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Savant Review:


Home Vision Entertainment
1999 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 80 min.
Narrated by Woody Harrelson
Production Designer
Art Direction Paul Mavrides
Film Editor Robert Kennedy
Original Music Guido Luciani
Written by Solomon Vesta
Produced by Keith Clarkson, Sue Len Quon and Ron Mann
Directed by Ron Mann

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Once upon a time Ernest Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper went to Asia to film a silent movie about ... no, that's another docu called Grass from the 1920's. This Grass is a pro- marijuana documentary, cleverly assembled from newsfilm, feature clips, and graphics both original and newly produced. Director Ron Mann, the auteur behind the wonderful Comic Book Confidential, gives the show pace and a sense of fun. HVe is putting out several more Ron Mann docus later this year.


The history of Marijuana as a controlled, reviled, feared, outlawed, popular, championed substance, is chronicled from the turn of the century to the present day. Rather than make the case for its harmlessness, the docu details the political and cultural forces that made it the favorite post-prohibition hook for ambitious politicians to hang careers on, and law enforcement agencies to promote expensive campaigns against.

Grass tells a fascinating story that's more about political opportunism than marijuana itself. A sideways plea for legalization, made by marijuana advocates, it's narrated totally straight by Woody Harrelson, a liberal champion of the cause. Ron Mann is a good documentarian but succeeds mostly in presenting a solid case against the United States of America than for pot: his film clips show America's drug czar slowly building his empire of law-enforcement through the 30s and 40s, using propaganda and lies to paint weed as blackly as possible. Starting with racist anti-Mexican sentiment, the government has spent untold billions of tax dollars to associate marijuana with, in turn, godless Hollywood degenerates, Red Chinese Communists, and anti-American hedonists.

The best clips feature prominent officials showing their true colors right on camera, using, where possible The Atomic Cafe's device of leaving intact stage waits, those moments where the subject is caught off-guard flubbing lines or nervously preparing his speech. F.D.R. solemnly signs his anti-pot law into effect, but John Kennedy gives his award to the drug czar as if he'd never heard of him before that very moment. New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia makes an impassioned speech against criminalization, invoking anti-prohibition logic that the filmmakers clearly love. The drug czar is shown frequently, modeling his public image after the grandstanding example set by J. Edgar Hoover. There are also plenty of television appearances by police chiefs and various pundits, all convinced that marijuana is indeed the 'gateway' drug to harder narcotics. As always, Ronald Reagan proves the master of the crowd-pleasing, well-spoken, outright lie.

Noted 'ephemeral film' expert Rick Prelinger shows up in the credits, as does nouveau sleaze film king Michael Vraney, and there are a lot of good clips from the exploitation films of the 30s and 60s. The clip licensing people have done a thorough job, snagging Cab Calloway singing 'Reefer Man' from International House, and using for the end titles another unnamed (Warners?) musical number, the title of which appears to be 'Marijuana'. Cheech and Chong make their inevitable grossout appearance. Chevy Chase is seen doing drug jokes on Saturday Night Live.

What Grass does extremely well is to illuminate the official hypocrisy and lies that have filtered down through the decades. Marijuana has been demonized because governmental agencies can use it to acquire almost unlimited funding. Law enforcement, it seems, has relied on anti-pot money for half a century to fund itself. Individual politicians have seized on grass as an excellent no-risk issue. Although it continues into the 90s, the docu's detail drops off radically in the 1970s, after an investigation into pot commissioned by Richard Nixon. The committee came back with a report that absolved marijuana of all of its supposed evils, and called the draconian governmental law enforcement program against it, devisive, destructive and wasteful. Nixon naturally tossed the report without even reading it - like every other politician, he was looking for an easy issue around which he could build a law-enforcement empire with unlimited funding.

