Friday, July 22, 2016

A Movie That Was So Bad It Was Good

Do you remember your first brush with blatant propaganda?

That is probably a relevant question to ask in an election year, especially this one, which is sure to see propaganda spewing from both sides at record–shattering rates until November (with the crescendo coming in October).

And, if I could afford to see a psychologist, perhaps he or she could determine precisely when I was first exposed to blatant propaganda. It may well have been a political commercial I saw when I was small.

The when isn't terribly important, I guess. What is important is to be able to recognize it when you come in contact with it, when it first made an impression on you. Unfortunately, the only way to do that is to actually come in contact with it. And there are far too many opportunities in life to come in contact with someone with an ax to grind.

That's one of those things, I suppose, that parents would like to spare their children if they could. But they can't. Life is a series of experiences. One cannot live without experiencing the bad along with the good. At least most of us can't.

One cannot really appreciate the good without being able to compare it to the bad, I guess.

"Reefer Madness," which was showing in the theaters in 1936, may have been as bad as it gets — truly worthy of Ed Wood. And yet, in its way, it was good.

Let me explain.

It did not work as an anti–marijuana film; in fact, it made consuming marijuana look like fun. It had laughable dialogue — and a truly absurd premise that marijuana was a narcotic when anyone with eyes to see could tell it was a plant, a weed, so to speak. And the movie totally ignored the fact that products made from cannabis were better in almost every way than their legal counterparts on the marketplace.

"Reefer Madness" focused solely on what it contended were the dire consequences of consuming marijuana. It asserted that marijuana addiction (of which there is no such thing, based on what I have read on the subject) would lead to all sorts of things — death, sexual assault, hallucinations, descent into madness.

Pretty scary stuff.

Or, at least, it would have been scary for audiences in the 1930s, most of whom probably had never heard of marijuana before.

But audiences who saw it 40 or 50 years later, when it made the theatrical rounds as something of a camp classic, were thoroughly amused by it. They couldn't take it seriously.

It must have seemed to audiences in 1936 that every effort was made to present the appearance of a legitimate public service announcement. The opening and closing narrations were given by someone who was — supposedly — a high school principal. It was in the form of a cautionary tale for attendees at a PTA meeting. Thank you, Mr. Principal, for bringing this to our attention.

The story just reeked of insincerity. The initial villains in the story were a young unmarried couple — "living in sin" in the vernacular of the times — who sold marijuana. The young woman preferred to sell to people her own age. Her significant other favored selling to younger folks and made a pitch for a young, innocent high school couple.

After that the story escalated into a tale of hit–and–run driving, manslaughter, suicide, sexual assault — all brought about by marijuana.

It was pretty clear that the makers of the film (it was financed by a church groups) believed marijuana to be a threat. Even though several states have legalized the use of marijuana to an extent, there are still activists who wish to roll back the clock.

They appear to be losing the fight.

Steven Salzberg, writing in Forbes about a recent study in Health Affairs, observed that "[i]n 2013 alone, when 17 states had legalized medical marijuana, Medicare saved over $165 million. A simple extrapolation suggests that if all states legalize marijuana, annual savings could be triple that amount, $500 million."

"Reefer Madness" was intended to preach about the evils of marijuana use, but it made smoking marijuana look fun instead, especially when young people began to realize that all the horror stories they had been told were a lot of hooey.

It even looked a little daring, perhaps defiant, which is always a good selling point for teenagers.

The movie's original title was "Tell Your Children," and it went under more ominous titles in re–releases on the exploitation film circuit in the late 1930s.