Ken Burns Hemingway Documentary Review: Daddy as the Millennial Avatar


Truman Capote once described Ernest Hemingway as a “closet of everything”. Within the first 15 minutes of Hemingway, his first wife, Hadley Richardson, offers a more nuanced take on the dynamic identified by Capote: “There were so many sides to him,” she said, “that he challenged geometry.”

Since Hemingway’s death nearly six decades ago, his absence from the world stage has lasted almost as long as the controversial life he has lived. Emmy Award-winning duo Ken Burns and Lynn Novick – who together produced acclaimed Vietnam War documentaries, baseball, jazz, and prohibition – are so challenging in their upcoming three-part six-hour reassessment. convincing the stereotypes of toxic masculinity that have evolved around what most divides literary figures. It begins airing April 5 on PBS.

“Too often movies are the execution of an already arrived ending,” Burns says. “This is not how we work. We understand that the first thing we do is check in our luggage at the gate and simply enter and be re-educated.

To separate the man from the myth, Novick and Burns took advantage of unprecedented access to Hemingway’s original manuscripts, correspondence and albums. They also had a well of archival footage shot throughout his adult life from all over the world and at Finca La Vigía, his 20-year-old home in Cuba.

Even more surprisingly, the documentary shows a man who – far from being a relic of the past – is more of an avatar of the 21st century, with the narrative merging around themes close and dear to the heart of the millennium: gender inequality, sanity and thirst for glory.

“People who hadn’t read a word he wrote thought they knew it,” Peter Coyote, the film’s narrator, said early on from a screenplay written by Geoffrey Ward. “Wounded veteran and correspondent on the battlefield. Big game hunter and deep sea fisherman. Bullfighting enthusiast. Brawler and lover and city man. But behind the public figure was a troubled and conflicted man who belonged to a troubled and conflicted family. The world saw him as a man, but all his life he would be privately intrigued by the blurred lines between male and female, male and female.

Hemingway is recovering from his injuries at the American Red Cross Hospital in Milan in 1918.

Photographer: Henry Villard, Ernest Hemingway Collection. Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston “

The film reminds us that despite all of Hemingway’s machismo – posing next to dead lions in Africa, offering $ 250 to anyone in Bimini, Bahamas who could last three rounds with him in a boxing ring – he faced off against the brutality of date rape from a female protagonist’s perspective in “Up in Michigan”. This story was written in 1921, five years before the publication of The sun is also rising would make him famous.

Irish novelist and playwright Edna O’Brien defends Hemingway in the film from commonly held accusations of misogyny. “I would ask his detractors, women or men, to read this story,” she said. “And could you honestly say that he was a writer who didn’t understand the emotions of women and who hated women?” You can not.

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Hemingway with his sons Patrick, John “Bumby” and Gregory, on the docks of Bimini, Bahamas.

Photographer: Articles by Ernest Hemingway. Collection of photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston “

In “Hills Like White Elephants,” published in 1927, Hemingway explored the subject of abortion, depicting a troubled relationship in which a man harshly pushes a woman into emotional submission. “It’s recognizable to most women,” literature researcher Miriam Mandel says of the story, “although that’s not the situation. The thrust. The insistence. The masculine affirmation. »In the conclusion of A farewell to arms, a mother and her baby die together during childbirth. “It could have been written by a woman,” O’Brien says of the novel.

Hemingway’s attitudes toward gender fluidity were also ahead of their time. Lady Brett Ashley, the heroine of The sun is also rising, operates with a vivid sexual ambiguity and is the novel’s most essential and fulfilled character. His latest book, The garden of eden, about a man and his wife who fall in love with the same woman, makes androgyny the dominant theme. It was a novel Hemingway deemed “too sexually adventurous to publish during his lifetime,” Coyote says.

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Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn on their way to China in 1941.

Source: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

The writer’s many contradictions are illustrated through the intimate lenses of the remarkable women in his life – Martha Gellhorn, his third wife, was arguably WWII’s greatest war correspondent. He was mentored and befriended modernist poet Gertrude Stein and Sylvia Beach, founder of pioneering bookstore Shakespeare & Co. Both were lesbians. He openly supported Karen Blixen, who wrote under the name Isak Dinesen, to get the Nobel Prize on him. “He was very drawn to powerful and extraordinarily capable women,” says Burns. “But he was threatened by them for exactly the same reason.”

