Film Reviews

Gettin' the Munchies

Canadian documentarian Ron Mann, who previously examined aspects of pop culture in Comic Book Confidential (1988) and Twist (1992), takes on a broader and more controversial subject in Grass, a history of America's second-favorite smokable substance. As he has done before, he provides a sugarcoated crash course on a huge subject in roughly 80 minutes. Also, as in his earlier efforts, the necessary omissions can sometimes frustrate viewers and leave them wanting more.

The movie opens with a clip from a black-and-white film unbelievably identified as Marijuana: Threat or Menace? (reminiscent of National Lampoon's "Homosexuality: Disease or Illness?"). It then proceeds to give a quick history of the drug and its suppression in the United States during the first half of the century. The "star" of the film's first third is Harry J. Anslinger, the first American drug czar, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 through the early '60s. This overzealous, prevaricating prohibitionist was canny in his manipulation of the media, providing Mann a huge storehouse of photographic and cinematic propaganda to loot for the movie. We are also treated to a few examples of precode Hollywood's last-gasp acknowledgment of the weed's lighter side -- Cab Calloway singing "That Funny Reefer Man" from International House (1933) and Gertrude Michael doing "Sweet Marijuana" from Murder at the Vanities (1934).

Because of constitutional objections by the states to Washington's control of drug laws, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics cleverly came up with the 1937 Drug Tax Act, which levied a tax on grass and made it a felony to possess the substance without an official stamp -- which was never issued. Voilà! Instant abolition.

Anslinger may be the prime villain here, but almost no politician comes off very well. (Big surprise.) The exception is Fiorello H. Laguardia, who commissioned an independent medical study on marijuana in 1937 -- the completed report was published in 1944 -- and didn't back down when the results showed the drug to be essentially harmless. Compare Laguardia to Richard Nixon, who commissioned a similar study in the '70s, then threw the report in the trash and disavowed it publicly when it failed to say what he wanted. Nixon's revocation of his promise of an independent investigation prefigured another, higher-profile dismissal during his administration: Archibald Cox as independent prosecutor for the Watergate scandal.

The cravenness of politicians about this issue doesn't break down along party lines. The only vaguely laudable ones in the film, besides Laguardia, a sometimes Republican, are LBJ and Jimmy Carter, both Democrats. On the downside are not only Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush, but also Franklin Roosevelt, who signed the 1937 Drug Tax Act without hesitation; JFK, seen praising Anslinger to the skies on his retirement; and the Clinton administration, whose drug policy has been no better than those of its Republican predecessors.

As Mann recounts the ups and downs of marijuana's legal and cultural status through the rest of the century, he juices up his presentation with tons of pop tunes and some amusing animated sequences by art director Paul Mavrides.

Fun though that is, the heart of the film is the archival material. Mann has managed to find what appears to be the raw footage for some of this: We get Anslinger bloopers and Nixon outtakes. A 1955 TV show includes as its expert witness the police chief of Culver City, whose delivery suggests a derangement just as scary as that displayed by the marijuana "victims" in such camp classics as the Anslinger-approved Reefer Madness (1936). It all makes for a wonderful story.

Still, one wishes Mann had gone even further. While the politics of marijuana's history are at the film's center, Mann either neglects or doesn't have the time to probe the broader political implications of the various wars on drugs, particularly in their more recent phases. He correctly identifies the drug as a convenient scapegoat, used by media-savvy politicians to rally voter support; yet he fails to examine an even more insidious problem: the extent to which this sensationalist "threat" is employed as a bludgeon against the Bill of Rights. Like commie brainwashing and the apparent legions of liberal perverts poisoning the minds of The Children, this threat continues to be used by powermongers as an excuse to override constitutional protections against -- you guessed it -- exactly that kind of powermongering.

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Andy Klein