How You Became a Criminal

Grazin' in the Grass Is a Gas, Baby Can Ya Dig It?

Ron Mann's <i>Grass</i>
Ron Mann's Grass

Canadian documentarian Ron Mann specializes in pop culture histories, assembled through collage. His first two theatrical releases -- Comic Book Confidential (1988) and Twist (1992) -- traced the entire 20th century in comic books and popular dance, respectively, with a lively mix of archival material and current and vintage interviews. His latest film, Grass, which will make its U.S. premiere Friday, March 10, as part of the SXSW Film Festival, represents a more somber and overtly political topic -- marijuana prohibition in the U.S. -- but its style is no less playful, as outrageously dated propaganda footage collides with tongue-in-cheek pop graphics and animation, lending an appropriately surreal quality to some very grim statistics. When I spoke to Mann, he was in Dallas, feverishly completing a transfer of his film onto projection-quality video, but we soon moved on from there to other things ...

I found religion in Dallas …

Austin Chronicle: So, what are you doing in Dallas?

Ron Mann: I was given a free High Definition video transfer thanks to Bart Weiss at the Dallas Video Festival. I am blown away. I spent all day yesterday with a state-of-the-art transfer; I've never seen definition on video like this before in my life. I'm completely converted. I will never go back. I saw things here that I've never seen before. I found religion in Dallas.

I will give a talk at the Video Festival on how compilation filmmaking has changed as a result of video. My mentor was Emil D'Antonio, a political documentary filmmaker who made Point of Order about McCarthy, one of the first compilation films, and D. had 50 hours of material that he had culled from the Army McCarthy hearings, that would be on 35mm film which would fill a room. Today, you can do much more with video. You can go into the basements of TV stations as I did on Grass and look at a lot more. I think at the end we had looked at over 400 hours of anti-marijuana propaganda -- or mental hygiene movies, that is what Rick Prelinger is calling it now. These are social guidance films that told you that marijuana would make you ... you would be in the grip of Satan if you smoked marijuana. It is all true of course. Actually, after watching so many of those movies, all they make you want to do is take pot, smoke pot.

AC: They probably had the same effect on a lot of people at the time too.

RM: Yeah, what's this? That looks good. I'll try that.

It will do great things for concession sales …

AC: I remember seeing Reefer Madness in Dallas as a midnighter.

RM: Yeah, absolutely. That form of watching movies as a repertory has kind of gone. That is how I grew up watching movies. I don't know if you know this, but Reefer Madness started New Line Cinema, which, by the way, is a Time Warner company today. They resurrected Reefer Madness in 1970, and it became a cult hit. What is interesting about that whole experience is that a lot of people smoked pot in the theatre. Grass played Toronto, it played a couple of film festivals in Canada, and it just played Berlin, and what is going on is that people come down and smoke pot and it is just like a repertoire house screening. Actually, at a screening in Halifax, at the Atlantic Film Festival, I overheard some kid coming out of the audience saying, "Great special effects!" What is happening is that it will do great things for concession sales.

AC: Well, that's great. We'll have something to look forward to this Friday.

RM: Yeah, you should stock up on nachos and popcorn. Tell the Paramount Theatre to look out.

AC: I hope the concessions people read this article before the screening.

He told me if I used his song I would burn in hell…

AC: I didn't know Reefer Madness was a New Line thing, that is interesting.

RM: What is interesting is the kind of contradiction of New Line and other companies. For example, a lot of companies loved the film -- Sony and New Line -- but really their corporate parents were worried about picking up the film because it is so controversial. We had such difficulty making the film. There is a kind of censorship that exists, a kind of economic censorship that exists even just getting the film made. If I wanted to use certain music -- for example, Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass, "Tijuana Taxi" song, I could not use. He told me if I used his song I would burn in hell.

AC: My.

RM: I could not use "Tea for Two" -- even Steve Miller's "The Joker" was a problem. I would spend a lot of time trying to edit this movie around what was available to me, even if I wanted to use it. Once the film was finished I thought: Okay, I can finally get it out there, but even with people responding so positively there is still this taboo about marijuana. We have to get over it, it is kind of hypocrisy.

AC: I guess that is the U.S.

RM: The irony is that, after Berlin, we sold it around the world. The film festivals in Toronto generated sold-out screenings, ovations, and heavy political discussion, and it got sold around the world, including Japan, which I was really surprised by actually ... [The translation] is heavy work, there's a lot of text in the movie. The graphics are done by Paul Mavrides who is an artist known for the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.

AC: I didn't notice that in the credits. You have a clip from that in there.

RM: That is Paul, Paul did most of the graphics in the movie. There are a lot of underground people involved with this: There are the Fireside Theater guys, Dave Osmond, Phil Proctor, they are in it. I think Harry Shearer, from Spinal Tap and The Simpsons, is in it. He helped as well. There are a lot of interesting people who came together to make this movie.

AC: And Woody Harrelson.

RM: Woody Harrelson was very courageous to be upfront about his politics. You know when I asked him why he did it during the session in Los Angeles, he said, "I want to do what is right." I think that says a lot about Woody Harrelson. This film is about keeping people out of jail.

AC: Well, it is amazing -- we're in Texas, a pretty conservative state, but still you tend to forget that pot is still illegal, and people really go to jail for it.

RM: That was the inspiration for making the movie actually -- people have forgotten. It's an issue that we have dealt with, but it has actually gotten worse. Under Clinton last year, there were 600,000 people arrested in the U.S. for pot.

AC: Was there somebody in particular that you knew who had been busted?

RM: No, it wasn't as personal. Although Paul Mavrides' sister lost her job at Wal-Mart because she failed a drug test, and it destroyed her life. But, other than that, no. I don't know anybody who hasn't been affected by drug laws, by the war on marijuana. Then again, I don't know anybody who doesn't smoke pot. According to the most conservative statistics, 30 million people in the U.S. smoke pot.

It's not like I've been a slacker …

AC: There was a long period between Twist and ...

RM: Boy, okay, four years. All right, I'll tell you the story. I was one of the first people who put a film, since you asked, onto a CD-ROM. The film was called Poetry in Motion, an anthology of poets reading their work. We had people like Tom Waits and Bukowski, John Cage, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Jim Carroll, 24 contemporary poets. As Allen Ginsberg said to me, it was classic. So through Voyager, who was my publisher at the time, it became the first film to be put on CD-ROM. I became a multimedia guru in 1992, before the Web, 1991 to 1992. Then I followed up with Comic Book Confidential and I kind of repurposed a lot of my movies including Emil D'Antonio's Painters Painting which is a history of New York abstract expressionists up to 1970. New York painting from 1945 to 1970, Warhol, Rauschenberg, Stella; I did this with Doug Kellner [ex-Austinite, and co-producer of KLRU's seminal political journal, Alternative Views].

Doug and I were great friends. Doug is the co-author of the CD-ROM. Doug and I were close because he was the executor of D'Antonio's journals and is with Dan Streeble in putting out the D'Antonio reader. It is going to come out in May and hopefully there will be a re-interest in D'Antonio's work. Doug is absolutely brilliant.

So I did these four projects and then I was going to do another one, but Voyager ran out of money. So I spent about six months developing a project on radio and then couldn't raise enough money for that. Then I started, at Bob Stein's suggestion at Voyager, the Grass project. I was about to get it all done around 1994 and then the government funding agency froze all of their funds. I took a job doing The Fifties. It's not like I've been a slacker. It is just that I have been out of the loop of theatrical documentaries because I went in the direction of being a multimedia guru to doing TV documentary.

Our goal was to do an Atomic Cafe on drugs …

AC: How long were you working on the movie?

RM: Three years? I think it is appropriate that I don't actually remember how long. I think I started thinking about the movie in 1995. We started editing about three years ago and it premiered in Toronto. The kind of work that I do, that is what makes me different from other documentary filmmakers. I don't have a deadline. I research, I am a closet sleuth. I spent two weeks, for example, at Penn State to go through the boxes of Harry Anslinger's archive. I went to TV stations and over 200 archives in North America. I am somewhat perfectionistic in that sense. Well, there are two things: I go further because I think history is in the outtakes -- because I'm working with history and because this is the first time the story is all put together. There are books that cover different periods of the history, but there is not a complete legislative history of marijuana prohibition. I spent a lot of time going deeper, and I hired Rick Prelinger as a consultant -- he did Atomic Cafe; our goal was to do an Atomic Cafe on drugs. Through Rick and another person -- her credit is head researcher and she'll be in Austin, Rani Singh -- she and I spent many, many months going through anti-marijuana propaganda films. Propaganda films are the cornerstone of drug policy. ... The other thing is that I spend a long time as a kind of perfectionist with the films which is one of the reasons why I'm in Dallas with this HD state of the art. My films are theatrical. There's only a handful of documentary filmmakers who get their films released theatrically. So I try and make the work more elegant. There is a Dolby digital soundtrack. We used a lot of film elements, not video elements, and it is 35mm. It is not the kind of movie that has interviews and then cuts back -- it really uses artifacts. It is going back to the form of collage in the same way that a Rauschenberg painting would be.

AC: I don't remember that there was a single interview in it. It is an unusual style.

RM: It was a radical stance as an aesthetic to draw documentary source as collage. I really believe in that form. I mean, we are using artifacts, we are using actuality.

My films have always been about celebrating alternative culture, whether it is jazz or poetry or comic books, rock & roll, dance. But this film is different, because it is not about the personalities, it is a reaction against what is wrong. D'Antonio said to me that film comes from two basic emotions: You either love something so much that you really want to turn people on to it or you hate something so much. I guess this film for me is really different in that I really did feel that I needed to do something, be responsible and do something about the destructive, wasteful drug laws that exist and to chronicle what happened since 1937, over 60 years.

“How you became a criminal ……

AC: It is a pretty amazing story, and characters don't enter into it so much. I guess the main character is Harry Anslinger.

