Volume 77 / Number 34 Jan. 23 - 29, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Malcolm Einaudi; Fondazione Guilio Einaudi

The legendary Doc Humes

Re-examining the life of Doc Humes

DOC: A Portrait of the Life and Times of Harold L. Humes,
Literary Phenomenon and Eccentric Extraordinaire
Opens Wed., Jan. 23
Film Forum
209 W. Houston St. near Varick
(212-727-8110; filmforum.com)

By Kathi Berke

The question running throughout Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Immy Humes’ portrait of her father, “Doc,” is this: Was Doc (Harold L. Humes) a visionary or a madman? Or both? Immy Humes had little contact with her father while growing up and her film attempts to fill in the blanks, with on-camera reminiscences from such luminaries as Timothy Leary, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Paul Auster, William Styron and Peter Matthiessen.

Harold L. Humes (nicknamed “Doc” after the mad scientist in Flash Gordon comics) was precocious, attending M.I.T. at the age of 16. He became a literary phenomenon in 1958 at the age of 32 when he published his first novel “The Underground City,” following up with a second novel, “Men Die,” in 1960. Called “alarmingly brilliant” by the New York Times, these books took on the themes of war, racism, politics and conspiracy.

For the next five decades, Humes had his finger in many cultural pies, beginning in the 1950s in Paris, where he founded The Paris Review with George Plimpton and Peter Matthiessen. He made a Beat film version of Don Quixote called “Don Peyote,” the footage of which is threaded throughout the movie. He designed and built a fireproof paper house strong and simple enough for people to live in, fought the suppression of folk music at Washington Square Park, fought the cabaret card laws which prevented people like Billie Holiday and Lenny Bruce from performing, managed Norman Mailer’s 1961 run for NYC mayor and championed the cause of medical marijuana and body massage to lessen anxiety and pave the way for a modern utopia.

Flashes of mental instability offset his brilliance. At one point he was institutionalized in London when his colleagues Plimpton and Matthiessen came to visit. Matthiessen chose the occasion to reveal the fact that he had been a C.I.A. operative since 1953, the entire time he was at The Paris Review, a revelation that only increased Doc’s paranoia.

The format of the documentary underlines the duality of Doc as alternatively magnetic and repellent. Immy Humes shows footage of her father as a smiling, vibrant young man contrasted with later footage of her father as an aging hippie expounding on a variety of topics for his enraptured audience of acolytes, known as “docolytes.”

After his family, including Immy, fled to America from London because of his increasing inability to live with them, Doc dropped out of sight. He reemerged in the late 1960s at Columbia University and became famous for handing out $100 bills to flabbergasted students.

Eventually he was brought down by his mental illness, which was undiagnosed at the time but is now considered manic depression. This did not prevent him from discoursing on many subjects on which he is considered prescient, such as the government’s use of fear to control its subjects and the media’s deliberate obfuscation of the truth. And he may have been paranoid for good reason. Through the Freedom of Information Act, Immy Humes acquired the thick FBI file on her father that was opened in the late 1940s and continued until his death in 1992. J. Edgar Hoover himself signed off on many entries.

One comes away from “Doc” feeling that he was a towering figure neglected by history. Immy Humes does a marvelous job of exhuming his legacy and reclaiming his rightful place at the table.

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