REVIEW: "Grass" Blows Lid off Pot-Politics
by Emily Bobrow
(indieWIRE/6.02.00) -- For a director who has built a career spotlighting counter cultural phenomena ("Comic Book Confidential," "Poetry in Motion"), Ron Mann's latest work, "Grass," is a fitting addition to his subversive oeuvre. Embarking on a two-week run at New York's Film Forum, this savvy and biting examination of America's tireless crusade against marijuana offers some unsettling insight into the legalization controversy.
By exposing the relatively unknown history of dope criminalization in the U.S., "Grass" manages to chip away at the drug's layers of stigmatization to reveal a disturbing core of government-controlled propaganda. Campy and compelling, this pro-pot doc actually transcends typical stoner tub-thumping and effectively challenges U.S. drug policy.
Essentially, "Grass" focuses on the historical roots of the nation's inept "war on drugs"--a campaign that has cost the U.S. billions of dollars without success -- by charting marijuana's dubious and unscientific evolution from recreational weed to poisonous public enemy. Given that there are approximately 30 million pot smokers in North America today (an article by Glenn O'Brien in June's "Paper" places the number closer to 70 million) and studies have never linked marijuana use with detrimental behavior, it seems awkward that the average drug sentence is 11 months longer than the average rape sentence. Disturbingly, over 10 million Americans have been arrested on marijuana charges since the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse recommended that the drug be decriminalized in 1972. Something seems awry in this criminal-justice pattern, and "Grass" is an articulate response to the egregious penalties marijuana users now face.
Narrated by hemp hero Woody Harrelson (who reportedly volunteered his time for the project) "Grass" unravels as a parody of a classroom cautionary tale. Within its chronological (and very straightforward) narrative, the film is entertainingly divided into sections according to each new marijuana "Truth." These speculative "truths," based on the peculiar anti-drug zeitgeist of that particular moment, are amazingly paranoid assertions ranging from "You'll get hooked on heroin!" to "It'll make you kill people!" (To reinforce the fact that these conceptions of marijuana did indeed exist, Mann includes a generous amount of supportive films and speeches; Alas, "Reefer Madness" doesn't quite stand the test of time).
There is a polished cleverness to Grass's visual collage. Ridiculous propaganda clips, fake headlines, gripping artwork (from comic artist Paul Mavrides) and a lively soundtrack give the film an engagingly giddy feel -- as if somehow by saturating the audience with a splashy and farcical environment of anti-pot hysteria, "Grass" manages to both wink at the smirking converted and extend itself to the galled yet unconvinced.
Significantly, much of Mann's leverage in debunking the legitimacy of the "war on drugs" is accessed just by virtue of the ludicrous drug-line dispensed by government authorities. It is a clever act of appropriation -- the anti-drug stance of yesteryear offers the best evidence for the antithesis.
Additionally, by cobbling together a series of historical misconceptions about the relatively innocuous drug, "Grass" successfully illustrates an underlying relationship between the federal control over pot-paranoia and the accompanying desire to suppress so-called "deviant" behavior (in the case of marijuana, the definition of deviance is flexible enough to encompass poor Mexican immigrants, unconventional Jazz musicians, and upper-middle class college students).
As with any documentary with a political agenda, "Grass" has a definite "good guy" (an impressively pragmatic Fiorello H. LaGuardia) and an undeniable "bad guy" (Harry J. Anslinger, the first head of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics). The lesser-known Anslinger actually turns out to be the stodgy mastermind behind the government's crusade against pot. Evidently, Anslinger's efforts to control the spread of marijuana in the 1930s gained power only after it was fastened to xenophobic tendencies (Mexican migrant laborers brought the plant with them to the U.S.) and a variety of bluntly moralistic concerns (stifling "depraved influences," etc.). Anslinger amazingly managed to create a new class of criminals almost overnight, and it is his rhetoric we actually hear in the mouths of righteously indignant politicians (who admit to have learned their lessons long ago).
Alternatively, LaGuardia actually organized a marijuana study with The New York Academy of Medicine which, it turns out, disproved all of the Anslinger propaganda. Twists and turns along these lines continue for the next six decades, with a featured cast of pendulum-swinging characters that includes Richard Nixon, Cab Calloway, Jimmy Carter, Sonny Bono and Ronald Reagan, among others.
While the film treats the 60s a tad too preciously and the 80s and 90s are shoved into an unsatisfying montage (Mann seems to have run out of steam here -- no Clinton-baiting even), "Grass"'s point resonates pretty clearly. (Yet interestingly, all of the federal bureaucrats look pasty and bloated while all the hippies seem to glow with beauty. Is it the pot?).
Perhaps the most startling aspect of Mann's latest documentary is how long it has taken for the content of this film to come to light.
[Emily Bobrow is a film critic for Film Journal International and has written for the Village Voice and The Independent Film and Video Monthly.]