Smoke and Mirrors


Advertising, as any American child can tell you, is largely based on imbuing a specific brand of a particular product, the more useless the better, with an array of magical associations. In this sense, The Last Cigarette—a meditation on the pleasures and perils of smoking tobacco—reflects its subject almost too well. Kevin Rafferty and Frank Kerauden’s found-footage documentary is a movie made from other movies. As with cigarettes, the image is more important than the thing itself.

Actually, The Last Cigarette has something of a thesis. It’s no secret that, in the wartime ’40s at least, people learned to smoke by watching the movies. Smoking is presented as an integral part of America’s national identity, as when the filmmakers juxtapose clips of action and intellectual icons John Wayne and Edward R. Murrow invoking “freedom” while ostentatiously sucking their coffin nails. The film begins with Christopher Columbus—or rather, Columbus as embodied by Fredric March in the 1949 movie—landing on Hispaniola to find the locals thoughtfully puffing on flaming cigars. How uncivilized, the explorer exclaims, cueing a quick cut to Humphrey Bogart in evening clothes, demonstrating why no less an authority than Cuban writer G. Cabrera Infante would anoint him “the greatest cigarette smoker in moviedom.”

That greatness can only be burnished by the knowledge that Bogie died a miserable death of lung cancer—a martyr to cool. The idea that cigarettes provide the cheapest, most public way to live fast and die young (if not leave a good-looking corpse) underscores most of The Last Cigarette—although it’s not something that the movie ever wants to visualize. The argument is held together largely by excerpts from the C-SPAN telecast of 1994 congressional hearings on “the single most dangerous consumer product ever sold.” Husky-voiced, tough-talking tobacco company CEOs fence with posturing Democratic representatives—each side attacking the other as “fanatics.”

The filmmakers intersperse this patriotic debate with an assortment of vintage cigarette ads and movie clips conjuring up a familiar variety of mythological beasts—the Philip Morris bellhop, the Marlboro cowboy, Joe Camel, cowboy Gary Cooper and Bogie’s eventual widow Lauren Bacall manufacturing ciggies together in Bright Leaf. As the CEOs deny scientific evidence that smoking is harmful, so the old TV spots are filled with even more barefaced lies. And as the ads traffic in blatant showbiz, so the representatives grandstand wildly, at one point producing a camera-poised asthmatic seven-year-old to whom they attempt to compel the CEOs to apologize.

Rafferty’s previous documentaries—The Atomic Café, Blood in the Face, and Feed (the last two made in collaboration with Voice writer James Ridgeway)—have all taken a bemused look at the American scene, positioning themselves as part exposé and part hokum. Here the two aspects are indistinguishable. The Last Cigarette offers as “evidence” found news footage of a chimp who likes to smoke and a dog that hates cigarettes; there are antismoking ads which show fetuses dragging on cancer sticks and the antismoking satire of Robocop busting a hapless nicotine-head. More provocatively, there is also the recent phenomenon of crypto-pornographic videos that showcase dolled-up sex-toys who langorously smoke and suggestively talk about it.

While these fetishistic smokesploitation films cross-reference the old TV ad in which a sultry chanteuse promises that “you get a lot to like in a Marlboro,” the selection here is frequently capricious—where is the stone-age Dream of a Nicotine Fiend or Paul Henreid lighting two cigarettes and passing one to Bette Davis in Now Voyager? The structure is sometimes so loose as to seem almost random—or maybe free-associational. That the movie is steeped in ’40s-ness is more likely a factor of the filmmakers’ own fantasies. While there are times in this 82-minute doc when the filmmakers succeed in leeching out all interest, The Last Cigarette is at its best once dreamlike cigarette commercials are intercut with scientific charts and shocking experiments—a mouse poisoned before our eyes with a single drop of pure nicotine. More concerned with propaganda than smoking, these outrageously synthesized attraction-repulsion films are appropriately salted with comic overreaction shots and tied together by the moody, menacing themes from various Hitchcock movies.

Although the film’s title promises some closure on the fin de siècle Edison mutoscope Her First Cigarette, The Last Cigarette rummages around the archives but doesn’t really go anywhere. Didactic as it seems, the movie is a readymade campy goof for neo–Rat Pack fumistes. No less cynical than the commercials it plunders, The Last Cigarette should carry its own warning label: This media history light and heavily filtered.

A world-class cine-provocateur in the ’70s and early ’80s, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg seemingly retired from the fray after Die Nacht—a six-hour monologue by Edith Clever—came a cropper in 1985. This week, however, Anthology Film Archives (which has, for the past few months, been reviving Syberberg’s oeuvre, including the infamous Our Hitler) provides some sense of the artist’s recent thinking in the form of six videotapes—ranging in length from 35 minutes to an hour—culled from The Cave of Memory, Syberberg’s 31-channel installation at the 1997 Documenta in Kassel, Germany.

The subject, as always, is the nature of German identity. Taken as a whole, Syberberg’s six tapes provide a virtual excursion through his own particular reich. Three tapes record actual walks—two taken along Wilhemstrasse in central Berlin and one through the Tyrolian countryside. Three others document works of art. In Armageddon, Syberberg’s camera crawls over the surface of a Hans Memling altarpiece, transforming it into a sort of apocalyptic narrative. This meditation on the world’s end is, like two of the three walks, accompanied by Mozart’s Requiem, and that aching beautiful piece is the subject of its own tape—the camera tracking along the score as the music is heard. (The sixth tape, which I haven’t seen, is the only one with dialogue—a reading of excerpts from Kleist’s Prince of Hamburg and Goethe’s Faust.)

Although the tapes were evidently made to be shown simultaneously in various formats, Anthology is projecting them in pairs—thus placing a greater burden than Syberberg may have intended on their intrinsic value as film. Mozart Requiem is, of course, structurally perfect, while the bracingly straightforward Walk Onto the Mountain, in which the filmmaker hikes—panning and zooming—past picture-perfect farmhouses through the late summer woods to end with a stunning view of a misty chasm, is an equally unimpeachable concept.

The urban excursions are denser and more problematic—particularly as they are being shown as a double bill. Walter Benjamin may not be Syberberg’s favorite German philosopher but the filmmaker’s two strolls through the heart of once-imperial, formerly Nazi, no-longer Cold War Berlin illustrate Benjamin’s mode of cultural criticism. Here, history is inscribed not just in monuments and ruins, but also in housing projects, shop facades, display windows, advertising posters, graffiti traces, street signs, and empty spaces.

The eerie blandness of contemporary Berlin has inspired more than one filmmaker to imagine strolling amid the ghosts. Pausing to superimpose photos of missing parks, Syberberg strains for a phantom-zone effect that has been more forcefully evoked in Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire and the Berlin films made by American avant-gardist Ernie Gehr. The absence never becomes tangible.

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