Like a precious gem

Watching David Bowie pretend to smoke is a sensual experience.

Published February 11, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Men, women and children [smoke tobacco] indiscriminately, and are so fond of its fumes that they inhale them not only at daytime, but also at night hang small bags of tobacco around their necks like a precious gem.
O.F. von der Groeben, about the inhabitants of Sierra Leone, 1682-1683

Smoking in bed. Sharing a cigarette. Watching David Bowie in "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence." This is heaven: the convergence of bed, you, smoking and David Bowie. Bowie, a prisoner of war, is in his cell awaiting execution. The guards come to fetch him, but he makes them wait while he prepares for the end. He picks up his hat, holding it upside down in the palm of his hand like a bowl, and turns to the wall. Peering into the wall as though into a mirror, he rubs his chin, dips an imaginary shaving brush into the bowl, picks up an imaginary razor and begins to shave. Slowly, ritualistically, he mimes the act of shaving and then of drinking a cup of tea, and then he reaches out and takes an imaginary cigarette between his fingers. My hand reaches out for the pack and starts shaking a cigarette loose, but your fingers close around my wrist, and you whisper, "Wait."

He inhales deeply, luxuriously; you can feel the nicotine spreading through his being. And then he exhales, running his tongue over his lips, tasting, catching a stray strand of tobacco. He savors that cigarette. When it is almost finished he throws it to the ground -- cut to a high-angle medium shot of his boot stepping on the imaginary stub. Then he moves off, out of frame.

After the movie is over we make love, smoke a cigarette together, inhaling before the altar of the television, giving thanks that we are not in prison. Lulled by the fumes we doze, the pack of Camels on the bedside table, within reach, like a precious gem.

By Lesley Stern

Lesley Stern is author of "The Smoking Book."

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