Grass, The Movie

"Grass," the new pro-pot movie from veteran documentarian Ron Mann, is like a good birthday gift -- the presentation is something to appreciate, but the real treat is what's inside.

The wrapping paper of Mann's gift is an amusing but straight history of our country's marijuana policies from the 1920s to today. But after removing that wrapping, you'll find a scathing, meticulously researched indictment of America's war on drugs. According to drug historian Harry G. Levine, a professor at Queens College, "It's impeccable, meticulous scholarship and a brilliant recitation of history."

The film, which opens on May 31 after four years of production, traces the rise, partial eclipse and re-flowering of our government's marijuana prohibition. It's filled with clips of maniacal, "Reefer Madness"-type propaganda, which progress from the psychosis portrayed in the 1930s to mellow girls dancing in their poke-your-eye-out 1950s bras, to Nixon looking sweaty and furtive. No matter the decade, the clips feature Neanderthal cops in cheap suits, typically sycophantic reporters and poor misguided kids just wanting to have fun. A surprisingly restrained Woody Harrelson narrates.

Spliced in at opportune moments are juicy tidbits from marijuana lore: a spiffy Cab Calloway doing "Reefer Man" back in 1932 and the Quicksilver Messenger Service band's [Have Another Hit of] "Fresh Air" (which, ignoramus that I am, I never thought was a pot song). The animation of Paul Mavrides, co-creator of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, is featured throughout.

A slick gift to the decriminalization/legalization movement, the film lacks a certain element of surprise. Though I enjoyed scenes like the one of John Lennon playing slide guitar at a protest, with Yoko banging vacantly away on a bongo, there were just a few too many hackneyed, junk visuals I guess you had to be sitting with the folks lighting up in the back of the theater to enjoy (the May 24 screening I attended in New York benefited NORML).

That may not matter to the audience the distributor hopes to attract when it opens nationwide this summer: kids looking for an alternative to the zero-tolerance policies that expel them from school and will soon deny them access to federal loans if they get caught with drugs. As U.S. distributor Richard Abramowitz, president of Unapix Films, joked with me, "I'm hoping for a certain repeat business cause they'll be stoned. They'll forget they've seen it, and then I'll get their $8.50 again." Appraised of the joke, Ron Mann quipped, "If people go to the movie and get high, it'll do great for the concession stands."

For all the laughter and smiles at Grass's opening screening, the film's creators are dead serious critics of the war on drugs. Nearly 700,000 Americans were arrested in 1998 on pot charges, 88 percent of them for simple possession, says NORML founder/director Keith Stroup. In a statement accompanying the film's soundtrack, Mann says, "... marijuana smokers do not form some kind of fringe and perverse movement, despite what mainstream media would like us all to believe." He told me, simply, "I did this movie to help stop putting marijuana smokers in jail."

One way to do that, Mann feels, is to delineate how today's propaganda and laws stem from seventy-year-old government anti-drug campaigns. Harry J. Anslinger, the nation's first drug czar, seized on marijuana as his cause celebre in 1930, hoping to replicate J. Edgar Hoover's empire-building with regulating booze during the 1920s. Anslinger tried to get the states to sign on to his anti-drug measures, but only nine did. After WWII, however, Anslinger gained flat-out control of all movie scripts that mentioned drugs (a power about which today's drug czar, Barry McCaffrey, can only dream). Anslinger used this power to paint marijuana as a direct stepping stone to violence, heroin, suicide and even insanity. When the early 60s rolled around -- by which time Anslinger had aged into a parody of a bald-headed, hard-ass Fed -- he was able to convince the U.N. to sanction pot worldwide.

Grass also shows how the villians in drug war propaganda changed over time. Mexicans, the original media campaign's target, apparently weren't plentiful enough around the country to raise much alarm. So, eventually, (black) jazz musicians were dragooned to fill the breach. Then, after 1949, the Communist Scourge in Red China surged to the fore as supposed major suppliers. The film has Anslinger speaking wistfully of Nationalist China's thousand drug-trafficking executions a year, and his regret that now the Communists don't even "hurt anyone."

