You probably already know whether or not you’re in the market for a documentary about Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, perhaps better known by his subsequently adopted spiritual moniker, Ram Dass. If so, you’re in for one of the better examples of a film detailing this oft-discussed duo and their significance to the psychedelic subculture of the 1960s. Dying to Know revisits these familiar personages from a fresh perspective, utilizing the final years of Leary’s life as a lens through which to delve into the personal and professional relationship between these two pioneering psychonauts. The result is a touching and poignant film that examines the nature of consciousness and how the paths and relationships we choose in life can ultimately shape our perceptions of death.
It’s difficult to overstate the impact on American society that Leary and Dass imparted during their active years and even more difficult to imagine the development of the so-called counterculture movement in the absence of their influence. As such, it’s no surprise that few stones have been left unturned in the analysis of these two figures, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing of value that remains unstated. Where Dying To Know shines is in its focus on the relationship between these two men — diametrically opposed on a fundamental level of character but integral to each other’s growth as individuals.
The film is largely built around archival footage of the two colleagues reconciling their strained friendship in the months leading up to Leary’s death from inoperable prostate cancer, their conversations illuminating the mortality — and immortal legacy — of two accomplished academics who defied convention and took on great personal risk in order to expand the frontiers of human consciousness. Filmmaker Gay Dillingham fleshes out their discussions with talking-head interviews from family, friends and notable associates, including such luminaries in the fields of holistic medicine and Eastern spirituality as Andrew Weil and Huston Smith. Robert Redford competently narrates a historical overview of the scholarly research carried out by film’s two subjects during their professorial days at Harvard and the societal upheaval that would follow as a consequence, providing context for their spiritual and psychological journey. The result is an intimate portrait of two very human men who have taken on mythic qualities in the minds of millions, much to the surprise of the men themselves.
If Dillingham’s work as a documentarian doesn’t exactly reinvent the form, it justifiably emphasizes the personal narrative of its two extraordinarily interesting subjects rather than relying upon shows of stylistic superfluity to underscore its message. At its core, Dying to Know deals with three characters: Leary, Dass and the looming specter of Death itself. As the two reconnect in a warmly realized reunion photographed with fly-on-the-wall immediacy by Dillingham, it’s Leary’s thoughts on his imminent demise that overshadow the technique of the filmmaker. There’s something undeniably affecting about hearing a man who almost certainly ate more acid than I’ve eaten meals share his uncertainty about the Big Trip that awaits him. And, as Dass shares his own unique perspective on his inevitable demise following a massive stroke, it’s impossible to avoid the value of their respective perspectives on the subject of dying gracefully.
Dying to Know is a film whose true import will likely become more evident over time as the Baby Boomers who came of age in the era of Leary and Dass begin to confront the prospect of their own passing. As the two discuss the idea of death being not the end of existence but the culmination of a life well-lived, their individual strategies for approaching it as an act of volitional surrender to an ineffable universe will stand as a testament to their work in the field of human consciousness. Regardless of the chemical aids that led these two people to their unique point of view on the matter, there is no doubt their thoughts on death provide a deeply meaningful and heartfelt guide to approaching the existential dread that confronts every human being as the end draws nigh. It’s not a perfect piece of filmmaking, but the message it conveys is both timely and eternal, and both personal and universal. Unrated.
Opens Friday at Grail Moviehouse.