Immy Humes is adept at bringing a light touch to dark subject matter as she did in her Oscar-nominated 1991 short A Little Vicious, about a dangerous pit bull and the family who loved him, and 1996’s Lizzie Borden Hash & Rehash, about the abiding fascination Americans have for the New England spinster who was accused of being an ax murderer. This same interesting juxtaposition of tone and topic can be found in Humes’s new film, Doc, a biographical portrait of her father, H.L. “Doc” Humes. Though Humes’s name is not well known today, he was a leading literary figure in the late fifties, whose books The Underground City and Men Die were hailed by the critics as brilliant. Humes was also a co-founder of the Paris Review, and a chum to such luminaries as Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, and William Styron.
That was one phase of his life anyway. As his daughter records in her film, Humes was paranoid to an extreme, imperious, narcissistic, and at times, violent. He abused drugs, had odd theories about cloud formations, taught massage to prison inmates, and seems to have mooched free meals from students up and down the East Coast. Immy Humes recently spoke with The Independent’s Mike Hofman about the making of Doc, which will have a one-week run at the Film Forum in New York City starting January 23, and will appear on PBS’s Independent Lens later this year.
You started this film back in 1992, so I assume then that the film you have now is not exactly the one you set out to make. How did your plans change?
Well, the film changed a great deal, although I never had an overarching plan. It was a slow ad hoc venture of collecting. What happened was that, when I started the film, my father was dying. And when somebody is dying, as it happens, you realize how important they are, how much they still have to tell you, how much you still can get from them. So it was that very universal impulse at the beginning, a movement in the heart and in the brain to capture a little bit more of him before he was gone.
But then as I was filming him, I was unable to do very much and there’s only a bare minimum of that footage used in the film. He was so sick and it was too late and I felt very intimidated when I tried to film him.
Yes, I felt bad filming him when he was so sick and so old. It somehow didn’t feel right. I guess I was intimidated in a sense by his mortality. I felt foolish. So I put away that footage for a long time. Much of it was unusable anyway — it was noisy, it was hard to understand everything that was said. It felt very homemade. But then I kept collecting things — a letter here, then a clip of an interview with Timothy Leary. I kept picking up things and looking for things, and wrote a proposal and, piece by piece, the film kind of grew.
I read that some of the archival material you use in the film was in a suitcase of your father’s effects. Tell me about that.
My sister gave me a suitcase of papers that had been on Doc’s desk on 1966 when things got very bad with him. A friend had cleared his desk off for us and put all of it in suitcase and put it in storage. It was like the moment was frozen in time and sifting through it was just amazing. There were notebooks, there were letters, there were journals. This was like a time capsule from when he was cracking up mentally.
So this was his writing from a time in his life when, as the film explains, your mother took you and your sisters and essentially fled your father to return to New York.
Yes, these were his notebooks, his many notebooks, from 1965 and 1966 in London, just before mom picks us up and leaves and the whole thing falls apart. And I love that kind of archival stuff. I love digging through it. I called it “Doc-tritus.” All of these little details: matchboxes and invitations to parties and magazines he had been reading.
There were a lot of letters, too, stuff that didn’t make it in the film. There was a letter that Doc wrote to mother and never sent, and a letter she wrote to him saying that she was leaving, and a letter from my dad to George Plimpton — a carbon copy, actually — reacting to a conversation he had had with Peter Matthiessen [Humes, Plimpton, and Matthiessen co-founded the Paris Review], when Matthiessen told Doc he was in CIA.
That’s one of the most amazing moments in the film — when Matthiessen talks to you about being in CIA. He looks so uncomfortable. How did you get him to open up about that on film?
I think I actually found out about Peter being in the CIA in an interview with George Plimpton that you see in the film. It’s sort of the hinge of the film. Plimpton and I were in Paris on this other shoot and George says, “Well, you know about all that CIA business,” and I remember looking up at him, because he was so tall. And I said, “No, what CIA business?” And he said, “None of us knew this at first, but Peter was in the CIA.” This was important because my father always had these ideas that the FBI and the CIA were all around him, and people thought he was just raving. But as it turned out, there was some truth to what he said.
Did Peter know you knew about his working for the CIA when you went to interview him?
