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The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Dying to Know: Ram Dass and Timothy leary

Dying to Know: Ram Dass and Timothy Leary documents the lives of two controversial and fascinating figures whose lives intersected when they investigated the use and effects of psychedelic drugs as Harvard professors in the 1950s. This marked the beginning of a great friendship. When Leary became an “LSD guru” and Alpert launched into a spiritual pursuit after extensive travels to the East, their paths diverged. The two reunite to explore not only the world of drugs and understanding of the self, but also death. This film provides an honest and intimate insight into the lives of two people who have either been glorified or demonized.

The film itself revolves around the last conversation between Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (a.k.a. Ram Dass), before Leary succumbs to prostate cancer. It intersperses sections of this conversation within a traditional telling of their lives, through eighty years worth of footage. The explanation and discussions of these sensitive and complex subjects are complemented with appropriate pictures, animations and music. These not only show what one of these psychedelic trips may feel like, but also set a general mood and tone that is synonymous with the stereotypical image of ’60s counterculture.

The strength of this documentary lies in how bold and democratic it is. It does not shy away from subtle criticisms of Leary and Ram Dass—indeed the director, Gay Dillingham, remarks on Leary’s efforts to positively affect ’60s culture, while having to deal with personal failings (see above interview). The documentary reveals the fresh approach the two took to drugs; they’re shown researching side effects with academic rigor and contemplating the drugs’ use for medicinal purposes. Leary proposed the licensing and thorough background checks for safe and regulated drug use, predicting the negative impacts of their criminalization. This is also a testimony for why, despite being a historical documentary in some ways, this film is contemporary and relevant in the present day in fostering and encouraging such discussion.

Even if you are not interested in these topics, watch this film for how fascinating and eventful the lives of these two figures are. It does a good job of juxtaposing both humorous and heartfelt moments to paint a complete picture of how the lives of these men diverged. One particularly memorable portion of the film explained how Leary had to take a personality test he created himself upon admittance into prison. After taking the test and being placed in a minimum security facility, he escaped to Algeria.

Eventually, the film feels a little too lengthy, and the discussion of death begins in an abrupt and somewhat random fashion. The film overtly glorifies their lives; in some ways viewers may be inclined to disagree with their perspective on some topics. However, it is a very interesting and fruitful watch. You’ll learn about the lives and views of two icons who influenced an entire generation of people.

Dying to Know: Ram Dass and Timothy Leary is directed by Gay Dillingham, and is showing at St. Anthony Main Theatre starting Friday, February 19.

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