Degenerate Art: The Art and Culture of Glass Pipes Reviews
Here's another one I swear I wrote a review for, but I can't find any evidence that it exists; I seem to have dreamed it. Thankfully, if it was a dream, I remember most of what I'd written.
Here's rule number one: you cannot start your movie bitching about your art not being taken seriously outside drug culture and then spend the rest of a documentary glorifying said art within drug culture and expect to be taken seriously in any way. That, unfortunately, is the exact tack taken by Degenerate Art: The Art and Culture of Glass Pipes, which in the rest of the world we call bongs. One of the interviewees towards the beginning of the film goes on for what seems like hours, but is probably only forty-five seconds or so, about how glass pipemaking is a legitimate art that deserves to be recognized for something other than being vessels in which to pack one's marijuana and get stoned. And really, the man's got a point; like any glassblowing, there is a great deal of skill involved in the making of glass bongs, and the makers tend towards bright colors and fantastical designs, for what (to me, anyway) are quite obvious reasons.
And then you get the rest of the movie. Or, at least, the rest of the version I saw, which according to IMDB is almost an hour and forty minutes shorter than the original release. The version showing on Netflix and Amazon runs seventy-six minutes; IMDB shows the original version movie as having a running time of 170 minutes. Insert standard joke about time flowing differently when stoned here. And-I just found this out about thirty seconds before I wrote that sentence (man, that original review must have been a dream-and before you ask, no, I haven't toked up in an amount of time that can be measured in decades at this point; I don't even smoke tobacco anymore...)-it has me wondering whether the hundred minutes I didn't see were all about validating that guy's viewpoint and that the shorter cut showing through the streaming outlets was made specifically for the Saturday-night-munchies crowd. I'm now half-tempted to give this the gentleman's C until I can track down the original cut. Except that, well, there's still seventy-odd minutes of guys following the Grateful Dead-or, infinitely worse, Phish and the Dave Matthews Band-around the country and getting baked. I'd rather watch paint dry.
The few times the movie isn't basted in cannabis, when the filmmakers are tracing the history and evolution of glassblowing as it specifically related to glass bong-making, are interesting and well worth your time. I suspect most of the rest of the most easily available version won't be unless you're as stoned as some of the interviewees. **
The immortal Frank Zappa, rock guitar genius and perhaps the most eloquent and outspoken free speech advocate of the late 20th century once said, "The illusion of freedom [in America] will continue as long as it's profitable to continue the illusion. At the point where the illusion becomes too expensive to maintain, they will just take down the scenery, they will pull back the curtains, they will move the tables and chairs out of the way and you will see the brick wall at the back of the theater."
Having possessed a finely calibrated bullshit-o-meter from a very young age, when I ponder the concept of freedom in America, the questions that have always immediately arisen in my mind are "freedom from what?" and "freedom to be what?" One of this country's darkest secrets is that we throw more of our citizens into cages to rot away their days than any other country on the face of the planet, and a huge percentage of those are for nonviolent offenses. A concomitant dark secret, and one of which we should be very ashamed, is that we spend more money building prisons than we do building schools.
The full impact of M. Slinger's cleverness and mastery of story did not dawn on me after watching this film until I stumbled upon the Wikipedia page titled "Degenerate Art," the first sentence of which says, "Degenerate art is the English translation of the German entartete Kunst, a term adopted by the Nazi regime in Germany to describe virtually all modern art." During Hitler's reign, any art which did not glorify Germans as the master race, was not Wagnerian enough or didn't feature enough Valkyries or Nibelungen was banned, the artist lost his job if he had one, and he was exiled or exterminated. Ingeniously, Slinger makes no mention of or reference to this connotation of the term in this remarkable documentary.
I doubt whether any administration in the history of the US blathered more incessantly about freedom than did that of 43. But the cold, hard, sad fact is that you must scrutinize what someone does as contrasted with what they say. When you apply that standard, you realize that the interminable prattling about freedom were word salads meaning nothing - linguistic diarrhea emanating from hydrocephalic gasbags - Karl Rove for instance. If you doubt what I say, then witness the actions of the DOJ under John Ashcroft against the artists producing masterpieces in borosilicate glass as depicted here.
