From postwar Parisian expatriate to New York intellectual to long-haired guru, Harold L. Humes embodied the enthusiasms and excesses of his time.
HOLLYWOOD — "Doc," which airs tonight as part of the PBS series "The Independent Lens," is a daughter's film about a difficult father. Immy Humes is the filmmaker; her subject is Harold L. Humes — nicknamed Doc after a genius in the "Buck Rogers" comic strip — whose claim to fame is that he co-founded the literary journal the Paris Review, although he didn't stick around long to run it.
He also wrote two well-received novels, "The Underground City" (1958) and "Men Die" (1959), and ran Norman Mailer's first campaign for mayor of New York. Interviewed here, the late Mailer calls Doc "one of the few people I have ever met who was ... more vain, more intellectually arrogant than I was," which, given the source, must be accounted great praise.
Early promise (and a growing family) gave way, however, to a wayward path defined by a fearsome intellect, short attention span and increasing mental illness exacerbated by too much LSD. From postwar Parisian expatriate to New York intellectual to long-haired guru, Doc embodied the enthusiasms and excesses of his time. Although Immy Humes is an experienced filmmaker — her 1991 short "A Little Vicious," about a pit bull, was nominated for an Oscar — "Doc" has a raggedy, patchwork, almost slapdash feel.
The film, in its mismatched bits and pieces, obviously has been a while in the making — Doc, who died in 1992 of prostate cancer, is interviewed, as are the no-longer-living Mailer, George Plimpton (who became skipper of the Paris Review), William Styron and Timothy Leary. Its main appeal will be to students of Cold War counterculture and literary movements, the precursors to "the crazy surrealist left" of Abbie Hoffman, in Mailer's phrase.
Although his inspirations ultimately failed to play out into anything like a living, Doc stayed busy. He hustled chess, played jazz piano, shot an underground film and designed a weatherproof, fireproof paper house for the Third World. (Factories were set up, but Doc ran his business into the ground before it got off the ground.) He had theories about massage and about marijuana. He feared microwaves, thought clouds could see us, saved his hair and nail clippings. He was institutionalized in England after being found talking to a bedpost he believed to be bugged by the queen.
Of course, in those days paranoia was regarded by many as just a sharper view of reality. (And it did turn out that the FBI had watched him for years.) Doc was not the only erudite, idealistic lunatic with a following. Haunting his daughters' colleges, he attracted self-styled "Docolytes." Novelist Paul Auster, who met Doc while a student at Columbia and who briefly took him in, calls him a "hipstery visionary neo-prophet." Doc had arrived on campus to distribute free money, imagining that by doing so he could "disenchant" the people from its control and bring down the government. "Most crazy people are kind of repulsive," Auster says. "He was like a magnet."
Ironically, it was his terminal cancer that got Doc on the medication that enabled him to have, at last, a comparatively normal relationship with his four daughters. "Anybody who wants to see this film for free can get their money back," he told Immy then. "That way they know you're making it for love and not for money."
That (in a good way) is clearly the case.