" I don’t want to cross the line, Lou; I just want to move it "
— Dustin Hoffman, Mad City

MRQE Top Critic

November

Walks you out of an emotional underworld back into the light —Marty Mapes (review...)

Cox lives three times in November

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HomeVision Entertainment released four Ron Mann documentaries this year on DVD: Comic Book Confidential, Grass, Poetry in Motion, and Twist. Each feature has a similar format and is 90 minutes in length. Each disc contains a special feature unique to its subject, as well as trailers for other Mann films and excerpts from a Canadian TV interview with Mann in 2001.

I found it unsettling to glimpse my own history in a documentary film, one not unlike one I might have seen in a social studies class in school. I even found myself searching for familiar faces in the footage of the Haight-Ashbury scene in the late 1960s. But you won’t have to share this history to enjoy this collection of documentaries.

Comic Book Confidential

Ron Mann takes on American culture with 4 DVDsRon Mann’s Comic Book Confidential chronicles the development of an influential art form. In this series of interviews with 22 graphic artists, we learn about the development of the form, the public reaction to it, and its evolution into an underground phenomenon and vehicle for social and political criticism.

It is fascinating to see how this collection of artists responded to changes in the world. In wartime, superheroes went to war against bad guys. In the 1950s, when the atom bomb threatened Americans’ postwar security, new comic books focused on horror, zombies, aliens, and other things beyond our control.

Underground comic books like Robert Crumb’s famed Zap Comix flourished in the 1960s and ’70s. The proliferation of head shops provided a venue for distributing these and other books that in the words of Victor Moscoso “had to break every taboo” including sexual perversion, drug use, and racism. In the 1980s, artists like Lynda Barry, Sue Coe, and Art Spiegelman explored social issues and personal history using this versatile form.

The history is compelling, but some of the execution of this film is annoying. Hearing Will Eisner, Stan Lee, and other famous and fringe comic book artists read their comics out loud did not generally add to my appreciation of their work. Comic book collage sequences create clunky transitions between sections.

This film will be of most interest to die-hard fans of “graphic novels,” but again provides a window through which to view changes in American culture and free speech issues.

Comic Book Confidential’s extras include the Portfolio section, containing a sample of the work of each artist, and an excerpt from a 2001 interview with Ron Mann about the origins of his interest in documenting this history.

Grass

Grass traces the history of marijuana myths and politics from prohibition to the present. For example, Mann documents that the first American pot laws originated in the Treasury Department; like alcohol during prohibition, the government wanted a piece of the action.

This is a pro-pot film, one that traces policies and propaganda to their sources, and attempts to debunk longstanding myths about marijuana use. The filmmakers’ stance is clear in the writing. Actor and marijuana-legalization proponent Woody Harrelson narrates the film and states that in New Orleans, pot was popular among jazz musicians “because it made the music sound so good.”

Silly animated title sequences that divide sections of this film often weaken the serious messages of the film, one of which is that the government has tried many tactics in attempting to shape public perception of the effects of marijuana use in the past 70 years. A clip from the classic propaganda film Reefer Madness shows crazed smokers erupting into murderous rages, illustrating the tenet, “If you smoke it, you will kill people.” In the 1950s government officials warned, “If you smoke it, you will go insane” and in the 1960s the government warned the public that “If you smoke it, you will lose your motivation.”

Grass also chronicles the rise to power of Harry Anslinger. As the highly influential commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Anslinger influenced national and even international drug policy for decades and launched successful public relations campaigns throughout his career linking pot use to murderous impulses, heroin addiction, and communism.

Ultimately research failed to support prohibitionist Harry Anslinger’s claims. A Palo Alto Veterans’ Hospital doctor in the 1940s says, “We found out that the drug makes people happy, it makes them intoxicated, and finally, it makes them sleepy.” One of the research subject agrees to participate in any future tests: “I’ll do it any time you want. Any time at all,” he slurs happily.

Aware of the growing number of marijuana users and the absurdity of criminalizing their behavior, Fiorello LaGuardia, mayor of New York City, commissioned a study on marijuana’s effects and issued a report in 1944 that debunked many of the myths.

Grass disappoints by not including any current research: Surely research on the effects of marijuana use has occurred since Nixon’s presidency, in the early 1970s. Aside from these weaknesses, Grass offers an irreverent, didactic, silly, and educational documentary for anyone curious - or nostalgic - about the history of marijuana use in the United States.

In the special features section called “Stash,” the extras include a catalog of each state’s marijuana laws, reproductions of High Times magazine covers, and an excerpt from a 2001 public television interview with Ron Mann.

