Screenplay : Solomon Vesta
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1999
As everyone knows, marijuana gets you high. But, according to Ron Mann's documentary Grass, its unfortunate legacy in the United States is the billions of dollars spent and thousands of otherwise innocent people incarcerated due to the ever-changing rhetoric employed by overprotective zealots hell-bent on maintaining the illusion that smoking it is ... well, that's the problem.
What Grass most effectively demonstrates is the maddening inconsistency of how the "dangers" of smoking marijuana have been understood. Both informative and slightly sarcastic, the film shows how the public rhetoric around this drug has shifted with the times in order to suit the needs of those in charge. Starting in the 1920s when marijuana was first introduced to the U.S. by immigrant Mexican laborers, the weed was demonized not because of its social dangers, but because it offered an easy way to control immigrants. In the 1950s, when all good Americans lived in dire fear of communist infiltration, marijuana was accused of being part of a plot by Red China to dope up America.
What makes this so fascinating and so disturbing is how Mann illustrates that, even when outlandish fears of a by-gone era are dispelled (I don't think anyone still believes that weed makes you go insane), they linger on, never truly disappearing. As deeply rooted in American culture as marijuana is (it's plethora of nomickers--grass, weed, dope, pot, wacky tabaccy--is testament to that), what's more deeply rooted is the fear of it. (The fact that this film was rated R by the MPAA simply because it shows people smoking marijuana is just one example.) And, as Grass aptly and entertainingly illustrates, that fear is based on a century's succession of mistruths, evasion, ignorance, and outright lies.
Written by Soloman Vesta and narrated by actor Woody Harrelson, a long-time activist for the reformation of marijuana laws, Grass traces the cultural history of marijuana throughout the 20th century, focusing primarily on the various government responses to it. It by no means attempts to be an "objective" documentary (if such a thing exists), but is rather a bluntly well-argued polemic against the ridiculousness of marijuana's criminalization. Beginning with the first U.S. drug czar, Harry Anslinger, and going right up through Nancy Reagan's "Just say no" campaign and the record-topping incarcerations during Bill Clinton's presidency, the ever-present hysteria of the U.S. government's "war on drugs" forms a central core to the film (underground artist Paul Mavrides provides striking and colorful visual interludes that succinctly illustrate the costs--social and monetary--associated with it).
The entire film is composed of a compilation of clips from a wide variety of sources, ranging from Hollywood movies, to government propaganda films, to news footage of congressional testimony. Much of this was obviously chosen for its humor value, particularly the early exploitation films such as the immortal Reefer Madness (1936), which depicted to absurd extremes how smoking dope leads to insanity. Again, though, what is most intriguing is how clearly Mann is able to show how the cultural depiction of marijuana fits so neatly into whatever political rhetoric was being used at that time.
So, while Reefer Madness reflects the 1930s threat of insanity, a little-seen silent movie called High on the Range (1929) reflects the 1920s threat that dopes makes you into a killer by showing how a naive cowboy becomes a murderer after a single puff on "a new kind of cigarette," while a 1951 propaganda film titled Drug Addiction focuses on that era's fear of marijuana as a "gateway drug" to harder stuff like heroin. In each instance, the fear is shown to be based not on any form of evidence, but rather on the convenience of what was most effective with the public at that time. In other words, officials would literally say anything as long as they thought it would strike fear in the hearts of good, middle-class Americans.
Of course, being a polemic with its own agenda, Grass doesn't tell the whole truth, and it leaves out any references to more refined arguments against the smoking of marijuana, primarily that studies have shown it to have genuine adverse health effects. As depicted here, one would think that smoking a joint is as harmless as drinking water, which simply is not so, although the point is made that it is certainly no more destructive than alcohol, a drug that differs from marijuana only its social acceptability and method of consumption. The film also takes a few cheap shots, such as including the often-seen blooper of Gerald Ford tripping and falling down a flight of stairs while exiting Air Force One.
But, director Mann and editor Robert Kennedy also make strong statements through the juxtaposition of footage. In one instance, they show footage from a news conference in which Richard Nixon, who was determined to be remembered as the president who was tough on crime despite the federal government's general lack of authority in that area, tells a reporter about a commission he has established to make recommendations on dealing with drugs. The film then cuts to footage of Raymond P. Shafer, chairman of Nixon's National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, saying, "The recommendation of the commission in its first report is that we do not feel that private use or private possession in one's own home should have the stigma of criminalization."
Overall, Grass makes a strong case, ultimately arguing for the futility of the war on drugs, particularly a drug like marijuana. The film closes with an apt statement made by progressive New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia in 1937: "The orderly thing to do under our form of government is to abolish any law which cannot be enforced, a law which the people of the country do not want enforced."
|Audio||English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround|
|Distributor||Home Vision Entertainment|
|Release Date||April 23, 2002|
| 1.85:1 (Anamorphic) |
Because Grass is a compilation film--meaning that it is composed primarily of clips from other sources--the quality of the high-definition transfer is completely dependent on the various sources. These, of course, range from scratchy old newsreel footage, to bits from grayish silent films, to more recent video footage. The animated interludes by Paul Mavrides are virtually the only "new" material in the film, and they are sharp, clear, and colorful.
|English Dolby Digital 5.1 |
The soundtrack bears much of the same burden as the film's visuals--that is, it is heavily reliant on the quality of the various source materials. However, the film is replete with a variety of music, which sounds excellent in the 5.1-channel mix. These songs range from Cab Calloway's 1932 diddy "Reefer Man," to Peter Tosh's reggae hymn "Legalize It." The animated interludes also feature solid sound effects work, some of which features a rumbling low end.
| Ron Mann on Grass|
This 10-minute video interview was conducted by Tim Powis for CHUM Television's Arts & Minds program in early September of 2001. In it, Mann discusses what compelled him to make the film, what he wanted to get across, his thoughts on the finished product (he describes it as "balanced," which may be a bit of self-delusion), and the support he received from various marijuana decriminalization groups.
High Times magazine gallery
Original theatrical trailer
Quick reference to state marijuana laws
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick