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Home Vision Entertainment presents
Grass (2000)

"If you become a pothead, you risk blowing the most important time of your life: your teenage."
- Sonny Bono

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: April 03, 2002

Stars: Woody Harrelson, Henry J. Anslinger
Other Stars: Cab Calloway, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Fiorello La Guardia, Gene Krupa, Robert Mitchum, Allen Ginsburg, Timothy Leary, Jerry Garcia, Sonny Bono, Cheech Marin, Tommy Chong. John F. Kennedy, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Jack Webb, Chevy Chase, Nancy Reagan, George Bush, John Lennon, Yoko Ono
Director: Ron Mann

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for some nudity, some profanity, and lots and lots of drug use
Run Time: 01h:18m:20s
Release Date: April 23, 2002
UPC: 037429167625
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Here's a choice for you: "Marijuana: Threat or Menace?" It comes from a 1950s PSA crusading against the evil weed, part of a century-old effort to convince the American public that pot smokers do the devil's work. Grass is a documentary less about marijuana itself, and more about the counterproductive, illogical, and grotesquely expensive war waged by the U.S. Government over the last hundred years to get us to just say no to pot. It's loaded with lunatic anecdotes to make its point, like the Vietnam vet sentenced to fifty years in prison for selling an ounce of pot to a narc, or the $76 billion spent in the war against marijuana during the 1970s alone. And while its journalistic techniques sometimes are a little sloppy, it's a pretty successful bit of alternative history.

The anti-marijuana prejudice, narrator Woody Harrelson tells us, is rooted in racism: it all began in El Paso, when early 20th-century Mexican day laborers liked to roll joints after a hard day's work. The white folks didn't like the Mexicans, and their smoke of choice became a convenient excuse to run them out of town or into prison. The word spread from the Lone Star State throughout the land, and Grass documents the multifaceted efforts by various arms of the Federal government to combat the spread of cannabis.

Ron Mann, the producer and director of Grass, has unearthed much unintentionally hilarious anti-pot propaganda film. The most famous is surely Reefer Madness, but my personal favorite is a silent picture from 1929, called High on the Range, which features one cowboy explaining to another via a title card re his pal's new cigarettes: "They're Marihuana weed, a devilish narcotic, and if you smoke them, you go bughouse, loco, and want to raise h--- in general." Much of the drug war gets played out in Hollywood, in fact, either in onscreen efforts to keep the kids off the junk, or ferocious efforts to prosecute pot smokers in the public eye, like Gene Krupa and Robert Mitchum.

The villain of the piece, unquestionably, is Henry J. Anslinger, America's first drug czar. He served under five presidents (from Roosevelt to Johnson), and is the first and foremost in a series of uptight, overweight, middle-aged white guys talking about the evils of cannabis, with the long arm of the law backing them up. Anslinger and his minions are responsible for the loony anti-marijuana propaganda, just about all of it unhinged from the reality of the weed. The theories offered are variously: Pot makes you insane. Pot makes you shoot heroin. Pot makes you a Communist.

The film goes chronologically, and not until the 1960s do we actually see someone under the influence—he is the subject of a laboratory experiment, a fellow in thick black lab glasses just giddy with delight, and eager to sign on for another round at the lab: "I'll do it any time you want. Anytime at all. Just call me day or night." It's of course much closer to the real-world experience anybody in the audience might have with pot, and only points up further the misguided anti-marijuana crusade.

It's not just a film about dudes who want to toke up, either; there's a greater argument about social policy, about the absurdities of marijuana laws, of criminalizing and demonizing people who smoke it. And the larger point is the disdain for law generally when there are laws on the book that are enforced arbitrarily, or not at all. (Traffic covers some of the same territory, as you probably know, but Soderbergh's movie has more to say about the inevitability of demand, and the imperialism of American drug use wreaking havoc on our poorer neighbors.) The political content is of course dispiriting, ranging from Richard Nixon disregarding his blue ribbon commission recommending that marijuana be decriminalized, to President Carter backing off his campaign pledge to do something about federal drug laws, lest he be portrayed as a Cheech and Chong wannabe, to those stupid fried egg "this is your brain on drugs, any questions?" ads that tormented me on MTV in my adolescence.

And if Anslinger is the bad guy, the patron saint of Grass seems to be former New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who in his day was a fierce opponent of Prohibition—the same arguments that led to the abandonment of that experiment, the film suggests, should lead us to a similar decision about marijuana. The political case is so strong and so pungent that it's a shame that the film sometimes undercuts its own cause. There are some groovy graphics from Paul Mavrides, but I think it was a real error in judgment to include things like someone dubbing Elvis's voice (and badly) over the famous photograph of the King with President Nixon, or to add sound effects to silent footage to "enhance" their impact. The filmmaking is strong enough without these and other distractions to the incontrovertible facts.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Transfer to DVD is clean and the colors are sharp; given that all the footage is archival, it of course varies in quality. The animated graphics are especially sharp and look terrific.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The Dolby Digital track sounds nearly crystal clear, though again, some of the older footage displays the limits of the source material. The producers have assembled a score of pot-related music, a whole lot of which is surprising and fun. (My favorite cut is Cab Calloway's Reefer Man.)

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 13 cues and remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Deleted Scenes
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. State-by-state guide to marijuana laws in the U.S.
  2. gallery of High Times magazine covers
Extras Review: The featurette is an interview with director Ron Mann (09m:47s), in one long take—frequently his movie is more articulate on the subject matter than he is, but he covers a wide range of subjects, from the year of research he spent on the project, to taking the film around the festival circuit. (Everybody he knows, he tells us, smokes pot. Who'd have thunk it?) The deleted scene (02m:53s) is an alternate opening sequence, with one joint being passed to all kinds of harmless pot smokers, ranging in age and ethnicity. The High Times magazine covers seem like an arbitrary assortment, heavy with some of the folks you'd expect to find here (Jerry Garcia, Cheech and Chong, Bob Marley) to Andy Warhol to the most famous non-inhaler of them all, Bill Clinton.

NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, provides the most unusual extra, the state-by-state guide on pot laws. Obviously you're a fool and will probably get what you deserve if you take legal advice from a DVD or from a website that reviews them, but a quick perusal suggests that California and Vermont are among the most pot-friendly states, and if you're thinking about toking up, don't mess with Texas.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

Grass is a whole lot more than Up In Smoke for the New Republic set; it's a pretty smart documentary that provides food for thought, not just the munchies. It's more likely to arouse your civil libertarian instincts than to get you reaching for a joint, and as a narrative of American history that might not be the first priority in the groves of academe, Grass does its subject a particular service.


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