In the decades since he became famous as a bearded countercultural icon, Ram Dass has cut his hair and grown older. These days the author of Be Here Now looks just like anybody else laughing in family photos, mouth open and smile tinged yellow. But when he meets with his old friend Timothy Leary, best known for advocating the therapeutic use of LSD beginning at Harvard in the 1960s, the exchange is both tender and electric.
Dying to Know explores the friendship between the two men and how their experiments and inquiries into enlightened altered consciousness radically changed the mainstream conversation on drugs and spirituality. Though sometimes clumsy or nostalgic, the film is an engaging oral history of Leary and Dass’s friendship. Through a combination of archival footage, interviews with people connected to the two men, and a central, movie-long dialogue between Dass and Leary themselves, director Gay Dillingham builds a dynamic if occasionally rough narrative with an intimate feel.
The friends reflect on the lessons they’ve learned in a lifetime of spiritual questing and face Leary’s inoperable cancer head on. Death, they suggest, is the only sure thing. By living truly now, we can meet the end without fear or pain. Leary speaks matter-of-factly about the relationship between himself and his cancer and how they both inhabit his body; it’s moving and revelatory.
The final, most profound section of the film is clunky, with too many dramatic fade-outs and silences. Ram Dass might say that the succession of false endings creates for the viewer an experience of death and renewal, of unmet expectations several times over — an opportunity to cultivate the detached, accepting attitude he and Leary have spent their lives promoting.
Dying to Know: Ram Dass and Timothy Leary
Directed by Gay Dillingham
Opens August 26, Landmark Sunshine
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 10, 2016