“You’re as young as the last time you really changed your mind,” the late psychedelic guru Timothy Leary tells debate moderator Carole Hemingway in the documentary film Return Engagement. The film pits Leary, champion of the radical left and heralded voice of 1960s counterculture in a philosophical and ideological debate against G. Gordon Liddy, unapologetic Watergate conspirator and militaristic right-wing mouthpiece.
Return Engagement is scheduled to be screened at 8 p.m. Wednesday, February 2nd, at Seven Dudley Cinema a.k.a. Sponto Gallery, 7 Dudley Ave., Venice. Not Too Much Remember, an 11-minute abstract found footage film depicting paranoia as a higher state of consciousness, directed by Tony Gault, is also scheduled to be screened at the event. Admission is free.
Director Alan Rudolph’s Return Engagement is a ping-pong of polarized ideas from two men often viewed as leading demagogues of the 1960s, whose ideas and actions heavily influence aspects of American culture to this day.
Leary was a humanistic psychologist and philosopher who, along with Richard Alpert, was responsible for much of the early research on psychedelic drugs, including LSD (Lysergic Acid), psilocybin (mushrooms) and mescaline (from the peyote cactus), that took place at Harvard University in the late 1950s.
From their research, the two were convinced of the consciousness-expanding and mind-expanding properties of the drugs.
Leary and Alpert also piqued the interest and collaborated with leading Beat generation literary figures Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and philosopher of Eastern mysticism Alan Watts, scholarly thinkers who were open to new ideas and chemical experimentation.
Their research became too controversial for Harvard, once complaints were made by parents that Leary and Alpert were permitting there students to experiment with drugs, and they were fired.
They continued their privately funded research for a time at a large estate in Millbrook, New York.
Enter G. Gordon Liddy, a young assistant district attorney whose jurisdiction included Millbrook. Liddy made it his personal crusade to prosecute Leary and company and shut down their drug research operation. Initial attempts at prosecution failed, but FBI pressure did succeed in shutting down the research facility in Millbrook.
Later on, as a Nixon administration staffer, Liddy was instrumental in helping to shape Nixon’s vigilant anti-drug policy, which favored police search powers over Fourth Amendment principles.
Liddy also was in the Korean War and served with the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover before taking the Nixon post.
After taking part in Senate hearings and court battles in failed attempts to try to convince officials of the positive effects of psychedelics, Leary decided to change his approach.
He sought the advice of philosopher and cultural analyst Marshall McLuhan, who advised Leary to improve his public image. McLuhan encouraged Leary to spread his message to the youth culture, to always smile when photographed, to radiate courage and present all of the positive things he associates with psychedelics.
Through the 1960s and early 1970s, Leary became a guru of the youth counterculture and the anti-war movement, and he held philosophical “be-ins” with rock mega-stars such as John Lennon, Eric Burdon and The Grateful Dead.
His catch phrase, “Turn On, Tune In and Drop Out,” came to define the youth culture of that generation.
For both Leary and Liddy, a big part of the 1970s was spent serving time in Federal prison.
Liddy, along with trained assassin and one-time CIA operative E. Howard Hunt, were instrumental figures in the Watergate break-ins that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
Leary was arrested on a drug possession charge when a small quantity of drugs was found in a vehicle he was traveling in, and he eventually received a sentence of several years stemming from the offense.
Before long, Leary was busted out of jail by the Weather Underground, a militant New Left political organization which opposed the Vietnam War.
He turned up with exiled Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver in Algeria. After leaving Algeria, he was later extradited back to the United States, in 1974.
His sentence was commuted in 1976 by California governor Jerry Brown.
Liddy had received a 20-year sentence for his role in Watergate, but was granted clemency by President Jimmy Carter and was released in 1977.
In Return Engagement, both men touch on their time served, and they defend the actions that led to their incarceration.
At the time that Return Engagement was filmed in 1983, both men were on the college lecture circuit and had become authors.
The moderated debate takes place in front of an audience at the Wilshire Ebell Theater in Los Angeles, and the documentary includes private interviews with both men, as well footage of luncheons, parties and social events, at one of which a pre-“Governator” Arnold Schwarzenegger is seen schmoozing with Liddy.
The documentary also shows private one-on-one discussions between Leary and Liddy which are dominated by constant bickering and disagreeing between the men, who oddly enough, by that point, had become friends.
“He’s a philosopher — it’s just that his philosophy is terrible,” says Liddy about Leary.
At one point, Leary attacks Liddy as being a typical lawyer and calls him part of a group of “intellectual hitmen.”
“Lawyers worship precedent in the past,” says Leary. “They have no interest in truth. Liddy’s mind is based on worshipping tradition. I’m a futurist.”
Leary goes on to talk about what he called the United States “addiction to war” that developed after World War II when the mind-frame that we must be continually at war with some country for some reason prevailed over the old view of war only by necessity.
In the documentary, Liddy appears completely unapologetic, even proud, of his role in the Watergate break-in.
“What we had going on in the 1960s was a situation in which the republic had not been in such danger since the Civil War,” says Liddy. He then goes on to say that in certain instances, “in defense of the Republic,” that breaking the law is necessary.
The viewer also gets to hear Liddy sternly explain his views on when it is and is not OK to commit an assassination in defense of the United States government.
Leary goes on to call the United States government a “mafia,” though perhaps the “greatest mafia of all,” he says.
In February, Liddy will celebrate his 13th anniversary of being a high-rated rabble-rousing conservative talk radio show host among the ranks of Rush Limbaugh and Bob Grant.
Leary died in 1996 at the age of 75 after a bout with prostate cancer. Once he knew he was near the end, Leary took part in what he called “designer dying,” a very public and jubilant dying period, with lavish parties, documented and surrounded by friends and admirers. A philosopher to the very end, Leary’s last words were “Why… Why… Why… Why not?” according to Venice resident and Leary friend Michael Segal, who says he was among those at his deathbed.
Information, (310) 306-7330.