The things he did on "Grass"

Comic-book artist Paul Mavrides talks about propaganda, America's futile drug war and the splashy graphics that spiff up Ron Mann's dope documentary.

By Michael Sragow

Published June 15, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

It's rare for a movie art director, whether a tyro or a many-Oscared veteran, to win public recognition. That's the case even in a splashy spectacle, let alone an 80-minute informational film. But not this time. Near the top of his New York Times review of producer-director Ron Mann's marijuana documentary, "Grass," Elvis Mitchell singled out "some snappy graphics put together by the film's art director, Paul Mavrides, who once toiled in the underground comics world. There's a brief, unidentified cameo by the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, the cannabis heroes of the comics whose adventures Mr. Mavrides helped depict."

Visually, there's that and so much more: riffs on the tabloid graphics and movies and TV of several eras, put together in a smooth yet kinetic collage form that provokes its own brainy tingle without distracting from the narrative. Mavrides gives much of the credit for this potent potpourri to his collaborators, notably artist Mimi Heft and Mann.

This film's sly parade of images illustrates the growth of marijuana-phobia in the 20th century, from its roots in Anglo fear of Mexican migrant workers to its installation as part of a nagging Puritan tradition. Frame by frame, "Grass" boasts the genuine eclecticism that has characterized Mavrides' 25-year career. He's done multimedia installations and album covers; punk-meets-Dada sketchbooks and iconoclastic paintings on black velvet; and, perhaps most notorious, straight-faced proselytizing for a phony religion based on the concept of Slack compiled in volumes like "Revelation X" and "The Book of the SubGenius."

When it comes to "signature" or "line," Mavrides is not the kind of underground-comics whiz known for a single identifiable style. Before he began work on "Grass," he waged a five-year war to win comic-book artists in California the same intellectual-property rights as other authors. State investigators told him they thought he had to be a conglomerate, because they didn't think any man could work so skillfully in so many modes.

"Grass" suggests that, next to working on sweeping, sardonic political noir serials like "The Big Dream" in Salon Comics' "The Dark Hotel," designing movies might be the best way for Mavrides to unite his diverse talents. The film is frankly one-sided -- and not without cause. I recently ran across an article called "The Weed" in, of all places, the July 19, 1943, issue of Time. Though it was pegged to the arrest of hot-jazz drummer Gene Krupa, partly for possession of marijuana, it was remarkably fair. The anonymous Time writer stated, "Some of the finest flights of American syncopation, like some of the finest products of the symbolist poets, owe much of their expressiveness to the use of a drug." He went on to note that "some specialized workers find that marijuana stimulates their faculties" and that "because of its non-habit-forming character, doctors have recently been experimenting with the drug as an aid in curing opium addiction."

Unlike circa '43 Time, contemporary media coverage has often been indistinguishable from government agitprop. That official slant makes one forgiving of this movie's funky single-mindedness.

Still, the one area of "Grass" that's multifaceted is its graphics. "Go see the movie!" Mavrides jovially shouted into my tape recorder when I interviewed him last week in his home in San Francisco's Mission District. I say, "See it for Mavrides!"

I don't know whether I should attribute it all to you, but what makes the film work for me is its visual energy. How did the producer-director, Ron Mann, first hook up with you? Was it when he was doing his 1988 documentary, "Comic Book Confidential"?

Yeah, that was my initial contact with him. He did a couple of interviews with me and his sound didn't work out. But then he came up with the idea of me drawing the opening credits in the style of all the various cartoonists that were covered in the movie -- roughly 21 people. Talk about the magic of film: We were having a heat wave. It was 105 degrees in here when the crew showed up, put black canvas over the windows and then flipped on 35 mm lights. So I ended up drawing all that while it was about 120 degrees. They'd shut the camera off every couple of minutes so you wouldn't see the sweat falling on the paper. You actually see me creating the work and wrecking it as soon as it's done.

In the great tradition of Picasso destroying art he created for the film "The Mystery of Picasso"?

[Laughs] No, the wreckage was a special effect. And the crew opted for me having a staged reaction to that disaster rather than my true one: When they inquired what my real reaction would be, I said, "Oh, I'd probably grab your camera and throw it through the picture window and shriek obscenities." So they settled on me just going "Aaiiiieeee!"

