Ambition and talent can be a tragic combination. While prodigies create great expectations, reality often lies in wait with its own plans. Doc follows a protean man of letters whose prolific work was never quite enough to conjure his sought-after utopia.
Harold L. “Doc” Humes was part of a generation of bohemian savants (along with Norman Mailer, George Plimpton and William Styron) who after World War II descended upon the Left Bank and Washington Square Park seeking to put their mark on the world. Wherever there was a way of using ideas to shake society out of its rut, Doc was there: co-founding a journal (The Paris Review), writing a voice-of-his-generation novel (The Underground City), directing an unfinished New American Cinema classic (Don Peyote) and running Mailer’s New York City mayoral campaign as political theater. If it was cool, Doc couldn’t be far behind. Although the film risks becoming an unadulterated ode to the 40s and 50s literary scene, Doc portrays the first act of his life with a playful spirit set to an up-tempo John Coltrane beat that is by turns charming and inspiring.
The film takes a turn toward darker material when severe paranoia starts to grip Doc’s mind during a trip to Europe (eventually leading to institutionalization). Subsequently, his projects tilted towards the absurd: at Columbia University he gave away thousands of dollars to undermine the capitalist system; he led massage clinics in prisons to cure inmates of their spiritual malaise; he spoke to bedposts that he believed were bugged as a way to communicate with the Queen of England. The film burrows into these later years to explore the toll that ‘greatness’ takes on a man and his family, and the limits of an individual’s ability to change the world.
Director/producer Immy Humes, Doc’s daughter, wisely avoids the popular model of documentary as a journey to reconcile a relationship with an absent parent (see My Architect), while still using her relationship to Doc as a framework that provides the film with intimacy and insight.