Friday, April 15, 2011

The grasslands of Florida in the 70s: SQUARE GROUPER bails over NY & Miami; Q&A with filmmakers and Robert Platshorn

Definition, please. According to this film -- SQUARE GROUPER: THE GODFATHERS OF GANJA, one of the most interesting, entertaining and informative documentaries so far this year -- a square grouper is the slang term for a bale of marijuana thrown overboard or out of an airplane in South Florida during the 1970s/80s, when smuggling grass was at its peak and a lot of people were getting high, happy and rich off the proceeds. A time trip that take us back some 40 years and belies the youth of the filmmakers (director Billy Corben and producer Alfred Spellman, still in their early 30s), the movie tackles its subject by exploring three distinct groups of pot smugglers, how they rose, operated and fell.

Mr. Corben (shown at left) and Spellman, both from the Miami area, are the duo who earlier gave us the doc Cocaine Cowboys,so they know their drugs. And just as coke makes for a more volatile set of user and losers, the more benign marijuana resulted in a much less violent set of circumstances. Which makes this movie something of a lark for much of its running time. Using a lot of found footage, news clips and interviews with the principals (then and now), Corben recreates the past remarkably well, as we learn about our three sets of smugglers.

The first group, members of a Miami Beach church that worshipped ganja -- conservative Christians that would fit right in with Anita Bryant (well, in some ways) -- is headed by a fellow called Brother Louv, aka Gary (shown at far right), who's as creepy as they come and of course knows exactly what god wants for all of us. There's a Jamaican connection here, too -- the soon-to-be-assassinated Keith Gordon (shown, near right). The amount of pot smuggled during the Church's reign probably exceeded the other two sources put together. That reign ended rather suddenly after the sect invited its neighbors in to see how wonderful life with "god" could be, imagining that this would somehow endear the group to locals. Instead those neighbors were shocked into action by seeing the group's little children getting high on grass.

Part 2 of the film deals with the famous/infamous Black Tuna Gang -- made up of Robert Platshorn, his wife Lynn and their friend and business partner -- entrepreneurs who knew a good thing when they saw it, and went after it with flair and savvy. This section is by far the most interesting: funny, sad and surprising. So no spoilers here. What you learn from these people, however, will hone your sense of American justice to an even finer point.

The concluding section highlights the group of tiny islands known as Everglades City, giving us a history of the place, and a look at its residents well prior to the 1970s, during the fraught-but-fun smuggling period, and finally now. (Those are Everglades City "busts" taking place, above and below.) Smuggling became such an easy, lucrative way of life for so many of the people we meet here, it's understandable how easily they fell right into it. Thanks to the skills of Corben and Spellman, the whole film has a loose, easy,  rather sweet vibe, with no murders or bloodletting of any sort. The music, particularly that of Jimmy Buffett, takes us down a fond memory lane. In fact, it's the DEA that comes off looking like the villain of the piece, and rightfully so, I think. Sure: these folk were breaking the law, but there is such a thing as allowing the penalty to fit the crime -- which was certainly not the case where Black Tuna was concerned.

What you'll learn about the judge on that case -- then, and even more ridiclously, now -- should raise your eyebrows a notch or ten. Square Grouper is a documentary filled with detail, about the time, place, history, and people involved -- all of it interesting and germane. There was a time, back in the 70s,when many of us believed (foolishly, it would seem, given our country's increasingly fundamentalist/religious stance) that pot would be legalized. With its increasing use for medicinal and pain relief purposes, you might also imagine this would happen sooner than later.  But, no: Man's destiny -- according to the Catholic and fundamentalist Christian sects that control the majority of American thinking -- is to suffer. So suffer, we will.

Square Grouper opened yesterday at the cutting-edge O Cinema in Miami, and today in New York City at the Cinema Village. If you can't make it to those two theaters, despair not, as the film will be appearing soon on DVD and VOD.


TrustMovies got a nice half-hour of time with this film's producer (Spellman), director (Corben) and more-or-less leading man Robert Platshorn, during which the conversation bubbled along quickly. Below -- edited for brevity (and how much more time yours truly has available to devote to this) -- is that conversation:

TrustMovies: It’s interesting to see something set so far back. In fact, it seems to me that your movie will skew to the elderly.