I came to "Grass" about three years ago. Ron just called me out of the blue. He said, "I want to hire you to art-direct the new project, a documentary on marijuana prohibition." I expressed flattery at being asked and then warned him that I had no film experience or animation experience directly, aside from watching endless amounts of film and cartoons. But he put his faith in me. He basically said, "Well, you're a smart guy; you can figure out how to produce the footage I need." So I went up to Toronto to work with him. We blocked out the movie with 3-by-5 cards, according to a chronological history of the legal events of this century pertaining to the subject. We just started chopping the film together, and along the way I had to boost my computer equipment, learn programs. It was a strange experience. I don't usually have to turn out finished work while I'm reading the tutorial of the program, but it also made me consider, "Maybe making movies is a lot easier than most people think." The one thing that does make making movies real easy is having a huge budget, which we didn't have.

But compared to underground comics' budgets ...

It's the big time.

Is that partly why Mann hired you?

Yeah, but only partly. About halfway through we had an edit that was all hardcore information -- you know, more like a television news documentary. And Ron went, "Yaah, we have to get this more entertaining. If people are not interested in the subject or they're hostile to it, we have to figure out a way to make them hear what we're trying to relate to them." So more of an entertainment portion crept into it. The film's had some criticism because it doesn't touch down on every single part of the controversy over marijuana and its prohibition, but that would take a 14-hour set of films.

And Ron Mann didn't want to be the Ken Burns of the pot movement.

Although it would be fascinating -- there's more than enough information. You could cut it up and do an hour here on this branch of it and an hour there on that. I wish we'd had the time and the budget to do a bit more foreshadowing of the current situation. I don't mean the medical marijuana issues or the hemp issues; I mean issues like the damage done to the seizure laws of property and the racial difference in who gets prosecuted and jailed. You know, in a lot of states adult male blacks are being disenfranchised in ways that the rednecks of the South in the '60s could only dream about. But we couldn't make the movie any longer than it is; audiences might not have put up with that. And if we had brought them up to the present day -- well, they could read about these issues in the press, since they are live issues. Also, getting too specific toward current dates would mean that the second we wrapped, the film would be out of date.

You're right there: Even the network TV show "The West Wing" has debated the issue of decriminalizing drugs and has covered the racial and class biases of prosecution and sentencing. Your movie telescopes the '90s. But when it ends with the statement that more marijuana-law offenders have been jailed under President Clinton than under any other president, you can hear the audience go "Whoa!" -- as if saying, "So that's what's been happening when all we were thinking about was the economy and impeachment."

People get lulled by the terms "conservative" and "liberal" -- flip sides of the same coin in my way of thinking. Personally I think it's going to take a complete-maniac anti-drug warrior to legalize marijuana or seriously decriminalize it. It's basically the same situation as only Nixon being able to open up China because he [couldn't] be attacked on the subject. Clinton, with his "I never inhaled -- wink, wink," automatically killed any chances [that he could reform the drug laws]. With all the attackers he's had, he's been forced to prove he's even more conservative than they are on marijuana, although he may well be privately sympathetic to it. As a politician his sympathies lie with his politics.

The film depicts Oregon's decriminalization of marijuana in 1973 as a success story. But then it leaves you to wonder, "What happened?"

Well, a lot of those who were behind the "total decrim" effort backed off because the political wind changed. You had Reagan and his congressional takeover and a lot of local politicians had to backpedal. But you didn't find states reinstituting 40-year automatic sentences. Most of the damage has been done by the feds. You have these huge anti-drug bureaucracies, and nobody votes for 'em. Barry McCaffrey -- none of us voted for him; Clinton put him in. And so on down the entire chain at the DEA [Drug Enforcement Agency] and the prison associations and so on. Nobody votes for the executives who run the DARE [Drug Abuse Resistance Education] program -- a fairly self-serving bunch.

To get back to how "Grass" came together as a movie: You actually went up to Toronto and storyboarded the documentary?

We tried to figure out what types of graphic cards would be necessary because we were trying to break up the story into "acts."

What were some of the things you brought to the table when you first got up there?

