“That’d be a nice world, wouldn’t it? Mellow, hungry, quiet, fucked up people everywhere.”1
Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 documentary, Super Size Me, chronicled the director’s thirty-day fast-food diet and illustrated the ill effects that regular consumption of processed foods can have on a person’s body and mind. A few years later, comedian and pot-legalization advocate Doug Benson mused on-stage that someone should film him smoking weed for a month to find out what would happen. Writer/filmmaker Michael Blieden was in the audience during that performance and approached Benson after the show. Soon, the two-minute bit became Super High Me, a funny and challenging movie about the war on drugs.
Full disclosure: I’m not a fan of drugs, and am one of those lame assholes who never understood why so few people seem to be able to unwind or have a good time without putting something into their bodies. Yeah, I’m curious, but my resting state of constant mania and paranoia would likely harsh not only my own mellow, but those of the poor saps unfortunate enough to get high with me.
On top of that, I’m a family man now, and as such cannot afford to push beyond the boundaries of the night four years ago when I ate one-sixteenth of an alleged pot brownie. I spent the next four hours bouncing between drawing political cartoons and washing dishes, furious at my inability to tell if anything had actually happened to my body chemistry. That said, I’m not necessarily against legalization; so I went into Super High Me with a mixed bag of prejudices and a willingness to be convinced (much as I did with Exit Through the Gift Shop).
What kept me from watching Super High Me until recently was an erroneous belief that it was a stupid parody of Spurlock’s film—okay, maybe “parody” is the wrong word; but I expected nothing more than lame jokes about the munchies and a host of annoying, red-eyed kids mumbling about 4:20 and Hearst conspiracies. I was amazed and delighted to find that Blieden has made a solid documentary that uses Benson’s quest as a framing device for greater issues.
Before the thirty-day binge, the comic undergoes a month-long marijuana detox. This proves difficult, as he’s built a career out of being stoned during performances and talking about his experiences with pot; after a single THC-free week, he’s sluggish at the mic and irritable when meeting with his producers and new shrink. He undergoes all manner of tests, from gauging lung capacity to the SATs to a psychic card-reading exam (on which he guesses, as I recall, 1 out of 24 correctly). By month’s end, Benson has lost two pounds and gained a small feeling of achievement for having gone so long with out weed.
Of course, he dives right into Day One of the pot challenge, inhaling deeply from his spiffy, new vaporizer; he proceeds to toke and light up consistently for the next thirty days—literally, from the time he wakes up until he passes out at night. It’s a testament to Benson’s iron constitution that he’s able to come alive on stage and keep up his end of conversations with fellow comics, like Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn and Bob Odenkirk; though, towards the end of the month, he’s unable to commute without someone driving him, and he doesn’t so much perform jokes as read them (poorly) from pieces of paper.
In contrast to the silliness, we have Benson and Blieden’s interviews with California dispensary owners who wage a daily war not only with market rivals (since the state’s legalization of pot in 1996, the number of dispensaries has grown from a dozen to well over five hundred), but also with the DEA, which doesn’t recognize the state legislature’s jurisdiction in the drug war. Throughout Super High Me, we see store owners fending off rogue local cops and touting the framed licenses hanging on their walls; but the film ends with a ghastly raid in which the feds bust eleven dispensaries, making off with plants, cookies, safes, and patient records—and arresting bystanders and the stores’ security guards in the process.
Blieden was clearly influenced by films like Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 when putting together Super High Me. From interstitial factoid animations to stunt interviews edited for maximum comic effect (Benson’s chat with Canadian pot guru Marc Emery is so whacked-out that part of me itched to see the whole thing), he couches his high-stakes argument in levity and entertainment. He also shares with Michael Moore a penchant for offering little in the way of opposing arguments, solutions, or the possible negative effects of his decriminalization dreams being realized.
But I’m not mad at Blieden and Benson for not standing on firmer ground. They’ve accomplished a great deal here by simply presenting a look at the so-called “modern counter-culture” and asking the audience to question what it thinks it knows about the ill-effects of marijuana. Were it not for some of Benson’s R-rated stand-up, I could see Super High Me being shown in high school civics classes (Jesus, do they even offer those anymore?) as a real-world insight into the distinctions between federal and states’ rights, the manner in which states adopt laws, and perhaps as a debate exercise on the issue of patient drug therapy.
What gives Blieden a leg-up on Moore and Spurlock is that the filmmaker’s agenda doesn’t cloud the picture from the first frame; it’s not until later on that we realize there’s even an agenda being set forth. By demystifying pot through example, and by showing how smart and civic-minded its proponents are, we’re left to wonder what the media and cultural demonization is all about. It’s a one-sided argument, sure, but a compelling one. Like the finest Afghan Kush, Super High Me merely plants the seeds of consciousness expansion.
1 Bill Hicks, Dangerous.
[Originally published @ Kicking the Seat on 03/08/11.]