The Reeler


January 22, 2008


Reasonably amusing portrait of literary flameout and acid burnout Humes strains for relevance

If you like watching talking heads idolize beat burn-outs while the same Charles Mingus jams loop over and over, you could do worse than Doc, daughter Immy Humes's stiffly anecdotal play-by-play of Harold "Doc" Humes's life. The kind of figure for whom book reviews were invented, his was a life better reconstructed by an acolyte in a devoted 500-page biography, then boiled down to interesting factoids in the Sunday papers.

During the post-WWII beat ascendency, Humes was always in the right place: co-founding The Paris Review while chatting up James Baldwin in sidewalk cafes; managing Norman Mailer's 1961 mayoral run and then wrestling the pen knife out of his hand after he stabbed his wife. Humes aspired to embody the zeitgeist, and he managed a good run. ("Attitude to life: that of hero in own novel," he scrawled in youth.) Then Timothy Leary dropped by with some LSD, and the bottom dropped out from under Humes. Once a bright young novelist on the rise, Humes became the original acid casualty.

After World War II, Princeton-born Doc Humes drifted over to Paris, where he sat around saying things like "Somebody ask me a question -- I feel like explaining something." Back in New York, he was just in time to join in a protest when the NYPD banned folk songs in Washington Square Park. (They should bring that back, really.) He worked for a while on an unfinished Cervantes update, Don Peyote; when he started getting really paranoid, no one noticed. "I was a little paranoid myself in those days," Mailer explains, "so I just took it as normal intelligence." When the acid finally wore off, Doc returned to the States from his paranoiac European vacation, stopping at Columbia to hand out cash to all comers. He wandered from Northeast campus to campus (crashing on Paul Auster's couch for a while, then popping up at Bennington to offer massage lessons and conspiracy theories in equal measure), acquiring a following of too-cutely named "Docolytes" in the process. Holding forth on everything from clouds (spiritual manifestations in disguise) to legalizing pot, his all-night raps influenced everyone but immediate family members. Oh, the irony.

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What we have here is no book review to be scanned in five minutes; this is 98 minutes of video documentary amateurishness. While complaining about earnest but hopelessly underwhelming documentaries is as effectual as candlelight vigils for world peace, Immy Humes (Oscar-nominated for a 1991 documentary short) earns a few extra words of condemnation for not even bothering to get a tripod. When Humes interviews Mailer, the camera bobs and weaves alarmingly and at one point comes close to decking him. In another egregiously sloppy moment, Humes gives someone a hug in mid-shot; the camera, presumably still stuck to her hand, stares into vacant space until it's over.

Doc Humes certainly wasn't a lazy person, but there's something lazy about this film's re-contextualization of him as someone who should be remembered because he once hung out with important people. If nothing else, Humes has gotten Humes père's two novels -- The Underground City and Men Die -- back in print. With Doc, however, Humes fixates on hackneyed mythologizing, de-emphasizing the books (whose genius is an apparent given) and focusing on insanity and vitality: the larger than life Zelig figure, who knew everyone and everything before being forgotten and then rediscovered by the next generation of hipsters. Trouble is, I can't see the automatic importance of crazy behavior; Doc is a collection of reasonably amusing anecdotes in search of relevance.

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