Scientist, novelist, activist, inventor, filmmaker, architect, prophet, healer and madman Harold L. (“Doc”) Humes was, by all accounts, an exhilarating, infuriating and terrifyingly brilliant man. His Oscar-nominated documentarian daughter Immy Humes has gathered testimonials from luminaries including Norman Mailer, William Styron and Timothy Leary, who experienced his erratic genius firsthand, and has skillfully interwoven them with archival footage into “Doc.” Fascinating, wryly distanced docu, which opened Jan. 23 at Gotham’s Film Forum, will likely get increased play with the upcoming reissue of H.L. Humes’ once lavishly lauded, long out-of-print novels.
“Doc” joins a growing body of films like “My Architect” or “The Morrison Project” which deal with a father in whom genius and madness battle, leaving their bemused offspring to record both the glory and the carnage.
Harold L. Humes, accepted into MIT at age 16, quit to join the Navy and hit Paris in the heady days after World War II, hanging out with American literati, brainstorming with James Baldwin and founding the influential Paris Review along with Peter Matthiesson and George Plimpton.
Casual footage from the era captures the excitement of liberation and the headiness of artistic ferment.
Doc’s restless mind had him jumping from one, often unfinished, project to the next, be it designing waterproof, fireproof, easy-to-assemble paper houses for Third World countries, collaborating with Jonas Mekas to form the New American Cinema Group, getting arrested while protesting the banning of folk singing in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park (headline: “3,000 Beatniks Riot in Village”), or organizing the Gotham intelligentsia to overturn corrupt New York City cabaret laws.
Rather than simply chronologically listing her father’s creative walkabouts, Immy imaginatively segues from unexpected angles, mapping out the complex historical, cultural and personal synapses that link the man to his times. Thus to cover his childhood, visual and audio excerpts from his two “alarmingly talented” novels lead to quotes from “Dorsey Slade,” an unfinished, highly autobio graphical fiction about a writer, as Doc/Dorsey’s words blend with Immy’s over photographs of Doc as a child.
Similarly, Doc’s stint as Norman Mailer’s campaign manager in Mailer’s run for mayor of New York, cut short when the candidate stabbed his wife (Doc was the one to grab the knife, calm down Mailer and send Adele to the hospital), leads to Mailer’s discussion of his mental breakdown and a comparison to Doc’s subsequent spiral into paranoia and violence. Immy herself, along with her sisters, recounts the terror of that time when Doc lost his career, marriage and sanity.
Meanwhile, the figure of Don Quixote recurs like a leitmotif throughout the film, both as a visual metaphor for Doc’s self-avowed utopianism, and in the form of “Don Peyote,” Doc’s “lost” zero-budget ’60s indie movie that Immy finally unearths in California. Droll excerpts from the film unspool in counterpoint to Doc’s final career as unofficial campus philosopher and guru.
An ironic footnote to Doc’s runaway paranoia is provided by Immy’s discovery, after his death, of fat files of constant CIA and FBI surveillance, some signed by J. Edgar Hoover.
Tech credits are first-rate, including inventive editing and Zev Katz’s jazz-laced score.