Films like Doc crop a few times a week on one's local PBS affiliate, and they're generally welcome. It would be difficult to find a developed Western nation that holds its intellectuals in lower esteem than America, and so it is usually nice to see them feted in whatever way possible, even if it is just for an hour or two on a Tuesday evening. It's a good thing for Doc, Immy Humes' pocket-sized documentary about her father Harold L. "Doc" Humes—who co-founded the Paris Review and wrote a couple of well-received novels before slipping into itinerant insanity—that as much as it resembles the well-meaning but often shallow gleanings of those works in style, it goes beyond them in substance.
For one thing, Doc himself holds pride of place in this film. Instead of simply being talked about in glowing, exasperated, abstracted terms by those who knew him, the bearded and kind-eyed "hipster visionary neo-prophet" (as he was termed by Paul Auster, who put him up on his couch while a Columbia student in the late 1960s), he's often there himself, whether in crackling Dictaphone recordings or film footage from various periods in his life. Having his daughter (Oscar-nominated for her 1991 documentary short, A Little Vicious) behind the camera opens the film up as well, and instead of being just another turn through a mostly forgotten corner of postwar American literary life, Doc becomes also an unsparingly personal though also warmly charitable portrait of an impossible man.
Doc started out a genius, then spent a couple of decades as a finger-popping, mind-blowing, beatnik jazz-freak gadfly, before collapsing into an unproductively pot-fueled paranoia that ended up being somewhat validated. Born in 1926, he breezed through Princeton and entered MIT at 16 before taking off and joining the Navy. Arriving in postwar Paris, he fell in with the American expat crowd, doing hashish with George Plimpton (an image if there ever was one) and jitterbugging through café society. A determined raconteur, Doc is remembered by one friend from this time as showing up and saying, "Somebody ask me a question. I feel like explaining something."
The so-called "Third Man" of the Paris trio who founded the literary journal The Paris Review in 1953 (along with Plimpton and Peter Matthiessen), Doc would forever after be tied to that singular creation, even if he did jump ship soon after it started in his usual ADD manner. Off to New York, Doc planted himself among the city's cognoscenti, making friends with everyone who mattered. Almost on a dare, he published a pair of avant-garde novels—The Underground City (1958) and Men Die (1960)—that were hailed as instant classics. He even shot a beat version of Don Quixote called Don Peyote that appears juvenile at best (Immy digs up the long-lost film in a dramatically lucky break), though having Ornette Coleman as an extra gives it inestimable points for cool. Doc helped Norman Mailer run for mayor, and was the one who talked the knife out of Mailer's hand after he stabbed his second wife.
After the early 1960s, things began to slip for Doc, and the previously celebratory recollections from his widow and children (who barely knew him, given his wandering nature) take on a darker hue. In the 1960s, Doc's always powerful paranoia began to take over his life; the film suggests this shift was prompted by Doc's discovery that Matthiessen had in fact used his stint at The Paris Review as cover while he was working for the CIA. (Immy's film appears to be the first public declaration of this connection.) The promising novelist's career ended and before long he essentially disappeared from the scene. Doc spent his time for the next few decades popping up on various college campuses and playing beloved hippie Aristotelian muse, dispensing hypnotic and occasionally demented raps in his resounding, Orson Welles-like voice to a shifting coterie of worshipful students.
Doc's intimacy can hurt the film at times; even though its interviewees are generally honest in their appraisals of a man who seems as extraordinary as he was impossible, the film can at times get lost in its own reverence, leading it dangerously closer to public-television territory. Fittingly, it was reported last year that Doc was scheduled to be broadcast as part of PBS’ “Independent Lens” series. Just as fittingly, the film is now being given a chance, however short, to be seen in a theatre as a proper documentary, its larger-than-life whirligig of hip on the big screen where it belongs.