The Filmmakers (Billy and Alfred): We just came from a screening at New York University, so hopefully it will reach the younger ones, too!

TM: Well, we older folk are getting to be a pretty big audience now.

Robert Platshorn: I was out in Ohio and Madison, Wisconsin, where it was definitely an older audience. They applauded during the movie and mobbed me when it over. It was very gratifying. My major activity now is The Silver Tour, teaching seniors about marijuana. And I do a regular column for seniors in High Times magazine.

TM: High Times still exists?!

Filmmakers: Yes and it even have a spin-off magazine.

RP: The regular version still exists, as well.

TM: So do you go by the middle name of Black Tuna?

RP: Sometime they call me “senior correspondent” and then, in parentheses, “Old Guy.” I wrote the feature story in this issue about Irv Rosenfeld, who gets 300 joints per month from the Federal Government for his tumors. He comes with me on tour and talks from a patient’s legalization perspective.

The Filmmakers: There is a wonderful passtime in South Florida, a favorite of ours. You go into any dockside/dive bar, take a bar stool near an old-timer and strike up a conversation. Three hours and a lot of whiskey later, you’ll have heard the story of his smuggling career, or maybe as a deposed leader of a tumultuous third world nation, or of a politician who’s served time for corruption.

TM: So you are both from South Florida.

The Fs: Yes, we are, and so is almost everyone involved in the movie.

TM: It’s interesting to me that in Everglades City, it looks as though by the end of the film, the populace is earning its living via commercial fishing again.

The Fs: Yes, and from tourism.

TM: They were earning their living in that way, and then when the government took it away from them, they got into smuggling -- until the government took that away from them, too. And now they’re back to fishing. And tourism.

The Fs: Exactly. 30-40 years ago this was a town of 500 people. Today, it’s a town of 500 people. Towns in America either explode or they die. But this town is sort of frozen in time. And there are only about five last names in the whole place.

RP: Instead of more commercial fishing, this have tourism, do tours, and they still fish their stone crabs, right?

The F’s: They have an annual seafood festival that’s huge, too.

TM: (to Platshorn) It’s your wife, Lynn, right, who is part of the film?

RP: Yes

TM: And you are still married?

RP: Re-married.

TM: Ah…

RP: Yes. When I was imprisoned and didn’t think I would outlive my sentence, I was happy to see her get her freedom, and not sit around. Not that she was ever a “sit-arounder”…. But when I got out, she was there for me. We started when we were 14 years old. When we were in High School!

TM: You mentioned in the film that you had told the DEA that you were willing, if they pressed charges, to simply surrender.

RP: Yes, we met with the their attorney, and with the strike Force. We knew about the indictment. We had made specific arrangements about turning ourselves in; we had discussed bail, everything. It was a done deal, and then they come and break down the doors, with 45 people, dogs, drawn guns, they ripped the house apart. They did it all for publicity value. This also makes us look that much worse in the eyes of the jury, who had not yet been impaneled and so were still watching TV and seeing all this play out.

The Fs: The inference is that these “dangerous criminals will go down shooting and must be put away."

TM: Yet that one thing that comes out of the film is how very mild and non-violent was this brand of drug smuggling! That’s always been the history of pot that I’ve known.

RP: Right, Anybody who even owned a gun couldn’t do business with us. Most of our customers were grad students. The kids would put there money together to buy in bulk. And most of them have now become doctors or laywers.

TM: Did you guys think back then that it was only a matter of time before pot would be legalized?

RP: We thought, at best, two years before it was gonna be legal. Even President Carter said that the penalty should not exceed the severity of the crime. But he did a 180 when his best friend was caught with cocaine. All this resulted in all the progress we had made toward decriminalization being reversed.

TM: My view of this country is that it is so moralistic in every way and still in the pocket of organized religion, that we are not going to see things like gay maririage and the legalization of marijuana.

RP: I think we will see marijuana legalized – and because of its medical use.

TM: Yes, but the medical use has been around now for decades – with no results.

RP: Yes, but now we are seeing a number of pharmaceutical companies considering this.

The Fs: Well: if the big drug companies want it, then of course!

RP: This is done all over the world – except here. The US government holds the patents and they can do this whenever they want.

