2020 AFI FEST
Dr. Timothy Leary was one of the most important cultural figures of the 1960s and 1970s. The catch phrase attributed to him was “Tune in, turn on and drop out.” To translate, tune in to the new rock music, turn on with psychedelic drugs and drop out of school and society, in general. Leary himself experimented with L.S.D when it was still legal and didn’t “drop out” until he was already a respected Harvard professor..
In his time, he was as famous a “corrupter of youth” as Socrates was in his. California governor Ronald Reagan railed against him as did President Richard Nixon. With powerful enemies like those, one needed well-connected friends. According to his paramour Joanna Harcourt-Smith, Leary’s wealthy friends bailed him out most of the time but couldn’t always protect him when the full force of the United States government was set against him.
Harcourt-Smith is the subject of the Errol Morris directed documentary, My Psychedelic Love Story (2020), screening as part of AFI Fest. She’s a fascinating subject in her own right. Born into the European Jewish aristocracy, her family survived World War II by pretending to be Catholic. Harcourt-Smith equates her psychologically damaged mother’s version of child-rearing to a Hitler.
By the time she met Leary, Harcourt-Smith was part of Europe’s hip jet set. An heiress without a dowry, what she lacked in funds she made up for in wealthy connections, style and smarts.
Her circle with Leary included gun -runners, rock stars and revolutionaries. Keith Richard and girlfriend Anita Pallenberg show up in one story about trying to stage a benefit for the ill-fated George McGovern campaign in 1972.
Harcourt-Smith recounts meeting Leary after he escaped from a California prison while serving time for drug charges and was living in exile in Switzerland.
The film is based on Harcourt-Smith’s book Tripping the Bardo with Timothy Leary: My Psychedelic Love Story. How reliable a witness is she? Director Morris occasionally interrupts to ask a naive or irrelevant question, but for the most part, he gives her free rein. She addresses the charge by some in the counterculture including Allen Ginsberg that she may have been a C.I.A. plant programmed to bring in Leary. Ironically, she says that watching Morris’s documentary series Wormwood (2017) gave her the idea that she may have been controlled by the C.I.A. Another irony is that Leary’s capture happened during Watergate and that Charles Manson was in the cell next door.
Harcourt-Smith’s narration is illustrated in a “head trip” style interspersing her interview footage with archival photographs and film clips including from Alice in Wonderland (1951), Mata Hari (1931) and Double Indemnity (1944).
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