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Huxley on Huxley

Director: Mary Ann Braubach
Cast: Aldous Huxley, Laura Huxley, Ram Dass, Don Bachardy

(Braubach Productions; US DVD: 27 Jul 2010)

It’s a bit of a puzzle as to what the title of Mary Ann Braubach’s documentary Huxley on Huxley refers to. Publicity materials suggest the film will present Laura Huxley’s reflections on her husband Aldous (the DVD jacket says that it offers “An intimate glimpse of literary giant ALDOUS HUXLEY from the woman who knew him best”), but after watching the film I’d have to say the real subject is Laura Huxley’s reflections about herself.


Not that there’s anything wrong with that, providing you are interested in her life and work, but it’s surely a harder sell to the general public than a film about her more famous husband. Let’s see: Aldous wrote A Brave New World and was one of the leading public intellectuals of the 20th century while Laura wrote several self-help books and a memoir of her husband.


The most interesting aspect of Laura Huxley’s life, to me at least, is that she lived through most of the 20th century and took part in or was affected by many of the major historical events and social currents of the times. She was born Laura Archera in Italy in 1911 and was a violin prodigy who performed at Carnegie Hall in 1937. Finding herself unable to return home because of World War II, she went to Hollywood where she worked as a film editor (rather briefly and unsuccessfully according to her own testimony).


She met Aldous Huxley in 1948 while seeking an author for a documentary film she was planning and married him in 1956 after the death of Huxley’s first wife Maria. Their home was meeting place for the mid-century Hollywood intellectual elite: regular guests included Orson Welles, Igor Stravinsky, Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy. She became a psychotherapist (exactly what that means in terms of training and practice is not made clear in this film), participated in some of her husband’s experiments with mind-altering drugs and aspects of the Human Potential movement, and published several best-selling self-help books of which the most famous may be is You are Not the Target.


The film is structured around video interviews with Laura Huxley (by my calculations she would have been in her 80s at the time), which gives the film a rambling, unfocused quality and will try the patience of viewers hoping for more hard information and analysis. I will grant that she’s pretty sharp and has some interesting things to say, but still there’s way too much of Laura Huxley exercising on the treadmill, Laura Huxley attempting to play the trumpet and Laura Huxley cavorting with her great grand-nephews as if she were your favorite elderly relative and therefore everything she did was of intrinsic interest.


Now and then, as if remembering the promises made on the DVD jacket, the film shows us Aldous Huxley being interviewed by Mike Wallace or Edward R. Murrow or treats us to heavy-handed narration such as “Aldous, a searing social critic, wrote essays, books and articles on topics that are still relevant today.” By failing to pick a lane, if you will, the film succeeds neither as a portrait of Laura Huxley (among other things, it fails to convince the viewer of why she is worth 58-minutes of their time) while failing to provide much in the way of new information about Aldous Huxley. The film features is a steady succession of talking heads including Don Bachardy, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Nick Nolte with others (including Timothy Leary and Christopher Isherwood) appearing on archival footage but much of what they have to say is heavier on anecdote than substance.


The most useful part of this documentary is the attention paid to the Huxley’s experiments with psychedelic drugs including LSD and mescaline (a fact not frequently emphasized in my school curriculum, to be sure). Aldous Huxley, patrician to the core, felt that such drugs were properly used as a path to self-enlightenment and should be restricted to “learned people” who were presumably deserving of such insights and able to handle them. This contrasts with his acquaintance Timothy Leary, who thought everyone should have access. How wonderfully ironic, then, that Huxley’s 1954 book The Doors of Perception should have supplied the name for a certain psychedelic rock band featuring Jim Morrison as their lead singer (a point confirmed in this film in an interview with Doors’ drummer John Densmore).


Extras on the disc include 46-minutes of “interview outtakes” (unused footage) and a seven-minute photo montage which feels like a core dump, as if the filmmaker wanted to include every picture in her possession on the disc but wasn’t interested in taking the time to add identifying information which would have made them more useful to the viewer. True, many are photos of Laura and/or Aldous, but information about the date and place, at a minimum, would have been welcome.


In the end I’m not sure who, beyond people who are endlessly fascinated by the Huxleys and/or the human potential movement, constitute the market for this film. The 58-minute length suggests that public television was an initial target (although the publicity materials don’t mention an airing dates) and it’s also a format that would work well for schools although students may quickly lose patience with the rambling nature of the presentation.

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