Poetry In Motion

Mann’s film Poetry in Motion is an engaging assembly of contemporary poets reading their works and discussing their ideas about the arts of poetry and performance. The poetry ranges from hilarious to pretentious, from highfalutin to profound, and the cast of characters is a fascinating one.

The profane and sometimes funny Charles Bukowski opens the film, opining on the demise of poetry and how little he appreciates the kind of writing most people canonize. “The reason it hasn’t been appreciated is that it hasn’t shown any guts, it hasn’t shown any dance, it hasn’t shown any moxie.”

Many of the performers attempt to give their work some “dance” by reciting or chanting their poems with the accompaniment of music, continuing poetry’s ancient oral tradition. Ed Sanders blissfully sings his poem “Scissors, scepter, cutting prow” while accompanying himself on an ingenious synthesizer worn on the fingers - and the slicing of scissors. One middle-aged man sets his boom box on his lap and sings a maudlin song that sounds like something on an easy-listening station. Amiri Baraka raps on “wailing” with an improvisational jazz trio’s backing. The amazing Helen Adam, a 70-year-old wearing a swirling seventies print, sings “Cheerless Junkie Song,” a ballad about leaving the Long Island suburb for a life in the city full of idealized sex and drugs among the rats and cockroaches.

This is the most satisfying of the four Mann films. The poets are allowed to speak for themselves; the filmmaker’s imprint is most subtle here.

The extras on the disc include the standard public TV interview excerpt, previews of other Mann films, and in the “Poetry In Motion II” a series of additional performances by some of the artists featured in the film.

Twist

Television was instrumental in popularizing the Twist, particularly the TV show American Bandstand, filmed in New York and featuring local teens doing the latest dance steps to the latest pop hits. American Bandstand was setting and spreading musical trends so rapidly that the music industry scrambled to keep up. Gladys Horton of The Marvellets recalls, “One of our writers at Motown said, ‘Look, girls, everybody’s doing the Twist.’ We had ‘Please, Mr. Postman’ in ‘61, so our second one was ‘Twisting Postman.’”

Among the most interesting revelations in Twist comes when several American Bandstand dancers discuss the fact that they were wrongly given credit for the new dances, when it was in fact black dancers who invented them. The show discouraged its dancers from giving credit where it was due.

Footage of the era of the Twist shows grandmotherly types at weddings leaping out of their chairs to do the Twist, young women in 1962 wearing “Twisting Nixonettes” banners on the California gubernatorial campaign trail, and hip-swiveling milk-drinkers in an American Dairy Council TV advertisement.

One unfortunate artistic choice in this film is showing many of the performers in 1982, performing dance routines. This gives some of the film the look of a documentary about a 20-year high-school reunion.

Yet this is a reunion worth watching. The story of the Twist illustrates a key moment in American social history: the moment when music was reaching mass popular culture through the kids. The Twist was a simple new dance that liberated couples from the structure of ballroom dance and paved the way toward individual expression, a theme found in all four of the Mann films.

Hank Ballard recorded his song “The Twist” with his band The Midnighters in 1958. The song only rose to the top of the charts when Chubby Checker recorded it in 1960. His rendition eventually turned Ballard’s song into a dance craze and took it to the top of the charts a second time in early 1962. Checker is clearly the biggest star in the reunion show organized by the filmmakers, part of which is included in the DVD’s special features. But as the songwriter, Hank Ballard is the true royalty here and Mann succeeds in giving him the credit.

There’s a wonderful moment when Ballard says that when his song hit number one for the second time in two years, when Checker’s recording shot to the top of the charts, “It didn’t really surprise me that much, you know.” Ballard bursts out laughing, “Yes it did!”

In addition to the 1982 concert footage, the DVD’s special features include lessons for doing the Twist, the Monkey, the Mashed Potato, and other dances. Another feature is an excerpt from a 2001 Ron Mann interview for Canadian public TV.

The Mann of the Hour

Most of the time, Mann stays out of the way of his subjects, allowing them to tell their own stories without coaching. Interviews are shot on video tape without self-consciously tricky shots or jittery cameras. In most of the films, he liberally intersperses the interviews with footage from government propaganda films, commercials, and educational films, often to humorous effect. I winced at some of the goofy graphics that created transitions between sections; they sometimes brought the films down to the level of high school educational filmreels. The format of Poetry in Motion differs from the others; it consists solely of interviews and performances, effectively allowing the poets’ work remain at center stage.

This group of documentaries shows us how some radical new ideas turned influential over time; dance, comic books, and pot have become integrated into mainstream American life. Poetry, however, will probably remain on the fringe.