TM: You pronounce it patents – with a long A?

RP: Yes I lived in England for a time. In fact I started the first chain of speed-reading schools in England. I was always a bit of an entrepreneur.|

The Fs: You still are!

TM: Why did you get out of speed-reading? Did the idea of that sort of die.

RP: I left it functioning when I came back to the states. I was actually chasing my wife-to-be. I don’t know if you remember that period pre-Margaret Thatcher. You couldn’t move a penny out of England, and there was no investment money. This was the late 60s, early 70s.

TM: Your wife mentions in the movie about “losing my son.” Has that now been repaired?

RP: Oh, yes, we are both very close to him now.

TM: How old was your son then?

RP: He was four when she went to jail -- a very impressionable kid. What do you say to your son when he asks if you will be coming home? My sentence was for 64 years. I served 30 of those years (you got a lot of good time back in those days).

TM: Has anything happened with this Mark Steven Phillips thing (a member of the gang who has recently been arrested after 31 years on the run)?

RP: He is gonna be sentenced on the 26 of May. I am working with his attorney. I’m trying to help him. But I am wondering if my doing this will help or hurt?

The Fs: Help him by not helping out: That’s our advice!

RP: I’ll help him by working with the attorney. (To TM) You know that the same judge will be handling the case?

TM: Yes: That’s crazy.

The Fs: Judge King told us when we approached him to interview him for the movie that he knew that the defendants in the case were recently released and that he was afraid for his and his family’s safety!

TM: He said that now? He is crazy?

RP: Even the government has stated in court that there never was any violence.

The Fs: This is not clear in the movie, but there was a completely separate trail for obstruction of justice. This included the alleged judge murder plot, for which all defendants were acquitted. We don’t deal with that but just with the pot trial.

RP: Actually there were no charges. After about three-quarters of the way through the obstruction trial, they could never figure out what was going on because it was all in their minds. The judge himself, after about six weeks, turned to the prosecuting attorney and said, "I have not heard one word about these people trying to harm Judge King. What is going on here?"  And the US Attorney got up and said, "Your honor, this was a mistake: an over-zealous agent."  And all this had all been featured in the headlines. Of course, when the allegations were withdrawn, it appeared as a tiny paragraph, buried.

TM: Why wasn't this in the movie?

The Fs: We couldn’t get everything in. And I think the movie really does pretty much debunk that notion.

RP: It was a nightmare in prison because they treated me as someone who had threatened the life of a federal judge. There were all these articles about this in my prison “jacket.” They had no right to be there. I would find them and have them removed. And then, all of a sudden, they’d be right back in there. This made it twice as hard to do the time. But this is all history now.

TM: Yes, but it’s history that is YOU.

RP: True, but once I was out, I found that people treated me so well and really seemed to be feeling so badly for my doing the prison time.

TM: How much did the wives really know about what was going on.

RP: They knew. Both of them… But they were never involved with what was going on

TM: But your wife stuck by you, while the wife of you partner didn't stick by him?

RP: His wife was living the high life. She loved the money. But as soon as things went wrong, she poisoned the kid’s mind against his dad. And this guy was the sweetest, nicest guy in the whole world. I had dinner with him last night. And he hasn’t seen the movie yet.

TM: He hasn’t seen the film?!

RP: Not yet. And he should. But he’s been sick. He is such a good person. Much nicer than me.

TM: How old is he?

RP: a couple of years old than me. I’m 68. He has had a cancer operation -- and  a couple other things.

TM: (to the filmmakers) How did you two get involved in this movie?

The Fs: We had made Cocaine Cowboys, which Magnolia released earlier. We had both grown up in South Florida, and the drug industry is something we were very much aware of. You know, when you grow up here, even in elementary school, you’re always aware of how some kids’ parents have these really fancy, expensive cars, and so forth. In the course of research for Cowboys, we came across a bunch of stories about the pot business in Miami, back in the 70s. It’s all part of Jimmy Buffett era of South Florida. This tweaked our interest, as did the Coptic Christian Church stuff, and our researcher also had read a story about Robert getting released from prison. So you can call this film is a kind of unofficial sequel to CC.

TM: Or prequel, maybe…. Thanks so much for your time, all three of you. And here’s to the success of your film.

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