Peter had already confirmed the fact to people in an interview in 1977, but he was very conflicted about that fact. So it was an open secret. It was on the record, but he had never spoken about it before. It was a strange thing, therefore — those who knew knew, and those who didn’t know didn’t know. And that included many, many, many people who thought they would know a thing like that. With me, I can say he was very generous and open with me. He told me all about it and I think wanted to tell me all about it. He signed the release and gave me his blessing. But having it out there pains him at the same time. I think he always intended to write about himself — that he would get to it eventually. I kind of said to him, you had better get cracking.
I was equally struck by the scene during which you talk to Norman Mailer — another of your father’s friends — about the time he stabbed his then wife. Your father was actually there that night. Did you expect for Mailer to talk about that, and to break down in the way he did?
That was another amazing moment to film. To me, it was like these guys, that whole group, all of them were out there. Matthiessen was in the CIA, Mailer was stabbing his wife, Styron was clinically depressed, Doc was insane — but in a way, in this group, he fit right in. They lived their lives fully, for better or for worse.
Besides the famous writers, you interview your mother and sisters and other relatives. How did they feel about the project?
Generally and overall, they’ve been incredibly supportive, especially my mom. They all kind of hate being on camera. I think it’s hard for anyone to be on camera, and it is hard to be on camera talking about your dad. So they all found it difficult in some ways, but they were all there.
Part of Doc revolves around your search for a lost film that your father made in the 1962 called Don Peyote, a modern take on Don Quixote.
Yes. I grew up with legend of this film and with the idea that this was the greatest movie that nobody had ever seen because it was lost. So it was fun to try to track it down.
There’s a marvelous scene in the film where you are taken by Jonas Mekus into the bowels of Anthology Film Archives to look for the print. It’s a scene that calls to mind Citizen Kane or the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, as you walk past row upon row of film canisters.
Somebody wrote something smart about that scene — they said it made them think about what we keep and what we throw away. But Mekus to me is a hero for saving all that stuff. There was a lot more searching for Don Peyote and for other things, and I put that scene in the film almost to represent all the other blind alleys we went down.
It’s interesting that your father made this film, because he wasn’t actually a filmmaker at all. It was just one of a bunch of things he did in his life.
Yes, although he was actually very involved with the New American Cinema Group movement of the time. That was very much the way Doc lived: he could just plunge into a whole new world and feel comfortable immediately.
The New American Cinema Group was something I couldn’t really get into in the film, but he was there as part of a bunch of mostly guys — Ken Jacobs and Jonas Mekus and Shirley Clark and Robert Frank — who were getting together a new movement. Doc helped them write their great manifesto, the landmark avant-gardists, imagining a new world for cinema and a new distribution system.
On the one hand, reading their polemics today is sad because nothing has changed and, it fact, the situation may have gotten worse. But it is also exciting to read this stuff now, because it is so much where we still live. We are still grappling with the questions of how to make films cheap and then get them in front of audiences while bypassing the traditional moneymakers. My father and this group talked about improv and making a film that felt like a jazz score. These ideas are so contemporary, still so very relevant today.
Your hunt to find Don Peyote leads you to track down the actor who played the Quixote role. How did you locate him?
I think the original lead was that there were letters in that suitcase, letters from a young actor who went by the name Ojo de Vidrio. The letters indicated that he ran off with the film. There was a rumor that he had taken it to Mexico. Took it hostage basically. His complaint was that he wanted a signed contract with my dad, but my mom says that my dad didn’t sign anything ever, even when he was in his so-called sane phase.
Anyway, a friend of mine who is an investigative journalist tracked down the actor Ojo, whose real name is F. Cavitt Sharp, through a database. And then I called him on the phone, and then I went to see him in California.
He seems a little shocked, and maybe a little uncomfortable, to see you.
I think he was just stunned that someone had come to talk about something that had happened forty years ago. He was very open to us. And as it turned out — and I never dreamed that this would be the case — he had the film out in his shed.
There’s also footage of your father getting arrested in a Beatnik demonstration in Washington Square Park. Where did that come from?
