Ram Dass, Fierce Grace

on May 21, 2001 by Jordan Reed
   Looking back on them now, the late '60s feel like a last hurrah for this country--the final time events and experiences seemed unique and legitimate, not in some way derivative of another era or based on capitalized nostalgia.

   Take LSD for example, which Ram Dass (nee Richard Alpert), the worshipfully-viewed subject of Mickey Lemle's pleasing documentary "Ram Dass Fierce Grace," took scads of while he and Timothy Leary were professors at Harvard. They and their cronies introduced acid to the culture, touting its ability to instigate self-awareness, and Harvard promptly fired them for their controversial, hands-on approach. Ram Dass (the name means "servant of God" in Hindu) abandoned hallucinogens and traveled to India later that decade. It was there he met Maharaj-ji, a saint who became his spiritual guide.

   Lemle focuses his story on Ram Dass in the present day, still an influential thinker and believer, but now a white-haired senior citizen coming to terms with the physical and mental effects of a stroke he suffered in 1997. It's easier and somehow more valid to witness Ram Dass's Free-to-Be-You-and-Me philosophy in practice immediately upon his return from India, when he established a makeshift commune on his father's three-hole golf course. That time was far less cynical than today, and the sight of a bunch of young people gathering together on a lawn and dancing around like pixies, while slightly amusing no matter when it takes place, made sense then in part because it was new at that time. Dass' post-stroke gatherings invite more skepticism, for although he remains a smart man, and a seemingly spiritual one as well, it's harder to take seriously the formulaic flourishes of the baby boomers that still follow him while they prance about as if at a Phish concert.

   And while Lemle does document the profound effect Ram Dass has had on a few of his followers--the most touching being a too-brief testimonial by a couple recounting the power of a letter he wrote to them after their daughter was murdered--more evidence of the influence his teachings have had would bolster his proud, gutsy, and challenging current state.    Directed and produced by Mickey Lemle. A TK release. Documentary. Not yet rated. Running time: 93 min.

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