The pot-head's answer to Morgan Spurlock
May 29, 2008
For once the heads have got it together. A documentary that began
life as an offhand gag from America's "second-best pot comic" (as
rated by the toker's bible High Times) has made a tiny bit of cinema
history. Super High Me follows the stand-up comedian Doug Benson as
he abstains from marijuana for 30 days, examined by health
professionals all the while. Then, armed with a prescription for
"medical marijuana" – legal in his home state of California – he lets
his freak flag fly and wakes and bakes for another month.
"It was just something I said on stage, a pun and a funny notion,"
explains the unsurprisingly affable Benson. He followed a joke about
how Morgan Spurlock's acclaimed documentary Super Size Me had made
him hungry rather than fearful with a suggestion that he could apply
the same 30-day health regimen to pot. "I ran into a film-maker I
knew, Michael Blieden, and he thought it could become a movie,"
Benson says. "It took a few months, but it was still a surprise to me
when we started making it."
Spurlock's 30-day trope is now so commonplace that one British wine
writer recently spent a month drinking nothing but humble branded
plonk. More seriously, Spurlock's TV series 30 Days has him work at
Wal-Mart and even serve a prison sentence.
Benson, co-author of the book The Marijuanalogues (are you sensing a
theme here?), plays Super High Me for laughs – and all his antics are
actually legal in California. "It would be difficult for anyone who
has obligations to do," he says. "So I wouldn't break the law. I
didn't operate a motor vehicle for the 30 days of filming. The crew
drove me everywhere. It's a showbusiness thing. Someone outside
showbusiness should try it and see how it works for them. But not a
brain surgeon. There may be car mechanics that are already doing it, though."
During his month off the sweet leaf, Benson appears sharper and
harder, like a cucumber. Back on the bong he's more like a marrow.
Meanwhile, the federal authorities and California's own lawmakers are
at odds over the sudden mushrooming of dispensaries where those with
a relevant doctor's certificate can obtain medical marijuana (that
nebulous complaint "back pain" serves for many). The sight of Drug
Enforcement Administration agents shutting down legally registered,
openly declared Hollywood premises seems absurd, though, not least
when local stoners turn up to feebly wail "DEA, go away".
The film holds the record for the widest documentary opening ever. It
was shown in more than 1,000 venues on the holiest day of the smoking
year, April 20, 4/20 in American parlance. Supposedly named for the
after-school meeting time of a gang of Californian teen-agers in the
Seventies, 4:20 is now a universal smokers' code. Knowing that the
film could not get television advertising or a wide release, the
producers approached the indie marketing and distribution specialists
b-side, which simply made screening copies available to anyone who
wanted one and could offer premises.
"We thought: 'Let's not even try to make money'," says Chris Hyams of
b-side. "The real question was 'Can you get stoners off the couch?'.
"Any dark room with places to sit can become a movie theatre, but we
were stunned by the array of ideas and venues people came up with."
From college campuses to comedy clubs, sympathisers joined in. An
Illinois couple showed the film at their wedding reception. A San
Fran-cisco "guerilla drive-in" outfit projected it on the wall of a
"There's hundreds of MBAs sitting round studios wondering how they
can, quote, 'make something go viral'," says Hyams, the scion of a
film family (his father is director Peter, his brother John an
acclaimed documentary maker). The marketing budget for Super High Me
was supposedly the same as the cost of a 2in advertisement in The New
York Times. Judd Apatow's forthcoming "weed action movie" Pineapple
Express will not come so cheap.
Super High Me is amusing rather than deep. Some of the marijuana
advocates featured are seriously intense, though, among them the
Canadian "Prince of Pot", Marc Emery. It makes for a strange scene –
Benson cheerfully dopey, Emery, wanted by the American authorities
for distributing cannabis seeds, understandably nervous.
Benson was unimpressed. "He's a smart guy but he's making himself a
martyr. It's like he wants to go to jail. I can get and smoke
marijuana without going to jail. It's not worth going to jail for."
He shrugs. "Maybe he smoked too much pot."
Benson is aware that some on prescriptions for medical marijuana are
scamming the system. "I don't think they turn anyone away. But if it
improves some people's quality of life and it's done privately, in
their own home, why shouldn't they have access to it?"
He himself took up the weed at the advanced age of 27. "As an adult I
should be over it, but I still like it," he says. Recently he
appeared in a TV sitcom playing a Customs officer with the munchies,
perusing passports while eating cereal straight from the box. "I may
be getting type-cast," he worries.
Physically, though, he's sound enough. "The doctor gave me a clean
bill of health," he says of his experiment. "So eating burgers is
worse for you than smoking pot."
Super High Me will be released in Britain later this year