ARTS

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November 12, 2010

"Doc" chronicles a misunderstood genius

You probably don’t know him, but Harold L. Humes, also known as Doc Humes, was one of the most important literary figures of the 20th century. He also had a sort of cult following on many college campuses, crashing on couches and influencing devoted students. Although he never visited UChicago while alive, he will be making his posthumous debut here with Doc, a film about the eccentric cultural figure shot by his daughter, Academy Award nominated filmmaker Immy Humes. It details his life from founding the Paris Review, publishing two books and being at the peak of artistic society, to his subsequent descent into madness. Doc will be shown in Chicago for the first time this weekend at the Film Studies Center, and will be accompanied by a discussion on his books. Immy Humes spoke with the Maroon about what it was like to create a film about her father and what life was like with this larger-than-life character.

Chicago Maroon: When did you first become interested in making films?

Immy Humes: [While a senior at Harvard, I visited a film studio where they were editing a film on a secret war in Cambodia]. They were amazing editors [there], and it was fantastic to see these things get introduced, and I thought, that’s what I want to do. As soon as I got that revelation way back, I started working freelance in documentary, and I worked for a lot of TV shows, public television, broadcast journalism. I eventually made my first film of my own. That was A Little Vicious, which was a film about a dog.

CM: A Little Vicious was nominated for Best Documentary Short in the 1991 Academy Awards. Does the critical acclaim you’ve received put pressure on you when you are working on new films?

IH: I don’t think so. The thing is that it was just a hoot. It didn’t really change anything to tell you the truth, it’s really hard to find funding for a documentary anyway. But it was incredibly fun.

CM: Where do you find the inspiration for your films?

IH: Well that’s a great question. [Laughs] Oh my goodness that’s such a good question… But I don’t know the answer. Honestly, they come from all over right? Who knows? I think the inspiration for this film being shown here [is that] it’s all about my father...because my father was this crazy guy. He was like a larger than life figure and he was very hard to explain to people, even to my friends. I always had a very hard time even just explaining to my friends when they would ask “What does your father do?” And I was like ‘Well… he smokes a lot of pot and hangs out, a lot. He used to be a famous writer.” You know, it was extremely hard to explain him.

So, first of all, those are good subjects for films. They’re hard to explain, you know? Things that you find difficult or people who are complicated, those are inspiring film subjects. And the other thing with this film was that there was a very primitive, essential motive, in that he was dying. He was in a hospice, and I suddenly was like, “Oh my god I need to make a film about him.” That sort of motive is essential, wanting to document, wanting to save the “present tense.” Wanting to capture it, not in a bottle, but in pixels now. To keep him alive in some way, to immortalize him, in some funny way.

CM: So your father seems to have had two different names. Did he go by Doc Humes or HL Humes?

IH: On his books, he was HL Humes, that’s how he wrote his name. But all his life, his nickname was Doc. From high school until he died, his friends called him Doc.

CM: What was it like growing up with him as your father?

IH: If you see the film it’s all in there: the film is the saga of his life. The family part is all there, but the film is the long story of his life and times. My part of it is not the biggest part of it. I didn’t make the film about me, I wanted it to be about him. He was this very charismatic, very active well-known writer; he was kind of manically talented in many areas. When I grew up, everyone said “Oh, your father’s a genius.”

But in the mid ’60s, he got much crazier- hearing voices and getting paranoid- and at that point my mom couldn’t do anything for him, so she picked up her four kids and left him. So then, I didn’t see him for four years or so, I didn’t know if he was alive or dead from the time that I was six to nine or ten. And then he came back into our lives. He was always leaving and coming back and the whole saga is in the film.

CM: I see from your bio that you’re one of four girls - what was that like growing up? Were you close because your father wasn’t around?

IH: It’s complicated, because he had four daughters and two sons, but my mother also had another daughter. So, it is not that I have three sisters but that there are four Humes daughters. We were very close, we were the Humes Girls, and very proud of him in a way. Even though people also thought he was a nut. I mean, he was a nut.

