Pubdate: Fri, 27 Nov 2020
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: John Anderson


In approaching Errol Morris's "My Psychedelic Love Story," it doesn't
hurt to have some familiarity with "Wormwood," the 2017 Netflix
docudrama miniseries. In it, the fabled documentarian told the story
of Frank Olson, a CIA employee who mysteriously fell to his death in
1953 nine days after being slipped LSD as part of an agency
experiment. Was he pushed or did he jump? Was hippie socialite Joanna
Harcourt-Smith being used as a CIA tool when her boyfriend, Timothy
Leary, became a government informant in the mid-'70s? And what in the
world is the connection?

LSD, for one thing. Leary, a psychologist who'd been fired from
Harvard for his early experimentation with psychedelic drugs, was
considered the "high priest" (all puns intended) of hallucinogens and
at one point was dubbed the most dangerous man in America by Richard
M. Nixon. Ms. Harcourt-Smith, who became involved with Leary in the
'70s after his escape from prison, was what was usually termed a
jet-setter, a happy vagabond with an ornate pedigree, a luxurious
lifestyle and no visible means of support. She delivers a veritable
torrent of stories for Mr. Morris, who for all his cerebral
meditations on objective truth is essentially a storyteller himself.
She also wonders, 40 years later and after having seen "Wormwood,"
whether her role in Leary's downfall had been a part of the War on

Based on Ms. Harcourt-Smith's 2013 memoir, "Tripping the Bardo With
Timothy Leary: My Psychedelic Love Story" (she died in October), the
Morris film is basically one long narrative, a name-dropping extravaganza:

Those with whom Ms. Harcourt-Smith enjoyed fewer than six degrees of
separation include the Rolling Stones, Diane von Furstenberg, Francis Ford
Coppola, Adnan Khashoggi, Andy Warhol, Charles Manson and Benito
Mussolini. Her mother gave birth to her in St. Moritz, Switzerland, while
playing bridge. She claims her stepfather, Arpad Plesch, who married
both her grandmother and mother, swindled and then denounced fellow
Jews during the Holocaust. She and Leary took acid while inside Folsom
Prison (where Leary had the cell next to Manson's). The tales are
flamboyant. They may even be true.

Mr. Morris is among the most intellectual of documentary makers, but
on an artisanal level his trademark is the head-on confrontation, the
face-to-face interview. In refining that process, he developed the
Interrotron, which enables him to interview a subject eye-to-eye while
still having that subject look directly into the camera. (It was first
used on the Oscar-winning "The Fog of War.") In "My Psychedelic Love
Story" (available Sunday at 9 p.m. on Showtime), he has taken the
mechanics of movie journalism a step further: Ms. Harcourt-Smith, who
is a captivating narrator and knows how to balance shameless charm and
self-effacement, is shot with four cameras and shown from various
angles inside the film's Massachusetts interview location. There are
virtually no interruptions to her story or statements, none of the
conventional cuts. Even as she's telling some tale, the perspective
moves around the room, the effect being a further fragmentation of the
reality being recounted, or created. It's not an entirely new thing,
but it's a film-nerd treat and a fascinating technique, almost as
fascinating as the subject herself.

-Mr. Anderson is a Journal TV critic. Joe Morgenstern is on vacation.