Well, a lot of confusion. It took me six months just to figure out what a 35 mm screen ratio was. Originally, the film was going to be more inexpensive and the production schedule was going to be quicker. What was envisioned for me to do were two-dimensional design cards that we'd drop down into the movie. There would be no animation, no movement except for simple fades and things that could be done with traditional film tools. Then somebody gave me digital production software for animation that could handle 35 mm film, and I mentioned it to Ron. The next thing I know, we're saying, "OK, let's use that." I've been working with digital art since about 1987, so it wasn't like I went out and bought a computer and tried to figure out how to turn it on. Even now I'm impressed with how accessible this type of artistic work is to a person like me, sitting at home with a late-model computer. It's rather daunting for the time you invest getting it onto film, but you can buy the program off the shelf, plug it in and away you go.

Apart from you having done the opening sequence for "Comic Book Confidential," why do you think Ron came to you?

Um, because I've got a reputation outside of just comics and I've done a lot of different types of design work: books, posters, fine-arts shows. My approach has always been that visual style is merely that -- another set of tools to apply to the goal of whatever the work is. I tend to view visual style as communication, so Ron was pretty sure he wasn't going to get a series of devices that looked exactly like each other.

Also, he said, "I'm counting on you not knowing the right and wrong way to do things." Because I didn't know what I was doing, he was hopeful I could surprise people -- I didn't know enough to not do it. That backfired in one case where I used some three-dimensional modeling software that was designed only for video and was trying to apply it to 35 mm film, which was way beyond its capacity. At one point I called up the tech line at the company and the tech guy laughed at me and called me insane, but I still made their software do what I wanted it to do. It probably just took 10 times as long.

And I've been active both politically and counterculturally since I was in high school, back at the dawn of time.

Of course, you've had your own legal and political cause ...

And I won, to a certain extent. The state of California had to admit that as somebody who creates comics I was a bona fide author of intellectual property rather than somebody that was just a drone in the printing process. This involved taxation -- sales taxation. Basically the state had been saying that, as a creator of comic books, I wasn't a creator of intellectual ideas -- and because I wasn't, they wanted to tax my ideas. It was a fairly outrageous position, one they had to back down from. But it took five years and a quarter-million dollars to make them do it.

One of the things I like about your work in "Grass" is its eclecticism -- and I don't mean variety for its own sake. You take a lot of images from advertising and propaganda that seem irredeemably straight and boring, and with a little twist make them exciting.

Well, the subversive altering of context is something that really appeals to me. I especially like hitting on a detail that provides discontinuity: a thing on the wall that looks like an ad until you see it's actually a counterpoint or even an attack on advertising. What I do is play with background noise that people become so familiar with, they barely read it on a conscious level -- then insert a tweak to it that suddenly makes them have to react and think about what it is that they're being exposed to. I want to provoke a reaction to a work rather than just passive acceptance of it.

I discovered [with "Grass"] that I was able to do all these wonderful modern tricks that I was seeing on corporate commercials -- for cars or for whatever -- on TV. You know, the new style in which everything is in motion, flipping around, and nothing stands still. But to do something like that in terms of the 1920s section [of "Grass"] would be completely inappropriate, like setting off a Klaxon in the middle of all this dull, plodding footage. In each section of the film, I was trying to find a particular path that would seem contemporary but would work with the period footage around it rather than aggressively opposing it. Maybe that's why I was disappointed when we couldn't fully get to the '90s -- there I could have completely flashed out. But maybe I can do that on another project.

You might decide to slow '90s footage down! Your opening credits in "Grass" are actually a beautiful throwback to Maurice Binder ("Charade," the Bond films) or Saul Bass ("Vertigo," "Psycho," "The Man With the Golden Arm"). The usual strategy today is to design a "grabber" action scene and lay the credits over the corners where there's blank stuff. In "Grass" you have a tapestry of words in the background and bursts of color highlighting symbolic images that tell you what's going to happen in the movie.

Well, thank you. You know, there was a limit to what I could do as a one-man band, so the graphic approach I took was usually the quickest and the least mind-bending. For the sequence where I lampoon "Yellow Submarine," I wanted to animate a Blue Meanie that looked like Nixon popping into the scene. But it would've added another three months to the production -- while Ron tore the rest of his hair out shrieking in agony. A couple of reviewers have savaged my work there for being "cutesy." Well, what are you gonna do? There's a side of me that makes Nine Inch Nails look cheerful by comparison, but that didn't seem appropriate for this movie.

