Independent Lens: Doc

[9 December 2008]

By Cynthia Fuchs

PopMatters Film and TV Editor

Talking Machine

The object is to salvage as much as possible, to put a frame around the wreckage.
—H.L. Humes

“He told me he was a writer,” remembers Anna Lou Elianoff. A college student at the time, she was impressed enough by Harold Louis Humes to invite him to a mixer at Wellesley. After that, she doesn’t specify much about the man who would be her husband. “Then we moved to New York City,” where she discovered that he loved having children. He probably also loved having a wife, she adds, but she and her daughters were “very separated from the other things he loved,” like playing chess and experimenting with drugs.” He also had, Anna Lou remembers, “jazz friends I never met.”

These friends remain unseen in Doc, the documentary by his daughter Immy Humes. And yet their mystery and energy—their presumed jazzness—infuses this mesmerizing film. Sinuous, dynamic, and utterly compelling, Doc remembers the man as his own lifelong project. A compilation of newspaper clippings, interviews, photos, and home movies, it is pulled together by a wonderful soundtrack—jazz as pulse—with songs including Charlie Parker’s “Now’s the Time,” Miles Davis’ “Flamenco Sketches,” and Charlie Mingus’ “Pussy Cat Blues.”

The music is key to the film, though no talks much about it. Instead, the focus is on Doc’s literary career. Cofounder of the Paris Review and author of the novels The Underground City and Men Die. The differences between the two books, says Alan Cheuse, is striking: while the first is an “authentic novel of ideas,” the second is “compressed, spare, magical.” Cheuse goes on, “It’s hard to think of someone publishing two books, so good and so interesting, one after another, without calling Faulkner to mind, or Hemingway to mind.” When he observes that if Humes had “lived longer,” he would have left behind a “much broader spectrum of work,” Immy Humes, off-camera, stops him. Noting that his phrasing suggests her father’s life was short (he lived to be 66), she laughs along with Cheuse, who footnotes, “Well, he died as a writer, didn’t he, when he went over the line.”

This line might be described as sanity, as Doc became found it increasingly difficult to function according to social proprieties. Even as he descended into various depths of disturbance and paranoia, however, he drew people to him. As Paul Auster puts it, “He was such an extraordinary person. You have to seize your opportunities in life to get to know people who are so remarkable, even if they finally pulverize you.” Most of the interviewees in Doc voice similar sentiments, noting their affection for the man along with their own frustrations. Norman Mailer calls him brilliant, “at bottom, more vain, more intellectually arrogant than I was at the time” (and, just think for a moment about what that might look like). George Plimpton describes him as a “talking machine, a talking sort of encyclopedia.” And Russell Hemenway remembers his favorite story about Doc, his demand one afternoon that “Someone ask me a question. I feel like explaining something.” 

Doc’s most delightful and delighted days were spent in Paris after World War II, where, as he put it in a recorded interview, “People were coming out of a big calamity and discovering what it was to be human again.” Here he found fellow writers and artists who were experimenting with forms and concepts, the very ideas of what art might be, as well as with hashish and LSD (with help from Timothy Leary). When, Anna Lou remembers, Doc’s “insanity had come to the point that he was leaving messages for Queen Elizabeth by talking into the bedpost,” as well as refusing to allow Anna Lou or the girls to leave the house, he decision was made that he had to be institutionalized. Still, she says, she was more distressed by the facility, Banstead Hospital in England, which she remembers as a “high security prison… it was appalling.” Though he was beating her (a friend recalls seeing her bruises and Anna Lou says, “I was afraid he’d kill me”), Anna Lou was reluctant to leave him, as the diagnoses never seemed quite right.  “I thought he was manic depressive rather than paranoid schizophrenic,” she says.

Doc works to recover Humes, to see his madness with a more careful perspective. In part, it does so by remembering good times, by including images not only of Humes’ successes, but also by sorting through the bad times. The film includes clips from a film he made based on Don Quixote a film long lost and found in the garage of its star F. Cabot Sharp (who had “absconded with the film” following a disagreement with Doc), as well as shots of Immy visiting her dad in hospital, a bathrobed Doc smoking cigarettes and chortling over missed friends and almost forgotten times.

One startling revelation offers a specific sort of frame for the wreckage. Noting that Humes was indeed increasingly paranoid, as well as wracked with cancer, the film reveals that he had at least one good reason to feel that way—the admission by friend and Paris Review cofounder Peter Matthiessen that he was a CIA recruit back in their Paris days, and used the magazine as a cover. Whoa. The documentary doesn’t dig into this admission, as it has other matters on its mind, but the disclosure rattled Humes at the time. As he wrote in a letter to Plimpton, “I don’t believe that the principles of freedom and justice and respect for Law—which after all are the very foundation of western civilization—are best upheld by raping those principles on the pretext of defending their honor; but, as history repeatedly teaches, this is what any unchecked secret organization invariably ends in doing.”

As Matthiessen has gone on to become a champion of Native American rights, and especially of Leonard Peltier, he seems to have turned from such secrecy. Still, the lie hangs over the film with some discomforting weight. As Doc has it, Humes sought openness and honesty in all things, even as he was not always able to distinguish between his experiences, between what was real in the world and what was real in his mind. Jazzy and provocative, the movie makes effective sense of his movements back and forth “over the line.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/66697-independent-lens-doc/