RAVs – Russians, Arabs, and Villains.

Smoking used to be one of the coolest things you could do on-screen. The French New Wave figured that out. But with the modern stigma, filmmakers seem to put other things in their protagonists’ mouths to make them look cool. Ryan Gosling is always chewing or sucking on a toothpick in Drive. And Brad Pitt is always – seriously always – eating in the Ocean’s movies. But it just isn’t the same.

This development should make me happy. After all, tobacco really does kill people. It really does ruin lives, kill athletic dreams, siphon away savings (well after the tobacco tax) and smell pretty damn gross. But for some reason, I feel oddly nostalgic about the days when Humphrey Bogart puffed away in his nightclub in Casablanca. Or when Tom Cruise’s amateur pimp in Risky Business smoked up during his Princeton interview. Or even when Bruce Willis’s desperate shoeless cop in Die Hard is told to “smoke ‘em if he’s got ‘em” because he’s probably going to die anyway. It’s not that I want cigarettes to be more popular or that I want kids to start smoking; maybe I just want kids to see that smoking and the tobacco industry were a huge part of the cultural landscape in America and the entire world. And that sometimes you can let loose and say, “What the fuck.”

Sigourney Weaver, who plays smoker Venkman’s love interest as the sexy, smart Dana Barrett, stars much later in her career in Heartbreakers, a film that is hyperbolically anti-tobacco. In that film, Weaver’s character tries to swindle tobacco baron William B. Tensy (hilariously portrayed by a curmudgeonly Gene Hackman) by marrying him and getting a huge divorce settlement. Tensy is so disgusting and phlegmatic, so blindly oblivious to the dangers of smoking (“We just did some tests on some 9-year-olds. After a little puking, why, you couldn’t drag ‘em away from the stuff”) that Weaver’s character nearly vomits after kissing him. The creepy Tensy is emblematic of how America views smokers: old rotting relics of a backwards era.

And yet, when Weaver first appears in Avatar, the biggest box-office film of all time, she demands a cigarette after coming back into her human body from her giant, athletic Avatar body. So maybe smoking will stick around even far into humanity’s future on distant moons. As long as there are still a few cool people out there — like Sigourney Weaver — to say: everything in moderation, even ghostbusting. After all, Ghostbusters 2 wasn’t nearly as good a movie. Did I mention they’ve all quit smoking in that one?

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