Brimming with energy and charisma, Harold L. "Doc" Humes was a co-founder of The Paris Review, free-speech militant, nonstop talker, fierce intellectual, writer of two acclaimed novels, hashish smoker, jailhouse tutor and hip fixture in the culture scenes of Paris, London and Greenwich Village. He contrived a marvelous plan of making paper houses for Third World nations, produced and directed an underground film that mirrored the life of Don Quixote (titled Don Peyote), was monitored by the CIA and hung out with some of the great literary giants of the 1950s and '60s. By 1966 he had spent time in a mental institution and by the '70s had turned into a mad visionary genius.
"He was brilliant," said author Norman Mailer, describing H.L. Humes in Doc, a new documentary that opens this year's Margaret Mead Film Festival on Nov. 8. "He was the only person I ever met who was more vain, more arrogant than I was at that time."
Directed by his daughter, Immy Humes, and featuring interviews with Timothy Leary, George Plimpton, Norman Mailer, Paul Auster, Paul Mathiessen and others, Doc channels whole decades of American cultural history through its subject, revealing a personal yet unsentimental portrait of the man against the backdrop of his times. "I grew up with this huge mythology about him," said Immy Humes, whose parents divorced when she was young and whose famous father died in 1992. "As a little kid and all through my life there was this sort of legend about Doc. Often we didn't have the man but we had this legend. So that added to the embroidery -- his own absence added to it."
In attempting to understand this mythology, Humes felt compelled to tell his story -- not only as a way of understanding her own family dynamic, but also as a way to show his portrait to the world. Through an imaginative use of drawings, writing snippets, stills, home movies, interviews, archival footage of New York, Paris, and London and a vibrant jazz soundtrack, the filmmaker mixes elements as textured as the subject himself.
"Often I find that a good subject for a film is a person who you can't quite put your finger on," Humes said. "He was always someone I found impossible to explain to anyone who asked me anything about my father. To me, that's a good sign that there's something there. I wanted to make this film to explain him to the world."
Mead Film Festival co-director Elaine Charnov recognized its importance immediately. "It really places her father in the context of American social and political history in addition to having all of that unique family perspective," she told The Reeler. "She brought such texture to her family story so that it's not just a myopic view. Only she could have made that film, and that's what we look for in the Mead: the really unique projects."
A larger-than-life character who knew everyone on the intellectual literary scene at the time, Doc Humes also had a dark side to his personality that his daughter doesn't shy away from. He was often difficult to be around; in his later years, was in and out of mental institutions. Often his children wouldn't see him for long periods of time while he was away saving the world, starting other families or pursuing his creative life.
"Even as a little girl people would say, 'Oh, your father -- what a genius, what a wonderful man,' " Humes said. "And other people would be groaning, 'Oh, what a pain in the ass. How can you deal with such a father?' So in that way I started getting reflections back from the world. People just talked about him as some sort of mythological creature."
Yet by the time Humes got the idea to do the film, her father was already in a hospice. She did one interview with him and then put the footage away, not looking at it for a long time, feeling too inhibited about what she had started to do. Finally she proceeded in what she calls a crab-like way, filming a little at a time, seeking the archival footage, gathering interviews with her father's many friends, famous and non-famous alike. When she received some seed money from a family friend to travel to Paris and interview George Plimpton (another co-founder of The Paris Review), the project began to take off. Humes went to London and Italy during the same trip, retracing Doc's steps and interviewing members of his second family.
Although one might assume the reason Humes took so long to complete the film is because she is so close to the subject, she denies this. "It would have been hard for anyone because he is a difficult subject, because he's so hard to pin down," Humes said. "Also he did so many different things and his character is sort of complex."
David Amram, a composer who was a friend of Doc Humes' and who will join the filmmaker in a discussion after the screening, agreed. "He didn't fit into any political category, but he was very concerned about justice for people at a time when it didn't really seem to be a priority," he said. "Like Kerouac, a lot of these people are now being appreciated for the first time, and there's a much larger sense of the work."
To the filmmaker's credit, she achieves a piece that is not only a portrait of her father but also gives viewers a glimpse into a figure that belongs to the culture at large. "My hope was that by telling this particular story -- his own drama, which I find interesting and moving and complicated -- it also is telling a larger history."
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