Ron Mann on DVD
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Many documentary filmmakers prefer to let their subject tell the story. They train their camera on their interviewees who then talk about some aspect of the subject at hand. Or the filmmakers train their cameras directly on their subject, be it a person, a place, an animal, or etc., and they let the subject speak for itself. Documentary filmmaker Ron Mann, however, prefers to take charge of his films by adopting the perspective of a historian. His films are frequently educational in tone. They strive to tell the history of specific subjects, such as the use of marijuana in America (as in Mann's Grass) and the development of rock'n'roll dance crazes in the '50s and '60s (as in Mann's Twist). In this respect, Mann is somewhat like America's most famous documentary filmmaker, Ken Burns. However, Mann is a very pithy (and more irreverent) version of Burns. While Burns' films typically involve multiple chapters and gargantuan running times, Mann's films zip past us, lasting less than 90 minutes. And while Burns typically adopts a respectful, non-judgmental tone, Mann isn't above playing fast and loose with the facts in order to generate laughs.

Mann also utilizes an array of digital effects to help liven his history lessons. In Comic Book Confidential, for example, Mann utilizes a montage of comic book characters, who come to life and slide past Mann's camera as it journeys through the land of comic books. And in Grass, Mann's most recent documentary, we're treated to a sumptuous barrage of animated drug paraphernalia. Mann makes full use of the technical gadgetry at his disposal to help convey his stories.

Mann first built his reputation in the early '80s when he was in his twenties, with films such as Poetry in Motion and Comic Book Confidential. His films have earned him two Genie Awards -- the Canadian equivalent of an Oscar. Now, Home Vision Entertainment is releasing Mann's films on DVD. The following sections provide brief notes on each DVD.

Poetry in Motion

Poetry in Motion was Mann's second feature-length documentary. (His first, Imagine the Sound, was released on VHS by Home Vision in 2000, but thus far no DVD edition has been released.) Poetry in Motion is not particularly representative of Mann's subsequent documentaries. Instead of playing historian, Mann allows a group of poets to speak for themselves, both by way of interview and through their poetry. Charles Bukowski gets much of the interview time, serving as a recurrent figure used by Mann to help bind the movie together. Bukowski, a cynical, weathered old codger who rejects most poetry as intellectual crap, is a somewhat odd choice by Mann. But Mann isn't out to depict poetry as the work of fragile, super intellectuals; rather his focus is upon a breed of poets who readily embrace poetry readings as performance art. We get Allen Ginsberg bouncing around a stage, backed by a rock band (The Ceedees), as he reads "Capitol Air":

"I don't like Nationalist Supremacy White or Black
I don't like the Narcs and the Mafia marketing Smack
The General bullying Congress in his tweed vest
The President building up his armies East & West"

We get John Giorno performing poetry that sounds like a nightclub comedy act:

"When I meet someone for the first time,
I ask myself two questions: What is your sexual
preference and how much money do you have?"

We get the Four Horsemen, whose performance consists of screeches, tongue trilling, growls, moans, chirping, and not one word of English (or any other recognizable language).



Poetry in Motion does occasionally focus on poets who just read their poetry, such as Michael Ondaatje, who calmly reads his poetry directly into the camera, but Ondaatje's poetry is anything but the musings of a stereotypical, hypersensitive poet: "Your voice sounds like a scorpion being pushed through a glass tube," begins his "Sweet Like a Crow." Or when Jim Carroll reads a piece from "The Book of Nod," we're introduced to the mind of a bank robber who contemplates the pleasure of women's breasts. Poetry in Motion is filled with surprising performances that help redefine the concept of a "poetry reading."

Home Vision's DVD includes nearly 60 minutes of additional poetry performances (titled Poetry in Motion II), material not originally included in the original movie, including Jim Carroll talking about performing with the Patti Smith Group, Spalding Grey talking about a dream where he runs into "Dusty Hoffman" who is working behind the counter at a cheese shop, and Gary Snyder's poem about working on a '58 pickup. Other performers/poets in Poetry in Motion include Amiri Baraka, William S. Burroughs, Robert Creeley, and Tom Waits.

Comic Book Confidential

Comic Book Confidential is an excellent introduction to the history of comic books. While Mann is much more interested in the '60s and '70s, when artists such as Robert Crumb and Spain played an important role in underground comics, you'll also find interviews with renowned artists from the golden/silver age, such as Will Eisner, Al Feldstein, Harvey Kurtzman, Stan Lee, and Jack Kirby. Mann supplements the interview footage with a plentiful quota of excerpts from comic books. Mann wants to make sure we know who these people are -- not just by their words but from representative samples of their work.

Spider-Man is here, as is the Dark Knight. You'll find Will Eisner's The Spirit, R. Crumb's Fritz the Cat, and Art Spiegelman's Maus. And if you want more time to examine the comic book stories, this DVD carries a wonderful extra: samples from each of the 23 artists showcased in the film are included in a gallery that you can browse at your own leisure. (I wish Mann had utilized more original artwork instead of printed comic book panels because halftone comic book pages were never meant to be magnified ten to twenty times on your television. In the process, the printing imperfections, principally indistinct line reproductions caused by low grade paper absorbing ink, become magnified. However, in a few cases, such as the Spain artwork, Mann did get the original artwork -- and the artwork looks so much better for it.) The artist gallery is one of the coolest extras that you'll find on any DVD. While the extras on many bestselling DVDs are just fluff, the comic book archive on this DVD serves an important function by allowing you to become better acquainted with each artist. This is without a doubt the best DVD package in this salvo of Ron Mann titles from Home Vision. In addition, if you need any extra incentive to grab this marvelous disc, the DVD includes an introduction by Kevin Smith (director of Clerks and Chasing Amy).