I don’t know whether to call it the fortune or misfortune to love someone who’s crazy...he was literally mentally ill, but that’s a big part of what the film is about: illness in general and how hard it is to define; you know you can’t separate the illness from the person. It’s incredibly difficult. Doc was very loveable and really difficult and crazy. He was incredibly confusing to have him be part of your life for better or for worse. When audiences have seen it, a lot of times the conversation goes to that, other mentally ill people that they’ve known and loved.

I think when Doc was in his heyday people had even less understanding of mental illness than they do in this day, so artists were supposed to be crazy, it was kind of romanticized. Anyway, it’s all in there. It’s not lecturing, it’s just telling his story.

CM: Well, for all of his more “unique” traits, so to speak, he was part of a very interesting group of artists at the time.

IH: Well, yes, and on the one hand my film can neither idealize him nor diminish him. He was extremely accomplished and brilliant, and he knew everybody. He was incredibly social and gregarious and charming. And there was the younger self and the older self and they’re slightly different; after the mid ’60s break he always a little bit crazier. But before then, he was completely hooked in...he met Einstein, he had correspondences with Marlena Dietrich, he was best friends with all those writers and painters.

CM: But he is almost like an unsung artist of the time.

IH: Yes, his books fell out of print, though they were very well received at the time. He authored two books, he was a bright, young novelist up there with Mailer, Styron, Capote and Matthiessen, but then he went crazy. So no one read them because for 50 years they were out of print, and thanks to the film they are back in print, I am proud to say.

CM: When you were younger your relationship with your father was confusing, but as you grew older, did that relationship change at all?

IH: In my childhood, my memories of him are very strong, although he was not a normal dad, and I’ve always envied and admired my friends who had real fathers. But, he was very important to us as kids. He had this kind of real wonderfulness with us. I remember some experiences with him as “magical” and wonderful. But then he was gone and I remember as a ten year old, seeing that he was back in The New York Times. He was at Columbia giving away cash to students, as a performance art piece, making all these points about money. So he was this very nutty guy with a beard, and very hippie. It was this sort of new version of Dad.

For the last 25 years of his life, he spent it on campus, surrounded by college students, and that was how he managed to live, because they took care of him.

CM: But he never made it to UChicago!

IH: I know! He finally got off the East Coast. When Doc moved into someone’s dorm room he never left. Paul Auster, the writer, tells this story in the film about when he was an undergraduate at Columbia and Doc moved into his room and his feet never touched the floor because he was on the couch.

He would be preaching or teaching. He amassed this group around him, mostly at Harvard, where he went to school, as well as MIT. He also spent time at Princeton, Columbia, and Bennington. He would move onto campus and start talking, and very soon would be surrounded by a group of kids and they would essentially look after [him]. A lot of times it was like he was the only “grown-up” who took them seriously.

CM: But you also went to Harvard, right? Did people there make the connection to Doc?

IH: Well, it was always like “Oh, you’re Doc’s daughter, how creepy.” He was quite well known on campus as this “weird dude” and a lot of people didn’t know he had this kind of illustrious past. At the Crimson, people were all freaked out by it (Doc had threatened to sue them at one point for publishing something that wasn’t true. Although it never happened the kids were scared by him).

CM: Well, it was an interesting life, to say the least!

IH: Yeah, he was an interesting guy, a wonderful guy, a difficult guy. For me, the hard part was getting the balance in the documentary and the truth of him on screen. Because he was horrible in a lot of ways too, it was sad to see. A lot of people considered him a failure and a sad wreck of a man, but I didn’t want it to be about “Oh, he’s my father, and I’m proud of him.” But somehow having a completely certifiably crazy parent makes it almost easier to forgive.

CM: What are you working on now?

IH: Now I’m working on a documentary about unemployment. I’m trying to get a handle on how to make a film about our current job market. So I’ve started shooting and I’m looking for funding as always, which is the main problem. But this is a huge crisis where about 30 million Americans are out of work and it looks like nothing is going to get better for a long time. That is my main project, but I have a couple other things going as well. The life of documentary filmmaking is very up and down. As Doc’s daughter I was not taught to value qualities of stability and structure. I’m learning now how much they’re worth, but we were brought up with a kind of disdain for it. Money: who needs it? And that sort of thing.

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