THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
There may be a story to be told about the LSD-fueled drug culture of the 60's, but Timothy Leary's Last Trip ain't it. This shoddily-produced 56-minute documentary offers nothing more than a gloss on the people surrounding the acid test movement. On paper, the participants, who have certainly collected an hour's worth of life experiences over the past 40 years, come off as potentially interesting: Leary, a Harvard professor inspired to conduct "experiments" involving LSD and trips into the internal soul, fired from Harvard and jailed on allegedly-trumped up drug charges (although why we should believe that the drugs were planted is beyond me); and Ken Kesey, a scholar and an athlete who stumbled upon LSD while participating in CIA-conducted experiments with mind-altering substances to help pay for school. The film, however, portrays them as boring, shallow people. The "experiments" are never explained and the journey into self is only spoken of in the broadest terms. No one seems truly enlightened or even aware of themselves enough to offer up more insightful comments than "Leary was THE man!" and "The sixties aren't over until the fat lady gets high!" Leary was apparently unaware that experimenting with drugs and conducting experiments with drugs are not the same thing. He seems to draw no conclusions and teaches nothing other than "people should be free." Is that a scientific statement?
Given the political and social turmoil of the country during that era, the pursuits of the subjects seem simply childish. No mention is made of the war in Viet Nam or the civil rights struggles raging from coast to coast. Basically these people come off as a privileged bunch of white guys and gals who just really like driving around in their painted bus getting high. Fun for them, perhaps, but not exactly compelling content for a movement or, for that matter, a documentary.
The truly sad thing about Timothy Leary's Last Trip is seeing how thirty years of intense drug use and inaction will corrode the body. Kesey, author of "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" appears in archival footage looking fit and handsome, like a young Paul Newman. By the time we reach the present, however, he looks so much like 'Gilligan's Island's Skipper that we keep expecting him to call Leary "lil' buddy." Leary himself, riddled with cancer at the end of his life, looks like a walking skeleton, an unfortunate image after the talking skeleton that narrates much of the film.
Even though they make numerous grand claims, Kesey and Leary seem to have nothing to talk about during their few brief encounters other than the fact that they are talking at all. Leary writes in one book that he and Kesey would stay in touch for the rest of their lives, but there is no evidence that they socialized at all out side of media-circuses, like Leary's final farewell, broadcast on the Internet. Why couldn't Kesey get his fat butt on a plane and visit the ailing Leary in person?
The style of the documentary doesn't help. Composed primarily of archival material mixed with amateurish new footage shot by directors A.J. Catoline and O.B. Babbs, the film has the feel of a cable access show. This is not necessarily a bad idea, considering the subject matter, but the incompetence of the production constantly gets in the way of the subject matter. There's the embarrassing skeleton narrator, the cheesy video effects, the blurry video footage, and the choppy editing (the entire 1970-1995 period is summed up in a ten second montage). Even worse than the skeleton is the film's other narrator, co-director Babbs, son of one of Kesey's original cronies. With his J. Crew catalog outfits and his Robert Rodriguez crossed with Roger Lodge looks, he is about as inappropriate as can be. His narration style is straight out of a "Sounds of the 80's" infommercial and his hyperbole is repetitive and annoying. Every statement seems to end in "...that was soon to be known as... THE ACID TEST!" or "...that would be called...THE NINETEEN-SIXTIES!"
Throw in a few interminable Grateful Dead musical sequences and a segment on a 16mm film that Kesey's Merry Pranksters shot on a cross-country bus trip that has all of the sophistication and thought of a child's recorded "radio show," and you'll quickly decide that your patience is on a much shorter trip than the filmmakers'.
It's impossible to judge the video in this presentation. It seems to have survived the transfer to DVD just fine, but it's not much to look at regardless. The new footage is typical camcorder and the Prankster footage is uniformly out of focus. It makes you realize that the idea of a psychedelic documentary is totally useless: Shooting reality through a drug-induced haze may be fun, but the footage will ultimately consist of hairy people wandering around aimlessly. Whatever "magic" was felt at the time will be long gone once the footage is assembled. I suspect that the final sequence of Kubrick's 2001 still holds more experiential truth for acid-freaks than any number of acid docos.
The audio is fine. There is nothing of note to report. If you like the Grateful Dead's lazy white-boy blues you'll like the music. If not, cover your ears.
Given the allusions to Prankster filmmaking and the fact that the drug culture of the 60's was so informed by music you'd expect a comprehensive set of extras. One trailer, however, is all you'll get.
You know you're out of ideas when you call your film Timothy Leary's Last Trip and talk endlessly about how he plans to die on the Internet only to announce his death in the end credit scroll with all of the drama of a toothpaste commercial. Given that at his death Leary requested that his head be removed and frozen intact so that he could be revived some day, this ending is amazingly incomplete. Why leave this tid-bit out? It couldn't be a tasteful omission, given that the head-freezing was Leary's own idea. Another documentary called Timothy Leary's Dead apparently shows this procedure in great, and gory, detail. This is perhaps a more fitting finale for a film about a man who claims to have understood the outer reaches of the brain. Timothy Leary's Last Trip, however, reduces that man, and his era, to a shallow, thought-free hour that will be more likely to convince you to tune out than drop in.
Gil Jawetz is a graphic designer, video director, and t-shirt designer. He lives in Brooklyn.
E-mail Gil at email@example.com