RM: Yes and Nixon, all the superstars. Our tagline, I guess, is "How you became a criminal." I wanted to find out how marijuana was criminalized, and I became fascinated with Harry J. Anslinger. I asked people around me if they knew who he was and they did not know. This person was as infamous and treacherous -- if not more -- than J. Edgar Hoover. Harry J. Anslinger initiated this course, began this course, that we are still on and we can't seem to get off.

AC: At least Hoover gave us the FBI which then gives him an arguably useful life. Anslinger gave us the Drug Enforcement Administration.

RM: That is his legacy.

AC: Which doesn't do anything useful.

RM: It is a bureaucracy that has ballooned. Last year it was $7 billion a year. It is wasteful, destructive, and it has not done anything except destroy people's lives, break up families. It is shameful. I think that films can do this, I think that they can look at the reasons why and how we got here. Also, this is an election year so that is why this film is also really important -- to be reminded that people can change. They can change politics. They can change the direction. They can express their dissatisfaction. They can make the world that they want to live in. I really believe that political change can happen, especially if you are able to break down this illusion that the drug war has benefits. I guess it has benefits like putting undesirables in jail and controlling people.

Every American should see this movie …

AC: I was wondering, maybe this has something to do with the style of the film, but there wasn't much in it of very recent developments. There is nothing about various initiatives to relegalize or decriminalize, and recent political arguments.

RM: Well, people want a happy ending, and it is not a happy ending. As I said, I think you are right, I think people really, really do believe that things are getting better but they are not unless you do something about it. We did not deal with medical marijuana because this film is not about the medical use of pot. It is about the recreational use of pot. We did not deal with hemp because it is not about the environment. It is about getting high. The laws under Clinton -- over three million people have been arrested under Clinton. All I could have done is to show more arrests and more money being spent on the war against marijuana. [But] there are people who are organizing, [and] I think they are doing really great things to educate and to bring public awareness to the issue. Keith Stroop, for example, is now back directing [NORML], and there are many groups around the country who are interested in drug reform. I think in Austin there will be a number of people who will be involved in a post-film discussion. I think Saturday there might be some sort of demonstration at the state Capitol. So there is positive support, people who are becoming energized and want to do something. You have William F. Buckley who was for drug reform; it doesn't split people down the middle anymore. I think people believe that something needs to be done right now. ...

I also wanted the film not to be dated in a certain way, because it goes on. I did not want people leaving the film going, "Oh, I feel so depressed." I did want to make them feel, at least by that shot of LaGuardia's line at the end, that something needs to be done. I wanted to leave it on an open question, I guess.

I showed the film in Washington, just as a private screening to Keith Stroop, and he said, "Every American should see this movie." That made the film seem very worthwhile, for me to spend three years making the movie. But it made me think that the film could be used as a kind of political tool to get people to think. It could be used as a fundraiser, it could be used to make people aware in the same way that Atomic Cafe was used to help the anti-nuke movement in the early Eighties.

It's really very simple …

RM: In 1983, there was a film called If You Love This Planet by Helen Caldicott. It was a National Film Board movie and actually won an Academy Award that year. And Ronald Reagan's government banned that movie. Because there is a law that says if I'm putting out propaganda that advocates the overthrow of the U.S. government somehow. ... I am very careful when I carry this film over the border. I can't say that I have a film about marijuana. First of all, if I admitted that I ever smoked pot -- which I am not doing now -- but if I did, I would not be allowed in the country for five years, my license would be revoked.

AC: Really?

RM: Yeah, I'd lose my life insurance. So it is a very serious issue. Pot lends itself to a kind of humor of campy giggles, but it is a really serious issue. I can't under the law as a Canadian criticize the American government -- damn, I wouldn't be in Austin on Friday.

AC: Don't do that.

RM: I am very careful, obviously.

AC: We have sort of the same thing here: It is not a very closely held secret that some people on the Chronicle staff smoke pot, but you can't really say it directly. There is weird tiptoeing around the issue that doesn't make a lot of sense.

RM: I wanted to make sure that other people out there knew that there were other people out there. I know when I make these movies, I make films from my own experience. I know there are people out there like myself that want to see these types of movies.

I wanted to focus Grass on one issue which is: People who are smoking pot and not harming anybody, adults, leave them alone. The issue is not about -- it is not the data wars. I open the newspaper and there is one article saying that marijuana will give you a heart attack. Meanwhile, on the next page, it said that marijuana will not give you cancer, and there were some other reports. I said to myself, "I better just play it safe and keep to cigarettes." It is data wars -- my data is better than your data -- but that is not the issue. It's should we be spending vast amounts of money incarcerating pot smokers? It is really simple to me. I know what the answer is, too. end story

Grass will play the opening night of the SXSW Film Festival, at 9:45pm, Friday, March 10 at the Paramount.

In an unrelated event the next day, a weeklong march from San Antonio to Austin will culminate with a rally at "High Noon" at the state Capitol, to advocate legalization of medical marijuana.

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Ron Mann, grass, marijuana, SXSWFilm, South by Southwest

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