MAMMOTH LAKES, Calif. – The new Mammoth Lakes Film Festival focuses on narrative movies, documentaries, shorts and animation that express a singular, personal point of view. I enjoyed every short and feature-length work I saw at the inaugural annual fest, located about 300 miles north of Los Angeles in Mammoth’s drop dead gorgeous setting. But my favorite film at MLFF was Gay Dillingham’s highly informative, entertaining doc about a dynamic duo of ’60s/’70s gurus: Dying to Know: Ram Dass and Timothy Leary, narrated by Robert Redford.
These Harvard psychology professors went, as writer Aldous Huxley put it, beyond the doors of perception by experimenting with psychedelics, and in doing so, not only turned the academic establishment upside down but rocked the emerging counterculture generation. Leary went on to pursue LSD as a key to expanded consciousness, while Richard Alpert embarked on another path, exploring Eastern mysticism in his quest for enlightenment, becoming Baba Ram Dass in the process.
This is a great story filled with fascinating details, such as why (space) cadet Leary was kicked out of West Point and which railroad Alpert’s dad – a co-founder of Brandeis University – ran. It is to producer/director Dillingham’s credit that she has found a visionary form that organically expresses the content of a film that is often visually stunning, conveying cosmic consciousness. For instance, she occasionally uses animation to great effect, especially in cleverly depicting “Bicycle Day” – when Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann accidentally dosed himself with LSD at his Basel lab and rode home on a bike, tripping his brains out on acid for the first time in human history, on April 16, 1943.
With its psychedelic style and sensibility, Dying to Know avoids the pitfalls of many conventional documentaries filled with talking heads, archival footage and the like. Of course, in addition to our two acolytes of acid and Eastern philosophy par excellence, the interviewees are indeed fascinating. They include Dr. Andrew Weil, who played a role in the then-Alpert’s expulsion from the faculty when Weil was on the staff of the Harvard Crimson, long before he became a holistic healer and bestselling author. (Small world!) Other collaborators with the iconoclastic pair, such as Ralph Metzner, are interviewed, as well as one of Leary’s five (yes, he was married five times – although not concurrently) wives, Joanna Harcourt-Smith. Former Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow, who drew on his psychedelic experiences for his songs, also makes for a compelling eyewitness.
As for the doc’s news clips, etc., Leary’s 1960s testifying before Congress, including Sen. Ted Kennedy, is to die for, as Leary proclaims and explains his famous mantra: “Turn on, tune in, drop out!” However, there’s not enough info about Leary’s escape from a minimum security prison and his subsequent falling out with another New Left figure, former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver, also living in exile in Algiers. For instance, to the best of my recollection, the Weathermen helped Leary bust out of the big house (so to speak), but their role in one of the most fascinating episodes in the era’s history isn’t even mentioned. On the other hand, I didn’t know (or recall) that John Lennon wrote “Come Together” for Leary’s California gubernatorial race against none other than Ronald Reagan. His sojourn in Afghanistan is also quite fascinating although, again, briefly mentioned – but a 95-minute biopic about two icons can only cover so much.
It should be mentioned that, as its title indicates, Dying to Know is also about the ultimate taboo and final frontier: Death. Ever the publicity conscious, crafty manipulator of public opinion, Leary turned his last hurrah into a media event. Watch the doc to find out how he and Star Trek‘s creator made history in the 1990s.
Baba Ram Dass, the author of the 1971 classic Be Here Now, who is about a decade younger than Tim, currently lives in Maui, where he is still on the path to enlightenment. The doc includes clips of the guru in Hawaii. I won’t reveal what, but something quite mysteriously wonderful happens to the Eastern ascetic in his old age that is quite touching.
And so is the deep, abiding friendship between the titular Harvard colleagues who found themselves far from the tenure track, at the center of the ’60s/’70s storm. The documentary reveals that Richard Alpert, raised as an upper class nice Jewish boy, was for a long time secretly gay. He was in love with Leary, although according to the doc it remained on the platonic level. Ram Dass eventually came out of the closet a while ago.
In any case, I loved this film’s trip down memory lane, and will close with my own encounter with the high guru of LSD: In 1976, straight out of Hunter College film school, New Line Cinema hired me to be a movie distributor to hip university audiences. At that time, long before The Lord of the Rings, New Line also had a speakers’ bureau that booked radical chic notables to speak at college campuses. One day it was announced that the one and only Timothy Leary, fresh out of the slammer, was coming to our Manhattan offices near Union Square to discuss speaking gigs. So I lay in wait for the dissident whom Pres. Nixon had called “the most dangerous man in America” (and hey, if anybody should know, Nixon should).
When I saw Tim with his longish white hair in the office I gave him a gift: A poster of one of the vintage films I was distributing, the 1930s serial Flash Gordon, starring Buster Crabbe. I said to the high priest of LSD: “Get it? Flash?” And the King of Acid Flashes gave me one of his Merry Prankster-ish, million-dollar smiles that I’ve never forgotten, and which this wonderful documentary brings back to life. Viewers should definitely tune in to Dying to Know: Ram Dass and Timothy Leary – what a long, strange, cinematic trip it is!