You take propaganda images -- like a comic-book portrait of an addict in full sweat -- and show how their cautionary qualities can also be titillating or comic.

Yeah, well, while archetypes and stereotypes do allow pigeonholing and stereotyping, they're real easy to manipulate because they're such flat concepts. It doesn't take much to turn them back in on themselves. And that flows in both directions, of course. One concept we had at the beginning was to try to make a movie about propaganda using the propaganda campaign against marijuana as our framework -- and to note along the way that our own movie was propaganda, too. But we decided to try for a straight-ahead history on the subject.

We stayed away from people's favorite conspiracy theories on purpose. It would've been wonderful to be able to nail William Randolph Hearst and oil companies and DuPont and all the rest for conspiring to suppress poor little marijuana; perhaps they did, but we could never find a smoking gun. We wanted to stick to material that could be verified. That seemed to disappoint a few people. But we made our movie; we didn't make their movie. And we know that our movie is propaganda -- we do have an agenda. Our position in the film is clear: We think the drug war is a failure and a fraud. Even the term itself is disturbing and dehumanizing. The United States isn't warring on a country named "Drugs," it's warring on its own people. Anybody can become collateral damage, whether or not they have thought about going near any illegal recreational substance. When innocent people are caught up in it by accident, they find out just how nasty this scene is and how little recourse they have once they're nailed.

One of my favorite cartoon images in the movie is a classic blue-coated comic-book policeman. You multiply him and have all these cop clones march to the front of the screen with an ominous clomping sound.

You mention the sound, but I only imagined sound while I was making these silent, multisecond clips. Then Ron and his sound crew went in frame by frame and mixed and added all kinds of sound effects -- that's when everything came to life. Not being where the main production was in Canada, I could never see a screening or dailies or anything, so I was always either watching a grainy videotape or seeing the film 2 inches wide on my monitor running at the wrong speed.

How much of this imagery is actually original draftsmanship on your part, as opposed to what you took from sources?

Um, quite a bit is original. That policeman, specifically, was one of the few opportunities I had to art-direct completely -- roughly sketch out an idea and be wonderfully surprised when it came back exactly like I envisioned it. In a documentary film that uses archival material, we're at the mercy of what's actually out there. The marijuana stamp that the feds issued, for instance, which we show in the movie -- we could only find a bad Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox of it. One side of it was curved and the other side was bigger, and it took days to make it look like it originally was. And, of course, in the movie, as it should, it just goes by and everyone thinks, "Oh, they got a stamp, photographed it, there it is." All the hard work is not supposed to be noticed: It comes where the art department smoothed everything out. But we also did our homework and had an amazing amount of historical references to draw on.

Your knowledge of movies seems to inform the stitch work you do between decades. There's a hint of "Vertigo" in the bridging section that brings us into the early '60s.

I wasn't consciously trying to emulate Saul Bass' credit design work, but his influence is so strong that I probably subconsciously absorbed it. Go back to "Psycho" and you see how simple his work is, and how striking, and how much impact it still has. It's impressive. And things that the computer makes relatively easy, he did the hard way.

The way the "Vertigo" thing evolved, I came up with the idea of using a TV. Then I thought, "Well, I'll make it this googey '50s-style TV." That suggested a jagged kind of spiral in the background. So I made the spiral and then I thought, "Oh, that kind of looks like 'Vertigo' -- and that's good because this is about the time this card needs to be set in." And I had things happening on the TV. I got to work in a police flying saucer. I made a horrible few seconds' worth of a Hanna-Barbera-type cop arresting a beatnik. My rule of thumb was, if I could entertain myself with this then I probably had a good shot at making somebody else pay attention -- but not to entertain them so much that they'd forget to look at what the information in the shot was saying. I will suppress my own urges if there's a goal of actually getting an idea across. I mean, the art's supposed to enhance communication, not take away from it.

Did you manipulate any archival material? During your movie's depiction of the anti-communist era, when you show a propaganda film that stamps the word "Communist" over supposedly suspicious types like a black guy with glasses -- was the "Communist" stamp in the original footage?