That is great stuff from a wonderful short film called Sunday. That discovery was a big deal for me. Dan Drasin who appears in the film, was actually my dad’s cinematographer on Don Peyote. When I was little, my dad set him up with my babysitter, and he was staying in our apartment, so it was all very convenient for Dan. Anyway, when I was looking for Peyote, my mom told me that I should see if Dan had it. So I went looking for Dan, and found him alive and well in California. And he didn’t have Don Peyote, but he had Sunday. And Dan worked with Albert Maysles and D.A. Pennebaker, and Richard Leacock, and I think Sunday was made from short ends filmed by Pennebaker and Leacock that day. So I was so excited to have that in the film.
There’s also material that you found in FBI archives that concerned surveillance of your father. When did you discover that — before you started making the film or later on?
That was another thing that was exactly like finding the film in the shed. What happened was, very early in the process, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request (a FOIA) as a kind of general step in the research process, while I was collecting, collecting, collecting other stuff.
So the response I get to the FOIA, initially, is that they are working on it. With those things, I think they only get back to you when they are finally legally forced to. So I wait and wait and wait, and I’m fiddling with the film, and three years later, one day, I get 100 pages in my mailbox. It was a Saturday, and the package came to my home address, and I just spent the weekend kind of like floored by the file. It covered so many years — that was the main thing — 30 years at least. And when you get one of those files, you just know you are only getting the tip of the iceberg. The FBI is supposed to routinely purge what’s unimportant and, very often in the file, you find references to lost documents they’re not coughing up. And within documents, lines are excised and missing. It’s a very freaky thing.
In my father’s case, his file begins in 1948 when he was 22 years old, and applied to be a clerk. He underwent a routine background check, but in those days early in the Cold War, a routine check apparently entailed FBI agents going to speak to every single one of the teachers my father had in his entire life. And all the neighbors his family had in Princeton, New Jersey. And his frat brothers from college. At one point, I thought about structuring the film as an alternate version of my father’s life as told by the FBI.
Why did you abandon that idea?
Well, I abandoned a lot of structures and went with an essentially chronological structure in the end. Another structure I liked alternated between my narrative of my father’s life, his narrative as recorded in his journals and notebooks and a fractured novel he never finished writing, and the FBI’s narrative as recorded in his official file. But as I worked with that, I realized I just couldn’t pull it off.
Over the nine years that you made it, technology changed fairly dramatically. Was that good for you as a filmmaker or did it pose some challenges?
Well, the whole film was sort of a nightmare in that I had to assemble every single kind of source material. It was a complete patchwork of archives. I went around collecting his garbage — not garbage, I’ll call it “leavings” — and then tried to stitch it together. I had paper photos, I had every kind of audio-visual material. There was the 16 millimeter Don Peyote, that was real black-and-white reversal film. Then I found this incredible stash of reel-to-reel video that was made on the first portal kit packs in the late 1970s that a group of my father’s students, the Doc-olytes, shot of him. That stuff got transferred for the film, but a lot of it I couldn’t play at all because it had already decomposed. Literally half of it was unsalvageable.
And how did you obtain that footage?
I found that in his closet when he died. There was a whole stack of photographs and boxes and boxes of old slides. I stared opening up envelopes of the slides, and every one of them was of clouds. Cloud portraits. My father studied lenticular clouds for a time, but in his paranoia he thought that sometimes they weren’t just clouds.
It’s interesting you mention his paranoia, because the film is very loving in tone, and yet a lot of negative information is in there. He comes off as deranged on occasion and possibly violent. Was that hard to include?
He did have a temper, although I don’t think he ever… well, he did hurt my mom in those later days when he was cracking up. Including that was tough, the hardest thing for me was getting the balance right. I wanted to get the good and the bad in there. Not whitewash it, not to treat him as a hero. Some people — women I’ve shown the film to — think I let him off too easy.
He could be fairly awful, and that’s in there. But the thing is, I also think of this as a story of mental illness. I’m not sure people will pick up on that or not.
There’s actually a moment in the film where you say you always thought he was mentally ill.
There is such confusion about the basics of mental illness. My father could be quite crazy at one moment and quite lucid the next. He was affable and easy-going and well-educated and smart. But people who are crazy are complicated. They don’t stop being themselves, but because they are sick, they are very confusing to deal with. When I dealt with my father, I was very often confused. So I thought it was important that I said that in the film.
Watch a series of clips from the film.
Read about conducting archival research online.
The Doc Doctor Fernanda Rossi tackles the question of how much you should budget for archival footage.
Visit Doc’s official website.
Learn more about the film’s screenings at Film Forum in New York City.