Hank Ballard wrote the song that gave Chubby Checker his fame -- "The Twist" -- and while most American's know the name Chubby Checker, precious few know about Hank Ballard, whose initial recording of this song languished as a B side, much to his Ballard's dismay (he knew he had a monster hit on his hands if it could just get some airplay). But this was the late '50s, and while Elvis Presley could take songs traditionally performed by black entertainers and turn them into huge hits, it's debatable whether America was ready for a black performer to sing a suggestive song about dance movements that involve twisting the pelvis. However, Chubby Checker was such a wholesome performer that most detractors seemed like prudes. "Nothing is nasty when I do it," says Checker. "I make everything nice. I have that talent, I do." This comment largely explains why the music industry -- and television shows such as American Bandstand -- were willing to promote Checker, while an aggressive performer such as Ballard became a footnote. But one of the goals of Mann's Twist is to restore some recognition to Ballard, who has had a decent but unspectacular career in music. (I've been lucky enough to see him perform live at a small club, where Ballard gave one of the most energetic performances that I've ever seen.)

Mann's film has the inside story on the Twist, but it's about much more. It's the story of a time in history when society was changing, when music was changing, and when the ways for teenagers to express themselves through dance were also changing. If you want to know about the changing social climate of America in the late '50s and early '60s, Twist serves as an amazing microcosm. Especially interesting is the role of Dick Clark's American Bandstand: if you wanted to be a featured dancer on this show, you had to follow a prescribed set of rules.

Home Vision's DVD presentation of Twist comes with a nifty set of video dance instructions for most of the major dances of the '50s and '60s, including the Twist, the Mashed Potato, the Monkey, and several others. In addition, the disc includes footage from a concert, circa 1990, that brought together many of the great dance band performers, such as Joey Dee, Mama Lu Parks and the Parkettes, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, and several others (although it's easy to see why none of this footage made Mann's final edit of Twist: the performers are good, but nostalgic recreations are beside the point when Mann was able to unearth a plentiful supply of video footage from American Bandstand and other primary sources).


With Grass, Ron Mann tackles the history of marijuana usage in America and the corresponding ongoing war waged against marijuana by law enforcement and the U.S. government. Much of the screen time if devoted to the efforts of Harry Anslinger, Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from the '30s through the '50s.

Mann frequently plays fast and loose with some of the film clips. For example, immediately after discussing that President Gerald Ford authorized the spraying of Mexican fields with a military defoliant, Mann inserts the famous video footage of Gerald Ford slipping and falling while disembarking an airplane. What does this have to do with marijuana? Nothing. But it helps contribute to the movie's contention that the U.S. government is frequently incompetent. But irregardless of such efforts to rig the argument in marijuana's favor (and maybe because of it), Mann's storytelling is absorbing -- and frequently hilarious, as when we see Ronald Reagan arguing that marijuana causes the loss of memory.

With Woody Harrelson providing the narration, Mann mixes film footage with marvelous animation by underground artist Paul Mavrides. In addition, Mann draws from a first-class selection of soundtrack songs, such as Mark Mothersbaugh's "Quit Playing Games With God!" (which serves as the movie's theme song) and Cab Calloway's "Reefer Man."



Grass is arguably Mann's most technically impressive movie. He deftly mixes graphics with liberal doses of newsreel footage and government films, as well as choice clips from such notorious drug-scare movies as Reefer Madness and Damaged Lives.

Home Vision's DVD presentation of Grass is somewhat thin on extras, compared to the other three Ron Mann releases. You get a gallery of magazine art from High Times and a state-by-state guide to marijuana laws (provided by NORML -- The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws). The disc includes a deleted scene: an alternate opening sequence in which the camera follows a joint as it makes the rounds at a party.

Each of these DVDs from Home Vision includes interview footage with Ron Mann, in which he speaks about his filmmaking experiences. These sequences provide some interesting insights and are well worth checking out.

Ron Mann is certainly keeping busy. He is now reportedly working on four new feature-length documentaries (according to the Sphinx Productions Web site, the production company for Grass). These films include "Wigging Out in Wawa," which describes the lost glory of hitchhiking, and "For the Love of Movies," which describes the history of American film criticism. I know I'll be eagerly awaiting the release of these films, and I urge you to check out his movies yourself. Mann in one of the most insightful filmmakers working in documentaries today and his love of the technology of filmmaking is contagious.

Grass, Twist, Comic Book Confidential, and Poetry in Motion are now available on DVD from Home Vision Entertainment. Suggested retail price: $19.95 each. For more information, check out the Home Vision Entertainment Web site.


Photo credits: © Sphinx Production and Home Vision Entertainment. All rights reserved.