Yes, that was actually an original thing they did. And you might notice that all the Communists wore glasses. I wondered what that was supposed to mean.

You've always had an appreciation for many kinds of cartooning. Was it fun to go through the yellow press cartoons? A lot of them still pack a punch, at least visually.

Oh, yeah. The stereotypes were a lot more simplistic back then, but they were also a lot more dramatic. In the '20s you get huge viper heads that say "DOPE," with children cowering before them. You couldn't get away with that type of thing today with our so-called sophisticated audiences -- although who knows how much more sophisticated they are.

That stuff was designed to appeal to a puritanical streak that's been pretty constant in our country. Sometimes it seems to me like half the population at any given time wants to do whatever it feels like and the other half can't stand that and wants to tell the other half what to do. And it's a battle that's never going to be resolved because it's based in human nature. A few years ago I was up in the middle of the night working on a project and I saw some type of anti-drug commercial that seemed to be directed at black urban professionals. And it was anti-cappuccino! It had a little rap song about "kicking that cappuccino in the garbage can" and showed these expensively dressed black couples zooming back and forth in front of cafes in a sports car. It was an anti-drug commercial treating excessive coffee drink consumption by urban black professionals as being a serious social problem. And that just shows you ultimately where this mind-set can take us. I never saw it again, but I wasn't hallucinating it, either. Somebody must have said, "Are you kidding? Pull that thing! We're going to lose credibility on all our other ads."

When you see the scare-film footage in your movie, you wonder what the director really was thinking when he shot it. A nubile girl taking off her bra -- this is supposed to be a warning against drugs for teenage kids?

Well, there have always been people ready to get into exploitation-type media. Some of it was designed just to take advantage of a hysteria campaign in the press. You know, "It's a hot subject; let's make a 'Dope Will Send You to Hell' movie. We'll make X amount of dollars and go on to the next thing. Put some T&A in it, so much the better."

As you say, you've worked in posters and other forms -- including black-velvet paintings! -- as well as in comic books. Maybe that helped you deliver the simple clarity this movie needs. When you chronicle the adoption of a federal anti-marijuana law, you show a map of America with states popping up in red when they accept the law. And that does the trick. When I see a war movie these days, I miss the maps of Europe and Asia that you'd get in World War II films, with the moving arrows pointing in the direction where each army was headed.

Yeah, like on the old "20th Century" with Walter Cronkite or "Victory at Sea." I'm afraid that now all war movies are going to be filmed in digital, grainy chop edits like in "Saving Private Ryan." "Gladiator" did that, I just noticed. It worked, but it didn't quite seem appropriate, and I found the plot not much more complicated -- in fact, less complicated -- than a Marvel comic book. Sure, it was visually stunning, but simple-minded overall.

What are you doing now?

I'm where I was before "Grass." After my five-year fight with the state government, which ended up pretty much consuming all my time and savings, I thought I was going to roll up my sleeves and get back to doing what I wanted to do, which was comic books. But I suddenly didn't have a job anymore because the distribution system had basically killed our ability to reach our audience.

A lot of wrong turns made in the '60s are determining what's been happening in comic books. You've got the predominance of superheroes, the most self-limiting genre one could ever hope to come up with. You've got the fact that the individual books have become so expensive, which is part of the reason that children don't read comics and therefore won't grow into an adult audience that reads comics. And you've got the fact that there's only one distributor. In 1985 there were like 18-25 different national comic distributors; now there's only one. And it's choking the industry off and it's killing stores, and on top of all the other issues, boy, it doesn't look good. People love the idea of comics. They just don't want to read them -- or maybe pay for them.

When I was a kid, you'd get a dollar and go into a comic book store and come out with 10 books. I bought a 32-page comic yesterday, and it was $4. Kids get big allowances these days, but the entertainment dollar doesn't go far at that level.

Anyhow, three years ago, I was sitting around, wondering what to do, when Ron calls me up -- and all of a sudden I'm an art director on a film project where, again, there's so much work I'm submerged. My girlfriend's friends would tease her because I never went out. I'd always be here working, and they'd say, "You're just making him up; he doesn't really exist."

Now I'm wondering again, "Well, what do I do?" Comics don't seem viable. I did this movie, but I don't know film people to hang out with and network, so -- anybody want to offer me a decent-paying project?

Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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