Scenes like that abound among the rash of funny clips Mann uncovered. The nipitts of old propaganda flicks, both staged and real, are deliciously awkward. In one, a girl simply jumps out the window; in another, a sex-crazed dope fiend tries to wrestle his date out of her sweater. A long sequence follows hop-heads who steal a case of soda, break open the bottles and bloody their mouths without noticing, before one ends up on heroin. There's even rampant skinny-dipping. My favorite, added just for a laugh, was a terrified Richard Nixon attempting to bowl.

On the other hand, some of the gags belabour the obvious. A chain-smoking cop talking about the horrors of addiction gets the same fish-in-a-barrel laughs from the crowd as does Ronald Reagan decrying pot-induced memory loss. Gerald Ford falls down the airplane's steps yet again, and a smirking Chevy Chase asks Saturday Night Live viewers to send reefer to his ostensible home address. How fey.

Yet many of the historical scenes are quite powerful. Footage shot in Vietnam shows the extent of pot use on the front lines. As one grunt says, you get stoned, and then you don't care about the war anymore. Hard to conceive of current soldiers misbehaving like this on-camera, but these guys were already seeing action in Vietnam; what punishment could be worse? Back home was another matter. One vet got a fifty-year sentence for selling, to use a forgotten phrase, a "lid" -- less than an ounce. Displaying his many medals, his bereaved mother termed the sentence, "severe."

The Summer of Love gets it's due, one sloppy, good-time kiss representing. The folks crammed in rows at Woodstock, passing one joint among so many, look aching to stretch out their legs. Future Congressman Sonny Bono, vacuous in a gold shirt, drones on against weed, and a kid fried to the gills in some official study volunteers for another session, anytime, anywhere. Although in a medical setting, he's one of the few genuinely giddy users; someone remarked later that Mann had too few scenes of sheer euphoria. A lot of heads seem terribly self-conscious before a camera, just smiling sagely.

One clever device is the various "Official Truths" Mann uses to characterize the government's message about marijuana over the years. Starting with insanity, murder and the like, the supposed effects of getting stoned became much less severe over time. As pot use exploded during the 60s, and more and more middle-class kids got locked up, attitudes about marijuana changed (the film even features a group of middle-aged suburbanites saying, oh just one more hit.) By the disco era, the language is reduced to "Smoke pot and bad things will happen."

But the pendulum swings both ways. Our current non-inhaler -- fearful, perhaps, of the wild misconception that his administration is soft on drugs -- has brought the hammer down as never before. The film states that from 1980 to 1998, marijuana prohibition cost taxpayers a whopping $215 billion. And with some 650,000 marijuana arrests annually during his administration, Clinton has overseen more arrests than any other president by far, says Kevin Zeese, president of Common Sense for Drug Policy.

Because it's a historical document (rather than a Michael Moore-ish display of guerrilla journalism) Grass might come off as a rather dry picture to some. However, Guido Luciani's original score of fine funk, with a bit of techno overlay, certainly helps move things along, but Paul Mavrides' animation is weak overall. It includes a 1950s mushroom cloud, Yellow Submarine-y cartoons for the Sixties and, in the Seventies, something akin to Pac Man and Pong. Lamest, perhaps, is when Oregon becomes the first state to decriminalize personal use, and the word "grass" charges happily through a green light. Embracing the visuals' unoriginality, Mann told me he and Mavrides sought to "graphically represent different historical periods." And they do, all too baldly.

The bottom line question, of course, is whether Grass will become another "Atomic Cafe" or "Roger and Me" -- a documentary with the potential to shift public thinking a few degrees. Ethan Nadelman, chief honcho at reformist outfit The Lindesmith Center, told the crowd at the screening that "Marijuana is a pivotal cultural issue, a battle for the heart and soul of the nation." Later, Nadelman said, "This is the first movie on the drug war that has a chance to make a real difference. It's high-quality, entertaining to watch and entirely accurate."

Or maybe it will just motivate pot smokers to take some long-overdue political action. As Keith Stroup of NORML said at the screening, "There's something very validating about this movie. It says to marijuana smokers, 'I'm OK. You're OK. Now let's talk to our elected representatives.'"

Grass opens at New York's Film Forum on May 31st and at San Francisco's Castro Theater on June 2nd. There will be a rolling release in cities nationwide this Summer, followed by college towns this Fall. Daniel Forbes writes on social policy and the media from New York.

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