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SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST

Stoners, this one's for you . . . this one's for you

At the freewheeling festival, screenings and forums let cannabis shed a little stigma.

March 16, 2008|Chris Lee | Times Staff Writer

AUSTIN, TEXAS — FOLLOWING its regional premiere last Sunday, the comic documentary "Super High Me" became one of the most buzzed-about movies in the South by Southwest Film Festival -- no pun intended.

Capturing two druggy, jokey months in the life of Angeleno stand-up comedian Doug Benson, the co-creator of the off-Broadway comedy show "The Marijuana-Logues" who, tellingly, was named stoner of the year in 2006 by High Times magazine, the movie openly rips off its central premise from another much-discussed agenda-driven documentary, one that premiered at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. That is, director Morgan Spurlock's critical indictment of the fast-food industry.

"It started with me having a joke in my act," Benson explained over beer at an intimate party for his film, which opens April 20 -- the date relates to 4:20 p.m., the time of day when true-blue stoners blaze up, and is a little like the Fourth of July for potheads. "If there's a movie called 'Super Size Me' about a guy who ate McDonald's every day, why couldn't there be this movie called 'Super High Me,' where I smoke pot every day?"

"Super High Me" was one of three movies plotted around the conspicuous, copious consumption of marijuana to screen at this homegrown Texas film fest, which drew to a close Saturday. But with its famously laid-back vibe, progressive-minded audiences and shaggy, anything-goes charm, the event is probably the ideal place for the stoner comedy to stage a comeback.

"Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay," one of several studio pictures to be included at SXSW (as the festival is commonly called), premiered March 8, picking up where its precursor, the un-PC stoner comedy "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle" left off. In the new film, due for release April 25, the title characters, including John Cho as Harold, are put in lockdown at the infamous U.S. compound in Cuba after Indian American Kumar (Kal Penn) is mistaken for a "bomb-carrying terrorist" while trying to torch up a bong (a marijuana water pipe to the uninitiated) onboard a flight bound for Amsterdam.

At the discussion "Race, Politics and Drugs -- a Harold and Kumar Panel" held in conjunction with the movie's debut, however, Penn made a shocking admission that's certain to imperil his future as a pothead icon: "I don't smoke in real life."

According to Shirley Halperin, co-author of "Pot Culture: The A-Z Guide to Stoner Language and Life," American attitudes toward marijuana are dramatically different than they were a generation ago, with growing acceptance aided by the popularity of pro-ganja TV shows such as "Weeds" and "That '70s Show."

"The 'Just Say No' era is finally over," Halperin said. "The whole genre has normalized it. It's more accepted. People are coming around to the idea that pot and heroin are not the same thing."

Halperin felt it was no coincidence that Austin -- home to hemp aficionado Willie Nelson and the shooting locale of the stoner movie classic "Dazed and Confused" -- should be the staging ground for so much reefer movie madness. "This is like stoner heaven here," she said. "Keep Austin weird! That's more the reason you see it down here."

In writer-directors Danny Jacobs and Darren Grodsky's feature debut, "Humboldt County," a disillusioned, emotionally reticent medical student (Jeremy Strong) wakes up to the world around him after taking up with a family of marijuana farmers in Humboldt, a California county sometimes referred to as the "Lost Coast." The film's small-time weed purveyors are hardly the granola-munching, patchouli-burning tree huggers of popular imagination, however. These hot-tempered herb horticulturists (played by Brad Dourif, Frances Conroy and Chris Messina) demonstrate love with gut punches and cutting remarks. But more often than not, they shoot their shotguns first and ask questions later.

"There are certain cliches about pot films, and we thought a lot about the role that marijuana plays," Grodsky said, seated at a small table in the Austin Convention Center. "So we did a lot of research. And we hadn't seen a film that handles it in this way."

Added Jacobs: "We were trying to work within the genre and subvert what we had seen before."

Festival producer Matt Dentler insisted there was no institutional effort to brand SXSW as a "420-friendly" film fest. But he pointed out that it's unlikely that most other festivals would hold a panel discussion titled "Instant Buzz: Drugs in Film," that traces the evolutionary continuum of doobie-smoking duos from Cheech and Chong to Harold and Kumar.

"It's not like we were out soliciting for marijuana movies. It just so happens that three of the movies we liked happened to incorporate weed in them," Dentler said. "But part of that speaks to the laid-back environment of the festival. South by Southwest's audience is not necessarily all pot smokers, but there's also a more liberal, embracing community here."

"Super High Me" producer Alex Campbell framed SXSW's merits in a different way:

"They would never let us smoke pot in the theater in Sundance," he said.

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chris.lee@latimes.com

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