Seeing his death by suicide through current understanding of trauma and mental health also offers some surprises. The film provides an extensive inventory of the Hemingway family’s history with depression. Her father, sister, brother and a granddaughter, Margaux, all died by suicide. Paul Hendrickson, author of the biography Hemingway’s boat, says in the film: “I think Hemingway, among his many, many fears, was terrified [about] “Will this happen to me?” Will I become my father? “

Besides what was in Hemingway’s DNA, he suffered at least nine major concussions throughout his life. The first occurred while serving at the age of 18 on the Italian front during World War I when a mortar exploded alongside him. Forensic psychiatrist Dr Andrew Farah pleads in film and in his 2017 book Hemingway’s brain[…]that the author’s depression and psychosis demonstrated “a classic case” of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the fatal disease associated with repeated brain damage that has been linked to NFL players and boxers.

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Hemingway’s 1923 passport.

Source: Ernest Hemingway Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. JFK Library

How Hemingway’s years of prodigious alcohol consumption exacerbated his strong indications for CTE remains open to speculation. But Farah adds in the film, “When you have a head injury, your mind and body are less well equipped to tolerate the effects of alcohol.” In this light, his alcohol consumption seems less indicative of virility and looks more like self-medication for a deeply tormented and traumatized person.

As much sympathy as these revelations arouse, the film does not shy away from Hemingway’s less than heroic characteristics. Periodically, he displayed remarkable cruelty to his wives and ostracized many literary friends and mentors, including Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Some pages of his letters contain vile racist and anti-Semitic language. If he felt threatened, Hemingway would attack – he once punched a reporter who questioned the hair on his chest. And yet, no matter how abusive he got, he always played the victim. Like a certain former president, he was reportedly obsessed with Twitter.

Hemingway’s genius for self-publicity rivaled anything Trump or the Kardashians could concoct today. The documentary traces how he ruthlessly cultivated his own notoriety by providing publicity photos of himself going out and doing all the adventurous and often dangerous things he wrote about – utterly narcissistic behavior back then, but normal today. Imagine how many Instagram followers Hemingway’s globetrotting life could have commanded if the app existed at the time.

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Hemingway in front of his typewriter at Finca La Vigía in Cuba.

Source: Ernest Hemingway Collection. Photographs. Presidential Library and John F. Kennedy Museum, Boston

Novick and Burns have assembled a star cast. Jeff Daniels expresses Hemingway’s letters and literature. Meryl Streep reads Gellhorn’s lyrics, while Keri Russell, Mary-Louise Parker and Patricia Clarkson voices his other three wives – Richardson, Pauline Pfeiffer and Mary Welsh, respectively.

The late Senator John McCain is also included, describing how Robert Jordan, the protagonist of For whom the bell rings, was a role model for life. (Barack Obama, coincidentally, also cited Jordan as his favorite literary figure. Fidel Castro, meanwhile, said he used the book for guerrilla advice.)

Obsessed as he was with fame, it’s unclear how Hemingway would have felt about all of those daring names celebrating his life and his art; he said no one should ever read his letters – but then again, he kept carbon copies of many of them. Another contradiction from a man full of them.

The room with a view

Detail of Ernest Hemingway's bedroom at Finca Vigia in San Francisco de Paula, Cuba.

Hemingway’s Finca La Vigía in Cuba.

Photographer: rgbstudio / Alamy Stock Photo

Half an hour journey from Havana in San Francisco de Paula is Hemingway’s Finca La Vigía (Observation farm). You pass among 18 species of mango trees along the short road from the main gate to a house that sits on a gentle hill. All of her books are there, along with clothes, liquor bottles in the living room, paintings, photographs and records of her weight and blood pressure scribbled in chicken scratches on the bathroom wall. . The bedroom is where Hemingway wrote For whom the bell rings and The old Man and the Sea standing in front of a portable typewriter atop a bookcase. Although he left home in the fall of 1960, he still feels like he could come back from a run at any time.


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