John Ashcroft is an interesting character to say the least. I wont go into great detail about this aspect of ol' John, but he is the only candidate in history ever to lose election to the US Senate to a dead man (his Democratic opponent, Mel Carnahan, was killed in a plane crash just three weeks before the election). The opportunities for ad hominems are endless but, per the principle outlined above, I'll let this fella's actions speak for him. Soon after taking office, and prior to 9/11, Ashcroft made it clear that one of the most important things on his agenda was an anti-porn crusade. (There could be no clearer case of watching what the left hand is doing while the right is busy knocking your teeth out.) Justice famously spent 8,000 of your tax dollars on curtains because the prudish Ashcroft didn't want to share the podium with "The Spirit of Justice," a cast aluminum statue with a wardrobe malfunction that has served as a backdrop at DOJ headquarters in DC since the mid '30's. What was so offensive about this statue that Ashcroft couldn't be seen in public with her? A single, metallic breast protruding voluptuously from her toga.
At the end of Slinger's film, Bob Snodgrass, widely considered the embodiment of and primary impetus behind the modern glass art pipe movement, having pioneered many of its techniques, tells us that "the word 'bong' is an ancient sound meant to impart power to the spirit of joy and well-being." He then points out how ridiculous it is that, when one exchanges one of these glass devices for money, the pipe is an implement that dare not speak its name. For the uninitiated, what he is talking about is that you can't call it a bong because that implies illicit use. You must call it a hookah or tag it with a label that says "for tobacco use only." Look up the word "well-being" and you will find variations on the definition as follows: "a state characterized by health, happiness and prosperity;" or "the condition of being contented, healthy or successful." Note the similarity of those words with these: "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," our so-called unalienable rights from the Declaration of Independence.
Place "Degenerate Art: The Art and Culture of Glass Pipes" in your rental cue and you will see and hear wondrous tales of some folks getting their unalienable rights aliened in a major way. If you think 8,000 frogskins to obscure The Spirit of Justice's tit is a colossal waste of public funds, then your eyes will pop out of your head when you see to what other purpose your hard-earned money was misappropriated, to wit: Operation Pipe Dreams. Like a borosilicate rod under a glassblower's torch, my eyeballs literally melted out of my skull when I heard of the freedom-loving jackboots of Ashcroft's Injustice Department coming down on the necks of the phenomenal artists depicted in M. Slinger's film. With an estimated price tag of $12,000,000 (see the Wiki page titled "Operation Pipe Dreams") this operation by the feds squandered the resources of 2,000 law enforcement officers whose time would have been better spent collaring rapists and murderers. Was it righteous, or was it bogus? When I tell you that, as part of Operation Pipe Dreams, on September 11, 2003, (a date chosen, no doubt, to reinforce the implication of a tie with terrorism) comedic legend Tommy Chong was sentenced to 9 months in prison and ordered to pay more than $120,000 in fines and forfeitures, you decide.
Ryan Teurfs, president of 101 North Glass, tells of the DEA dragging him out of bed at 6 in the morning and taking him off to jail. He talks of having his "8 year baby (his company) taken away," along with everything he had spent the better part of his life working on, including his retirement. Jason Harris, one of the more interesting and salty characters to whom Slinger introduces the viewer, relates how a pre-dawn raid at his house ended with him lying hogtied on his driveway in his underwear. Harris, a world renowned glassblower and founder of Jerome Baker Designs, tells how he faced the possibility of 15 years in prison and ended up with hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and assets seized, with 6 months under house arrest for dessert. Saeed Mohtadi, now president of Eugene (Oregon) Glass School, talks about what it was like to be the subject of an early morning raid during which 60 guys in full-on black SWAT gear came through his house armed with machine guns. With a look on his face that screams out "WTF?," he quotes John Ashcroft as having said at a press conference in the aftermath of Operation Pipe Dreams, "today we took down 50 organizations that support terrorism." WTF? indeed.
Call them eye-popping. Call them mind-blowing. Call them stunningly beautiful. Many adjectives come to mind, but is what these guys produce art? To me, there is no question that it is. Eugene glassblower Jason Lee, one of the artists in this documentary, agrees, saying that he refuses to stop doing what he does until pipe art is on display in the Smithsonian.
The J.M. Smucker company uses the advertising slogan, "With a name like Smucker's, it has to be good. (R) " With names like Pakoh, Bandhu, Bearclaw, Ease, Banjo, Snic and Laceface, you know the artists in M. Slinger's movie have to produce some sick pieces. I would describe these artists' collective work as Tim Burton meets Andy Warhol meets Art-Deco meets Salvador Dali meets a rail car tagger but, hey, I don't know shit about art.
I think the word 'amazing' is currently the most overused, and thereby the most meaningless word in the English language today, so I don't make the following statement lightly. This work by M. Slinger is the most amazing documentary I have seen in years.