Now that quirky profile documentaries are as common as remakes of Japanese horror flicks, filmmaker Immy Humes scored a real coup for Doc in finding a legitimately strange cult figure with a fascinating backstory that hasn't been told before. Equal parts J.D. Salinger-style literary eccentric, Syd Barrett-style drug-crazed lunatic, and Zelig-style historical interloper, Harold Louis "Doc" Humes Jr. also was Immy's father, a role that inspired slightly less public enthusiasm than his stints as a novelist, Paris Review founder, filmmaker, political activist, and guru. There's nothing bitter, though, about the affectionate, affecting Doc.
Born with a brilliant analytical mind—a friend fondly recalls him saying, "Someone ask me a question, I feel like explaining something"—Humes went to MIT at 16. But an all-consuming wanderlust brought him to post-war Paris, a magical place where counterculture types could while away the days in cafés rubbing shoulders with ambitious young writers like James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and George Plimpton. The remainder of Humes' life plays like a sort of shadow history of the possibilities and limitations of a fringe hipster existence in the second half of the 20th century. Humes wrote two acclaimed novels—The Underground City and Men Die?—in the late '50s, but he was mostly given to pursuing hopeless, quixotic efforts ranging from building cheap paper houses for Third World countries to managing Norman Mailer's campaign to become mayor of New York City in 1961. (Fittingly, Humes also tried to make a silent, jazz-scored movie based on Don Quixote, called Don Peyote.) Introduced to LSD by Timothy Leary in 1966, Humes eventually deteriorated into violent paranoia, which killed his writing career and alienated him from his wife and three daughters. He spent the next two decades living near elite East Coast college campuses and accumulating a small army of "Docolytes" willing to trade spots on their couches for rambling lectures on media masquerades, massage techniques, or any subject currently captivating his overactive mind.
In spite of her deeply personal connection to her subject, Immy Humes doesn't appear to have an ax to grind in Doc. She handles the Humes' troubled home life delicately, and makes it secondary to her father's public misadventures. Doc makes an aggressive case for Humes being a lost literary genius—both his books were recently reissued—but he's more like a master bullshit artist who was able to endlessly re-invent himself because he could talk a blue streak. More notable perhaps for who he knew than what he did, Humes always commanded an audience, even among his famous friends. As Doc observes, most crazy people are repellent, but H.L. Humes was magnetic.