“He was brilliant. He was one of the few people I have ever met who was essentially, at bottom, more vain, more intellectually arrogant, than I was.”
DOC is an unorthodox portrait of the life and times of the almost forgotten, yet fascinating literary and counter-culture figure Doc Humes. Featuring a generation of cultural luminaries, from Timothy Leary to Norman Mailer, the film tells a moving story about the man who founded The Paris Review, wrote two great novels and then, after becoming mentally ill in the 1960s, reappeared as the original Hippie Philosopher King. A stylistically original take on a literary mind DOC is a political and personal tale filmed over many years by Immy Humes, an Academy Award–nominated filmmaker and Doc’s daughter.
Harold L. Humes, known by the nickname “Doc,” was brilliant and precocious (he went to MIT at age 16). In Paris after World War II, he founded The Paris Review—a magazine he envisioned as “by writers, for writers, with an emphasis on the act of writing itself.” He then wrote two acclaimed and ambitious political novels about war and what it does to people: one in 1958 and the other one year later, in 1959. The books were well received—The New York Times described Humes as “alarmingly talented”—but after the second book, he never wrote again. (Thanks to the film, Random House has recently republished both titles, The Underground City and Men Die, after decades out of print.)
A stellar cast of Doc’s family and friends—including writers George Plimpton, Norman Mailer, Peter Matthiessen, William Styron and Paul Auster; avant-garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas; and the pied piper of LSD, Timothy Leary—recall an extraordinary man who defied all categories and expectations.
After winning fame as a novelist, Doc quickly moved from one fascination to another. As Gay Talese writes, he “hit on a theory of cosmology that would jolt Descartes; played piano in a Harlem jazz club; shot a movie called Don Peyote, a Greenwich Village version of Don Quixote; and invented a paper house that was waterproof, fireproof and large enough for people to live in.”
“I didn’t know whether to kiss him or kill him!” —William Styron
With Jonas Mekas and others, he created the New American Cinema Group, which sought ways to have movies break away from “boredom” and incorporate new forms of creativity. He led crusades for free expression and against police brutality and helped abolish the “cabaret card” laws, notorious rules long used by the NYPD to bar artists—from Billie Holliday to Thelonious Monk to Lenny Bruce—from performing. He lived a wild, creative life that included leading a beatnik riot in Washington Square Park, championing the use of medical marijuana and managing Norman Mailer’s infamous 1961 run for mayor of New York.
By the mid-1960s, Doc was unable to write. And after taking a lot of LSD in London with Timothy Leary, he began showing signs of mental illness. He thought that he could intercept thoughts, that he could see dangers others could not and that he was being followed. He believed the CIA, among others, was spying on him. (One of the film’s most startling revelations is that the CIA had infiltrated The Paris Review crowd; Peter Matthiessen was, in fact, a CIA agent when he helped found the magazine.)
“The man talked a blue streak, chewing our ears off with a monologue that resembled nothing I had ever heard before. It was the rant of a hipster visionary neo-prophet.”
Doc reinvented himself, yet again, turning up on the Columbia University campus in 1969 giving away cash in a notorious piece of proto-performance art. For 25 years, Doc lived on or near college campuses, especially his alma mater Harvard, as a kind of resident crazy genius, surrounded by student acolytes who took care of him. He preached that we live in a society run by fear and shadowy powers, and that protest, the arts and healing—especially relaxation techniques using massage and marijuana—are necessary practices to preserve human freedom. Immy Humes, in Doc’s own words, “puts a frame around the wreckage” in this affectionate, yet disquieting portrait.
After Doc died of cancer in 1992, Immy filed a Freedom of Information Act request that eventually turned up a thick file. It turns out that the U.S. government was keeping tabs on Doc, from 1948 to 1977.
From filmmaker Immy Humes:
Many people I interviewed have died since I filmed them, because it took a long, long time to put this film together. So, starting with the main character, my father Doc Humes who passed away in 1992, a whole generation of famous American cultural figures followed him out the door, from Timothy Leary to William Styron, George Plimpton and Norman Mailer. It’s quite sad for me to watch the film now, as I miss all of them. I think that their generation did have a special something: they were into living large, thinking large, being engaged with values and ideas, acting out and taking risks. For better and for worse, they were different people than we are.