Grass goes too easy on the 'just say no' 80s, skipping over the fact that the DEA was for a while elevated to a government within the government, a secret KGB-like police force that basically terrorized American citizens in the name of protecting them from themselves. There's plenty of documentation showing that the DEA used property seizure laws to effectively scour the country, looking for loot like latterday Witchfinders. Fueled by soft anti-drug funds, a national law-enforcement behemoth has grown to the point where practically every township in the country has developed SWAT units that really amount to paramilitary armies directed against citizens. The anti-drug police industry is so big, it wouldn't permit pot to be legalized, even if it were discovered to be a cure for cancer. By not following its thesis to the end, Grass blunts its own impact.

We're also expected to naturally agree with the filmmakers that marijuana is a 'harmless' recreational substance, no worse than legal alcohol. Weirdly, Jack Webb in a clip from Dragnet 1970 makes a very good anti-pot case: Marijuana may be no more harmful, or even only half as harmful, as alcohol - but alcohol is so destructive to society, what need have we of another such detrimental substance? The same can be said of gambling, pornography and other officially-sanctioned, socially harmful elements in modern life. It's no reason to come down so horribly hard on innocent pot smokers - Grass does document luckless citizens receiving 40 and 50 year sentences for mere possession - but no reason to run out and light up a jay, either.

HVe's DVD of Grass is very entertaining. The 16:9 image is exceedingly bright and the clips very well presented. The excellent graphics are hilarious in themselves - every few minutes, another great one comes up, billboarding yet another lie about what the government says will happen to you if you use pot. As entertainment they succeed 100%, but like much of the rest of the show, they scream out a kind of hip lack of perspective that isn't going to produce any converts from the constituency Grass really needs to reach if it expects to influence the legalization movement. Ron Mann doesn't help any, by coming on in his interview like one of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers from the old Gilbert Shelton cartoon. He jumps right up and says he doesn't know anybody who doesn't smoke grass. I'm surprised he was able to make as balanced a docu as he did.

Some docus can have a positive effect on society, like the celebrated The Thin Blue Line. There's a difference between trying to change unjust, bad laws, and merely claiming full bragging rights for ownership of the Truth. Satire, from National Lampoon Magazine on, has screamed the Truth loud and clear and accomplished absolutely nothing except the spread of defeatism and despair. How do you measure the impact of The Atomic Cafe, when today's papers are full of people advocating using nuclear weapons, and the government coming up with bright new plans to use nukes to solve all kinds of 'potential' political problems? The makers of Grass mean well, but they shine no light on any possibility of America shaking pot prohibition, and settle for the satisfaction of being correct-thinking, ultra-hip liberals.  1

Favorite shot: the drugged mouse in the marijuana lab experiment, keeling over from its delirious high. The final joke on the production is from the MPAA, which rated it R for drug content. That's like disallowing kids from seeing a show about avoiding sex predators, because it has sexual content.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Grass rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Deleted title sequence, Trailer, Magazine cover gallery of issues of High Times, interactive guide to marijuana laws, state-by-state in the U.S.
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: April 13, 2002


1. Okay, so where does Savant stand in this issue, to feel himself qualified to make such moralistic pronouncements? I've never done pot, never seen the need. I've got friends who experimented thoughtfully with real drugs, and I respect them, but I knew too many faux-liberal kids in college who used dope out of pure mental laziness, or from a general lack of will or direction. I knew plenty of sharp and motivated individuals to whom pot did absolutely no harm, but I have to say I think it did nothing for most of the rest. For many, I can't help but believe that grass represented a crutch that made them feel all the more powerless and unlikely to succeed in whatever they were trying to do. That said, although I never personally heard of anyone who advanced from pot to anything harder, it's obvious that the illegality of pot would put one in contact with plenty of people who knew of harder drugs - the impairment of judgement that occurs while high on pot could very easily get someone to take something harder - while already high. I never had any contact with cocaine circles - those people were both younger than I and apparently had a lot of money to inhale, and in the beginning they suffered from the illusion that cocaine would be as non-addictive as pot, which is totally untrue. My take is that marijuana should be quietly legalized. But even if liberal politics would allow it, it's something that the sensation-seeking, scandal-mongering television news would never allow to happen.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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