FILM REVIEW: ‘Mary Jane’ more than pot porn

Lauraine Leblanc & Jack Durham
Mad River Union

EUREKA – After much fundraising, hijinks and anticipation, Mary Jane: A Musical Potumentary opened to a packed house at the Eureka Theatre last Friday. The film, directed by Emmy-nominated director John Howarth, is an enhanced version of Mary Jane: The Musical, a hit theatrical production featured in three iterations at Dell’Arte’s Mad River Festival.

Dell’Arte specializes in the theatre of place, reflecting the issues and values of the local community. This is echoed in the movie, which is really cinema of place. It’s not so much a movie about marijuana, but a movie about Humboldt County, about our towns, our neighbors and us. It’s about our local culture, which is cannabis infused, whether you like it or not.

FacebookLikeButton.THISONEThe film consists of a series of musical numbers intercut with documentary interviews highlighting the various issues surrounding the marijuana culture – economic opportunity, environmental destruction, the impact of the underground economy  and the pure wackiness of it all.

Mary Jane includes a cast of familiar faces, friends, co-workers, people you may literally know, or characters that resemble the people you know. And it’s all set in our community, which makes it fun to watch. There’s a hilarious opening scene featuring turkey bags and the Fieldbrook General Store. McKinleyville, Blue Lake, Arcata, Moonstone Beach and many other locales – some probably clandestine – are featured in the “Potumentary.”

The film, like the musical, centers on Mary Jane, the Diva of Sativa, a human embodiment of the “demon weed” that is Humboldt’s economic engine. Played by Dell’Arte’s founding Artistic Director Joan Schirle, Mary Jane as the narrator is warm, wise, a little heartbroken, and, above all, conflicted about the role she plays.

On the positive side, Mary Jane is all about pot – as medicine, as recreation, as spiritual guide. The movie was filmed partly on location at local marijuana grows (indoors and out) and features loving footage of beautiful, healthy marijuana plants. When projected on a giant theatre screen, the many images of glittery, sticky, crystallized buds is, for lack of a better term, pot porn.

If you view the wacky weed in a negative light, you might be tempted to dismiss Mary Jane during the first half of the movie as pro-pot propaganda, but that would be unfair. The musical potumentary must be judged in its entirety.FacebookLikeButton.THISONE

Mary Jane has some serious moments and doesn’t shy away from showing the negative impact of “the industry”: the danger firefighters face battling blazes at indoor grows, the environmental devastation caused by illegal stream diversions and the harm to families forced by prohibition to teach their children to lie about how their parents make a living.

As a documentary, the film alternates between seriously tackling issues and celebrating all things cannabis. Attorneys, fire chiefs, horticultural suppliers, growers, forest rangers and journalists all have their “talking head” moments to say their piece. But the film also supplies all of the glorious wackiness of the stage musical, taking its musical numbers out to the locales only suggested in the stage version: land partners frolic in their gardens and greenhouses and Humboldt honeys sing and dance at the Arcata Plaza Farmers’ Market.

In contrast, though, the indoor scenes, especially the Emerald Ball in the big top tent, seem a little claustrophobic on film.

The performances by the Dell’Arte cast are superb; their many years of inhabiting these characters really show. It some ways, the fictional characters are more real than real; their personas and costuming are over-the-top just enough to make the “real” people in the film – even the real hula hoopers on the Plaza – seem a bit drab. The ease and polished delivery of the cast highlight how uncomfortable some of the talking heads are on camera.

The seriousness of pure documentary can at first seem a little jarring when closely edited with the colorful whimsicality of Dell’Arte’s clowning, but maybe that’s the point: pot culture is all these things – wild and dangerous, wacky and serious all at once, and these worlds will and do collide.

The songs are polished, and the film allows us to get up close to some of the performers – Tim Randles’ delivery of “Why is Whiskey Legal” comes to mind here – showing just how powerful and charismatic they are. The quality of the recording is enhanced by some very smart choices, especially when Schirle’s voice is supported by those of her land partners, played Zuzka Sabata and Leira Satlof.

The only disappointment was in the portrayal of one of the musical’s most ludicrous moments: “Grow Inside,” the star-crossed lovers’ duet between an outdoor plant (Schirle) and an indoor plant (David Powell). In the musical, the pair performed in ludicrous outfits, with the indoor plant toddling about hobbled by his pot, with a grow light swinging precariously over his head. In the film, the pair are greenscreened and CGI’ed into actual indoor and outdoor plants in a split screen performance that is just too static.

In a way, Mary Jane: A Musical Potumentary, is to Mary Jane: The Musical as indoor grown is to outdoor grown: they’re essentially the same thing, but with both positive and negative differences. The movie tamps down the wildness of the outdoor production. On the other hand, it enhances the nuances that theatrical audiences didn’t get to experience at a distance.

But will it play in Peoria? Is Mary Jane so entrenched in its place of origin that its jokes won’t translate in middle America? And because the film freezes Mary Jane in time, rather than allowing her to grow and change, will it quickly become dated? The next step for the film is to run the festival circuit and arrange distribution, so time will tell. In the meantime, if you want to arrange a screening, contact Dell’Arte. Mary Jane: A Musical Potumentary will make you want to puff, not pass.

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4 Comments

  1. loleta dude said:

    Well let me be the first to comment. Excellent review. It makes me want to see the film, but it also provided me with a realistic expectation of what I will see. Everything a good review should do.

  2. Pingback: ‘Mary Jane: A Musical Potumentary’ Made A Silver Screen Debut in Humboldt County | The Marijuana Empire

  3. smoother said:

    Being involved in the filming I can agree with most of what the reviewer stated.
    Good review.
    Great film.
    No distributor yet that I know about.
    Sound track is available. Contact Dell ‘Arte.

  4. Tiffany said:

    When and where will this film be shown next? Missed the screening at eureka theater but am wanting to see this movie ASAP …
    It is not available to rent for home viewing anywhere correct? It’s not out for purchase either is it? Seems a shame that in the county it’s about (Humboldt) it is not easy or accessable to the very people it portrAys. I hope that changes in the near future; if not what a waste 🙁
    The movie “Humboldt county” is not a great one but at least I own it & enjoy seeing & showing friends the beautiful part of America I live in.
    Especially that first scene where he sees Humboldt after waking from long car ride; it’s the exact spot I’ve been viewing sunsets from since 1983 lol & I love how the movie made it seem that spot is in honeydew to keep down film location “lookiloos” would be nice to be able to buy and own this potomentary film as well. Just saying…..

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