2000, Narrated by Woody Harrelson. Directed by Ron Mann.
A look at the U.S. government's war on marijuana throughout the 20th Century, Ron Mann's documentary Grass is a fairly serious effort that balances out any cheap Cheech & Chong pot humour with informative context about drugs. Instead of focusing on the use of marijuana, Mann shows how anti-marijuana laws were used to control North American citizens. He highlights many of the problems of the war on drugs, specifically the amount of tax dollars spent on enforcement and education as well as the strict penalties for possession in the 1970s.
The great strength of Grass is it's use of the source material. In addition to more obvious fare like Reefer Madness and skits from Saturday Night Live, Mann draws together some of marijuana's more arcane flirtations with pop culture. An early highlight for me was the inclusion of the infamous Louvin Brothers song "Satan is Real" from their very rare anti-drug gospel album, as well as Cab Calloway and Small Faces songs. I was also delighted to see one a clip from the 1951 educational film Drug Addiction in which a laughing teenager gets high and drinks from a broken Pepsi bottle, badly lacerating his mouth. Another clip is from 1968's Marijuana which has a very stoned looking Sonny Bono preaching to kids.
Unfortunately, Mann's documentary techniques are not as sharp as they once were. Many of the clips mentioned above (especially Reefer Madness) are severely edited and out of sequence. For some unknown reason, Grass also has an intrusive foley artist. Not-so-subtle overdubbed footsteps, slide whistles and even phony news cast introductions cause Grass to take on an MTV-style pacing which at times comes close to resembling " edutainment."
Although Mann always does a good job in organizing his films, Grass seems to lack such cohesiveness. While Twist is organized into 7 "dance lessons," Paul Mavrides computer graphics appear much too often as to violate any kind of "chapter" breakdown. At first the film appeared to be organized in the changing "official truth" about marijuana, which progresses from "you will become a murderer" to "you will start on heroin" to "you will be lazy," all graphically rendered. Then it appears as though the film is broken into years, so that Mann can show how much was spent each decade on the "war on drugs," again illustrated with graphics. If things weren't confusing enough already, Mann adds a third apparent chapter break, every time a bill or law is passed.
Mann's alteration of image and sound in service of his documentary may have something to do his involvement with Church of the SubGenius members Mark Mothersbaugh (the Devo member who composed the theme for Grass) and artist Paul Mavrides. It is certainly true that Grass often seems like a SubGenius radio show than a documentary. Despite it's problems, Grass is easy to recommend to everyone and it will hopefully lead some other people back to Mann's earlier documentaries.