It's interesting to watch films from bygone eras and to observe characters indulging in social behavior that was once deemed acceptable but has now fallen out of fashion here in the West. Some examples: * Racism--In any of the old Tarzan films with Johnny Weismuller, the portrayals of Africans (and, by extent, African Americans) are nothing short of racist. The same goes with many of the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby "The Road To..." films. And, of course, there is the inherent racism in that most overrated of all "classics," Gone With the Wind. What garnered laughs and cheers in the 1930s and '40s engenders hostility today (and, in this case, rightfully so). But it's interesting to observe this behavior in a detached sort of way. * Smoking is America's favorite social behavior to hate these days, to the point of unreason. But even for a smoker, some films from previous decades raise an eyebrow. To wit: 1951's The Day the Earth Stood Still. As Klaatu convalesces in Washington's Walter Reed Hospital, his team of physicians gathers in an adjoining office to discuss the spaceman's remarkable physique and healing abilities. As they do so, all three of them light up, right there in the office--while discussing a patient's "health." More recently, 1981's Body Heat portrays several of its characters smoking profusely--especially during a multi-party legal briefing in a law office called to discuss a botched will. As all but one of the people seated at the table light up, the abstaining party says, "I'll just breathe the air, thank you." Even though smoking was well on its way to becoming a social taboo by then, it was interesting to see so many people in an office lighting up with no apparent concern. * Domestic violence was almost shockingly acceptable until very recently. Remember Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore? When Kristofferson strikes Burstyn's son, audience reactions at the time were almost casual. Even the film's characters were, by inaction, a bit dismissive. And when Al Pacino struck his wife in The Godfather, the act did not seem to arouse strong reactions onscreen or off. By the time of the cautionary satire, Man Bites Dog, however, the filmmaker set out to prove a point about us during the brutal, near-unwatchable rape/murder scene. What was truly disturbing, though, was the audience in the commercial cinema where I first saw this film. Many of these nimrods didn't know when to stop laughing. These films serve as laboratory specimens for students of sociology as much as they do for students of film. But. ... The dark side of all this is that Hollywood Incorporated and the federal government still seem to think that film should serve as a means of social control. This is nothing new, of course. There have been propaganda films for as long as there have been films. But now, certain watchdog groups are complaining that too many characters in Hollywood's films still smoke. In their complaints, they point to how so relatively few people in the United States at large still smoke. They, in turn, are advocating that filmmakers revise their "product" so as to portray smoking in a less-kind light. (This information comes from a recent report on MSNBC's The News With Brian Williams.) Is this really the purpose of any film that strives to be taken seriously? People are the way they are, and good art should show them as they are. A fine line here. Film should reflect and inform the society, not instruct it. We should look at older films and reflect more on how we have changed as a society. No film, though, should be used to instruct us how to behave.