h = o = t + i
= n = k
in Film Hell
June 15, 1997
t he social--as
opposed to aesthetic--highlight of the
Seattle Film Festival came after the U.S.
premiere of Timothy Leary's Dead, when director Paul Davids
ascended the stage to answer audience questions.
His documentary had closed with gruesome footage of Dr. Leary's head
being removed and frozen--an interesting feat since, according to every
news report of Leary's death, the late doctor had decided to forego
cryogenic preservation. The last shots of the film showed make-up
artists creating a Leary lifemask, a useful prop if you're going to fake
a head-chopping sequence. But at no point did the movie flatly state
that the head-cutting sequence was a hoax.
Now Davids was onstage explaining that this "ambiguity" was deliberate.
Wouldn't Leary have wanted the government to think he was really dead
for good? asked the filmmaker. And isn't the state getting ready to
restrict cloning? And so, if--hypothetically speaking--Leary's friends
were preparing to secretly grow twelve Leary clones as soon as
technology allowed, wouldn't they want to throw the government off their
I wasn't sure what cryogenics had to do with cloning, and the shot of
Leary's frozen head didn't look all that believable to me, but that was
beside the point. I had enjoyed the documentary, more or less, but I was
acutely aware of its limitations.. Apparently, Davids had decided that
his main job was to counteract the popular imagine of Leary as a
dangerous charlatan, and thus produced a picture no more biting than an
instalment of A&E's Biography.
However, Leary is fascinating because he was such a
consummate salesman -- or, to be more blunt, an immensely talented con
artist. Here is a man who has constantly rewritten his past.
One day he's an Eastern mystic. A couple years later, once hippie orientalism
had run its course, he was a hard-nosed scientist again. He briefly
turned to revolutionary rhetoric ("Brothers and Sisters, this is a war
for survival. Ask Huey and Angela. They dig it....To shoot a genocidal
robot policeman in the defense of life is a sacred act."), then
denounced the left for precisely the crime of spouting such words. In
the mid-'70s, he wrote a cover story for National Review attacking the
counterculture, accusing John Lennon of stealing "Come Together" from
the Leary gubernatorial campaign (Lennon had written the song for the
campaign) and denouncing Bob Dylan for everything from whininess to
Squeaky Fromme. By the '80s, Lennon and Dylan were icons in the Leary
pantheon once more.
I rather like Leary. He cuts a nice anti-authoritarian image, and
he put up with a lot of abuse, including a prison term, for the simple
crime of Free Speech. But he was a con man at heart, the
counterculture's own Madison Avenue huckster. And this part of the
picture was missing from the movie -- or so it seemed.
Now the filmmaker was going out of his way to start a Leary-is-alive
rumor (being careful, I noticed, to use speculative language instead of
firm claims), even mentioning that some of Leary's friends have claimed
to have gotten posthumous e-mail from Dr. Tim. What a wonderful prank!
The whole movie was a con, one of which Leary would have richly
approved. Indeed, it must have had his blessing.
And the audience, filled with hippies old and young, was eating it up.
Bless them. Timothy Leary was probably having a good chuckle out there, on the outside, looking in.
-- Jesse Walker
[ALL CONTENT © 1997-1998 hotink.com ]