I can see why Errol Morris was drawn to Joanna Harcourt-Smith, Timothy Leary’s romantic partner for a handful of years in the 1970s. Her story combines elements often explored in his documentaries: mind control by nefarious government agencies (Wormwood), an affinity to American counterculture (The B-Side), and the human proclivity for self-deception (American Dharma, The Unknown Known, and Oscar winner The Fog of War).
Yet his feature-length interview of the late Harcourt-Smith (she died last month) doesn’t cohere into a deep or compelling narrative; indeed, this is the weakest Morris work I’ve seen. The director has spoken of how she reached out and persuaded him to make her a documentary subject, and how he ended up liking her immensely. I’m left to wonder if his affection prevented him from challenging her when she hedged, or when her story didn’t add up, as he did while interviewing Steve Bannon, Donald Rumsfeld, and Robert McNamara, to such potent effect.
This is regrettable, because it would’ve been easy for an artist of Morris’ talents to craft a tale both fascinating and relevant out of these threads. Harcourt-Smith was born a child of unimaginable privilege; her wealthy stepfather employed 70 servants in their Paris home and Mediterranean villa. But dirty money didn’t purchase happiness, especially with a mother traumatized by her experiences as a Polish Jew across two world wars.
After her mother turned a blind eye to her molestation by a chauffeur, Harcourt-Smith precociously concluded that seduction would be her path to contentment. Embodying the Electra complex, she kept company with an older arms dealer before meeting Leary. Despite the quarter-century age difference, the two fell hard for each other.
By this time, the psychologist had long since been booted from Harvard’s faculty and was famous (or notorious) as the counterculture’s “high priest of LSD.” But President Nixon, in the opening skirmishes of our country’s war on drugs, had Leary on the run, determined to arrest and make a felonious example of him.
As such, My Psychedelic Love Story is a zippy travelogue of hastily-visited destinations, one step ahead of US authorities: San Francisco, lakeside Europe, Afghanistan. Along the way, Harcourt-Smith name-drops abundantly, crossing paths with celebrities like Andy Warhol, Francis Ford Coppola, and Keith Richards.
Amidst these details, we get no sense of the pair on the run. Besides the daily doses of psychedelics mixed with cocaine, what drew this pair together? Leary asserts that Harcourt-Smith is the world’s smartest woman, and she gushes over their “perfect love,” but what comprised this love, and where’s the evidence of her brilliance? Similarly, Leary is a seminal figure of the 1960s, but we learn next to nil about him as a person, beyond his perpetually camera-ready smile and his embrace of New Age spirituality.
Harcourt-Smith voices suspicion that she was drugged by the CIA, facilitating deeds as counterculture turncoat. But we’re given no proof of this, and when she speaks of wearing a wire, Morris fails to press her for specifics. Asked if she snitched to the feds on the whereabouts of a Weather Underground safe house, she pauses, then exhales an affectless, unbelievable “I don’t remember.” And thus, limply and lamely, ends that line of questioning.
Morris keeps his story bopping along with fast-paced editing, the better to distract from the thinness of his material. Animated Tarot cards symbolize our protagonists’ immersion in mystical woo, while stamped images of animals and airplanes on blotter paper wittily accompany the travelogue.
The contemporary relevance of My Psychedelic Romance is inescapable (but scarcely plumbed), as Leary was only first blood in a catastrophic drug war continued through multiple Presidential administrations. The wasted resources on Leary’s government monitoring are likewise emblematic of our exponentially expanded surveillance state. And it seems Leary was right about the therapeutic potential of psychedelics, in light of the promising peer-reviewed studies and ongoing FDA trials for their use in depression, PTSD, and coping with terminal cancer.
I only wish Morris’ latest were up to his usual high standard for his one-person character studies. Whether due to his lax interrogation, or whether this was indeed true of Harcourt-Smith, she comes across as self-infatuated with her seductive power, shallowly focused on the superficial trappings of wealth and celebrity. To adapt a phrase from Socrates, the unexamined life is not worth filming.
(My Psychedelic Love Story premieres on Showtime this Sunday.)
(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )