On Ryan Gosling; Or, Where Metaphysics and Smoking Collide


On accident, I revealed my status as a smoker to my students not long ago. I was leaving school early. Like, at the same time the students get out of there. I drove past the bus stop, took a drag of my cigarette, and looked over to see three of my students fervently waving in attempt to get my attention. I waved with the offending hand and then panicked. I then clumsily switched my cigarette to my right (non-smoking) hand and hid the cigarette beneath their sight-line, which of course by then was useless. Where there’s smoke, there’s a cigarette, and they already knew it.

So then comes the next school day. I’d forgotten about it. But the news had been spread to other students, who that day were all “smoking” their pens. After several minutes of this behavior, which was annoying but definitely not as disruptive as some of the other shit they pull, I finally paused the lesson and asked, “What are you all doing? Take your pens out of your mouths, and put them to your paper!” Gregg, who is never afraid to give his unreserved opinion, offered, “But Ms. Piontek, we’re just worried for your health. You shouldn’t smoke. It’s bad for you!”

Mind you, I teach at a high school in Chicago Public Schools. Students should probably be smoking by now, and thinking it’s cool, and hiding it from their parents. But instead, they’re lecturing their teacher about the perils of smoking.

So, you know, it appears times have changed.

That’s a good thing and all. I’m not arguing anything to the contrary. It’s good that I’ve been shamed and excluded from smoking in most places in society, because lord knows I’d be even more hooked than I am now.

Besides me, there’s another guy who’s keeping smoking alive. His name is Ryan Gosling, and he likes to smoke.

Over the weekend, I watched the I-can’t-believe-no-one-edited-this-absurdly-long-movie “The Place Beyond the Pines.” Don’t get me wrong; this movie had moments of absolute transcendence. Beautiful tracking shots, thrilling motorcycle rides, a coupla key acting performances. Etc. I don’t want to write about the whole thing. As a woman, and as a smoker, it read to me like a really long movie about masculinity and also smoking.

Ryan Gosling dangles a cigarette out of his mouth while he acts really hard at actually not conveying any emotion. Not since Clint Eastwood, or fuck, since Brando or James Dean, has anyone so determinedly tried to get the kids smoking again.

Some of the allure of the smoke is mitigated by the fact that Gosling has bleached 90’s hair, and wears some of the worst clothes one could ever see in a movie.

While sometimes his performances in the two Cianfrance movies (Pines and “Blue Valentine”) seems a bit tone deaf–too tough guy to make any sense in the contemporary or almost contemporary world he lives in–he still nails something I actually think of as a sorta Brechtian skill. He’s an old archetype floating around on screen–not a modern character who makes us privy to his feelings. Everyone else is moving and breathing and emoting and not smoking, and there’s Gosling, presenting more as a physical and sexual force than as a thinking or feeling one. His performances are so calibratedly understated.

Watching him in “Pines” and also in “Drive” conjures the same mystery I also feel when interacting with my special students way out on the spectrum. I am not only unsure of what they’re feeling, I am unsure if they’re aware of themselves in the world at all. There’s a box to check on my kiddos official documents that asks if the student seems “disoriented in time”. When I first saw this option, I thought this seemed rather too metaphysical of language to appear in a legal state document describing a student’s learning abilities. But it’s one of those things where ya know it when you see it. I’ve checked “disoriented in time” for a couple of kids with autism.

I also check “disoriented in time” for Ryan Gosling as a smoking tough guy–one gets the impression his mama smoked too many cigs while his characters were still in the womb. And the result is absolutely fantastic, full of grit and guts and opaqueness and juice. We’re not meant to know everything, and directors and actors who try hard to let us in are making the mistake of elucidating what should sometimes remain a question in our minds. I think that here, cigarettes had something to do with it.


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