It's Rudolph's only documentary and is not essential viewing – if you're unfamiliar with his work, check out his films Choose Me, Trouble in Mind, or Afterglow first. But if you already know his work, or you're interested in the lives and public personas of Timothy Leary and G. Gordon Liddy, the film is definitely worth a look.
It was shot when Leary and Liddy became a sort of “comedy team” on the lecture circuit, cordially “debating” each other in various cities during the early Eighties. What we see of their stage encounter in Return Engagement indicates that their speeches were learned by heart and their disagreements over various issues were most likely repeated verbatim on every stop on the tour.
Rudolph is a master of the “small film” and understated emotion, so it's fascinating to see him use a similarly personal approach for a documentary. The only problem here is that Leary and Liddy had honed their personas so well by the Eighties that they were close to being cartoon characters: the kooky, mellow-as-anything, Sixties acid guru and the equally kooky, hyper-macho, right-wing extremist.
“There is no there there” with either man. During a scene where Rudolph films the men with their wives, one gets the sense that, while the scene isn't exactly staged, the couples have still worked out their “roles” to an almost unnerving degree.
The positive aspect of the film is its time capsule quality. Liddy is filmed working out at the gym, while Leary – who declares himself a “futurist” above all – is seen typing away on a word processor, extolling the virtues of computers as he works on the manuscript of his latest book. To further situate where the American public was in '83, the film's opening scene has people on the street being asked what they know about the two men. Those interviewed seem to be “remembering” two figures from a somewhat distant (but actually somewhat recent) past.
Perhaps the film would've worked better if Rudolph or his surrogate, interviewer (and event moderator) Carole Hemingway, had challenged both men more about the depth of their beliefs; as it stands, she asks Leary about his “show-biz” aspect and Liddy about his fondness for talking about murder, but little is revealed in the process. Rudolph's assignment in this case was to film the debate and add some colorful moments around the event, so one can't expect very much.
According to a 2013 interview with Rudolph, he looks back at the film as a “strangely satisfying experience. It took a few days to film and a long time to edit and nothing was written other than necessary information.” He refers to the debate as a “dog-and-pony show” and notes that he made the film for producer Carolyn Pfeiffer to basically work his way toward making a fiction film with “complete independence” in the shooting and editing (the result was Choose Me).
He also reveals in the same interview that “At the ‘breakfast with spouses’ segment, Mrs. Liddy showed up with a fresh black eye under her sunglasses.” You can see the bruise in the film – some makeup was applied, but it's still visible.
A few moments in the “debate” are galvanizing, as when Liddy casually discusses how murder factors into the running of the U.S. government, and when Leary is confronted by an angry blind man who claims his disability was caused by Leary's advocacy of hallucinogens (as kids on LSD shot this gentleman, blinding him). For the most part, though, one gets the impression one is watching a fairly “scripted” bit of stagecraft – Leary in particular walks back and forth on the stage, while the more stolid Liddy stays planted where he is when it's his turn to stand and talk.
Rudolph wisely includes at the end of the picture long scenes from high school classroom sessions run individually by Liddy and Leary. Both men come off far better in these sequences than they do onstage. They situate themselves historically for the students and defend themselves against some very pointed questions – by comparison, the debate comes off as the publicity stunt it most surely was.
In closing, though, I must mention the film's most jarring scene, which is a cocktail party held in honor of the two men early on in the film. The attendees at the party include Geraldo Rivera, Marjoe Gortner, Maria Shriver, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harry Nilsson, and Cheech Marin (!). At one point, Leary wonders where “Bob” is. When asked why he cares so much, the perpetually turned-on guru replies, “Bob got the cocaine.” One wonders if Rudolph has any outtakes from this blissfully tacky gathering….
The film can be found two places online. The first is on YouTube in three parts. The first part of the film is here at 8:41. In both this posting and the one on the archive.org site, the film follows two episodes that Leary did with Bob Costas (this is apparently because these items were on the first volume of a series of VHS tapes featuring Leary movie and TV appearances). The film begins at 41:49 on the archive.org posting, which is embedded below.
Full disclosure: I run the Alan Rudolph fan page on Facebook. "Like" the page if you're a fan of Rudolph's work. It is located at this link.