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Leary Laughing
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 scent?

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


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