While perhaps slightly more superficial than a typical Morris, My Psychedelic Love Story is still another successful entry in the director’s continuing interrogation of late-1960s America.
While perhaps not apparent in every film he’s made, Errol Morris has long been hard at work on the project of sussing out exactly what happened in America at the end of the 1960s. Most famously, Morris got Robert McNamara to sort of admit to the illegality/immorality of the U.S. invasion of Vietnam in 2002’s The Fog of War, but recent films like The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography and Wormwood have found Morris returning to this historical moment from new angles, but with a similar intent to demystify. His latest film, My Psychedelic Love Story, is another go at sifting through the pervasive conspiracy and paranoia of that era, even acting as a sort of addendum to the aforementioned Wormwood. That film, released as a six part Netflix “docuseries” (yuck), apparently inspired Joanna Harcourt-Smith to approach Morris with the idea of adapting her biography into a similarly styled film. The resulting work is not quite as laborious as Wormwood, nor does it include that film’s extensive use of reenactment, but one quickly sees why Harcourt-Smith would recognize her own story in that film’s reckoning with the legacy of the C.I.A.’s MKUltra experiments.
Harcourt-Smith’s experience with psychedelics was, initially, nothing so sinister as what went on in the MKUltra program. Coming from a background of immense wealth (and terrible abuse), Harcourt-Smith fashioned herself into a socialite for the era of hallucinogens and free love, carrying on affairs with many of that scene’s biggest thinkers and artists, culminating in a “common-law marriage” with Timothy Leary from 1972 until 1977. My Psychedelic Love Story hones in on these years, using Harcourt-Smith’s biography of the same name as a framework to guide this latest Interrotron interview. The Leary/Harcourt-Smith union was a tumultuous, beautiful romance by the latter’s recounting, and yet it was ultimately poisoned when Leary, then a fugitive evading U.S. authorities, was arrested in Afghanistan and deported back to the U.S. Harcourt-Smith soon found herself accused of collaborating with the feds by Leary’s friends and peers, an accusation that she had long refuted until she viewed Morris’ Wormwood and began to entertain the possibility that she may have in fact aided in Leary’s apprehension, albeit as the result of unrecognized, complex manipulations.
Yet, while My Psychedelic Love Story concedes that Harcourt-Smith and Leary were certainly victims of the U.S. government’s war on drugs, the film is more interested in her subsequent demonization and its roots in misogyny. There is, perhaps, a superficial slightness to this project, especially in the wake of Morris’ last film, the wildly misunderstood American Dharma (a major “late work” if there ever was one), but My Psychedelic Love Story is more than a retreat from the controversies of that piece. It is, in fact, a necessary correction of the hero worship that so often seeps into contemporary depictions of America’s hippie movement (well-timed with the release of Netflix’s Trial of the Chicago 7). There’s no doubt that Leary and his cohorts were harassed and sabotaged by the U.S. government, victims of fascist overreach, but the sad truth of the matter is, the world that they were working towards wasn’t so radically different from the one they were born into.
You can watch Errol Morris’s My Psychedelic Love Story live on Showtime at 9:00 PM EST on November 29 or stream in On Demand following its premiere.