Judge Katie Herrell used to make montage movies, but the projector wouldn't run with all that glue on the film.
"You'd never see a civilized man doing a thing like that."
An interesting montage blessedly free of outside narration.
Facts of the Case
The Last Cigarette is a compilation of clips from movies, television, and congressional hearings focused on smoking and cigarettes. The congressional hearings are with Big Tobacco presidents and serve as the centering force in the film. Juxtaposed against the hearings are clips from old movies glorifying and sexualizing smoking, anti-smoking public service announcements, cigarette commercials, and esoterica/erotica smoking clips, amongst others.
In the days of YouTube, homemade montages spliced together around a theme song, a weird presidential moment, or the changing of one's hairstyle every day for a year is commonplace.
But in 1999, when The Last Cigarette was released, YouTube and it's "anyone can be a filmmaker" ethic was but a figment of someone's (now very rich) imagination.
That's not to say the makers of The Last Cigarette (Kevin Rafferty of The Atomic Cafe and Frank Keraudren) are novices. The sheer amount of footage and the high video quality of the clips, some from decades ago, is a testament to hours spent sifting through archived materials and painstakingly melding them together into one coherent film.
While the quality of the clips is impressive, it's the attention to the film's flow and story that's even more impressive. Without outside narration, the filmmakers depend on only the dialogue from the clips to tell their story.
What that story is is open for debate, as there are just as many pro-smoking clips as there are anti-smoking ones. Certainly, the Congressional hearings where the obviously anti-smoking Congressmen rudely interrogate the obviously pro-smoking Big Tobacco bosses are a no-brainer indication that the makers of this film find the entire pro-smoking argument ridiculous. But maybe I wouldn't feel that way if I watched this film as a member of the Big Tobacco fan club.
Maybe for those viewers the fact that Congress brought in a precocious little boy to pull at the heartstrings of the Big Tobacco bosses about the negative effects of second-hand smoke is proof that the Congressional hearings were a publicity scam.
And maybe the smoking esoterica films the producers dug up, featuring more-or-less clothed ladies smoking cigarettes seductively (and nothing more), is a testament to the very odd allure of smoking and how despite the public service and scientific communities denouncement of the habit smoking continues to pull in new practitioners everyday.
The esoterica section appears to be the only time the filmmakers bring in original footage, interviewing the makers of these esoterica films, who basically agree the premise is ridiculous but counter that the films are profitable and popular.
The filmmakers also take creative liberties about 70 minutes into the 82-minute film when dream-like music is overlaid with a Congressman intoning "Yes or No" and other snippets of repeated dialogue, further driving home the ridiculousness of the hearings, and in my opinion, the fact that a group of professional executives could say with a straight face that smoking isn't addictive or a serious killer.
With so much of the film projecting a hands-off feeling on the part of the filmmakers, the dream-like sequence is a welcome break from the endless—yet rhythmic—swapping of clips. It reengages the viewer who might have drifted off.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One could say it's the easiest form of filmmaking to cobble together clips from existing sources and plug a few songs in. And the case of smoking has been tackled ad nauseam (by 2007). Plus, it's a copout that these filmmakers don't offer a definitive yes or no to the smoking debate. People should stand behind their views, especially if they're going to further contribute to the deluge of smoking materials floating around the movie kingdom.
Overall, The Last Cigarette is an engaging, thought-provoking film that tackles an important topic not by proselytizing a right or wrong answer, but by using existing media materials to tell a story everyone's already heard and seen but not everyone's taken the time to really analyze.
Not guilty. Who's to say what's civilized?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
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