Jump to content
 
Search In
  • More options...
Find results that contain...
Find results in...

Ken Burns' "Hemingway"


Recommended Posts

I enjoyed episode 1. I know little about Hemingway really, only the things most people know, and I've not read or been interested in reading much of his work. I recall only having read in college, "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" - and that only because it was assigned - and several years ago, "The Killers" in a short story anthology.  I know how he died, and I appreciate how the documentary foreshadows it without revealing it. Years ago, I read Intellectuals by Paul Johnson (an odd book of dirty laundry airing) where I think I came across a quote by a friend of Hemingway saying something like, "He is the only man I've ever known who truly hated his mother." That exact quote didn't come up tonight, but the relationship is accounted for and I think that observation will turn out to be accurate.

Of his style I know he is often praised for a his sparse sentences and avoidance of what might be seen as decorative words, and the documentary suggests that came from, or was reinforced by, the style book at The Kansas City Star, where he first worked as a reporter. I enjoyed seeing the visual editing of his prose on screen and learning a little about how he approached the task of writing, such as how he would sit down to begin a writing session and first read all previous work from the beginning before adding that day's work, and not stopping until he knew what would happen next.

He must have been a difficult man to know and like, or at least I've always thought I would find him so. This film seems to present him dispassionately, neither flooding the screen with praise nor dwelling on his faults. I suspect I will come away from this finally wanting to read a volume or two of his work.

Hemingway's own words are spoken by Jeff Daniels, and there are interviews with current writers and scholars who know his work well. I'm looking forward to the next episode tomorrow. 

  • Like 4
Link to post
Share on other sites

Episode 2, "The Avatar" was painful to watch. So much to dislike about Hemingway is revealed. 

It begins in the early 30s and discusses his fascination with bullfighting, and Death in the Afternoon. Images of the picadors come. I'm with Max Eastman. I don't get it. It is not beautiful. It is ritualized cruelty. (But then I've never been to Spain.)

The focus shifts with the times and the rise of socialism. Here, I found his anti-communism refreshing to learn of. To the leftist critics who complained he was not supportive of their cause, he said, "There is no left or right in writing. There is only good and bad writing." But it was short-lived, and probably no more deeply felt than his love for any of his wives. He took the first opportunity to pander to the communists in New Masses by taking advantage of a natural disaster, a hurricane, that left 259 veterans dead, and laying if at the feet of Roosevelt.

He didn't want to fight the Nazis, but he went to Spain where he saw first-hand the Stalinist executions and agreed to say nothing. When John Dos Passos complained, Hemingway claimed that to do otherwise would run afoul of the left wing literary establishment in New York. Well, yes it would, of course. So much for the rugged individualist. 

He went to China to report on the war there with Japan, and oh yeah, he secretly agreed to supply information to Stalin, but as Geoffrey Ward's narrative is quick to point out, he didn't actually tell them anything. My guess is the Chinese weren't stupid enough to give him anything.

He actually got Roosevelt to let him play soldier off the Florida coast, hunting Nazi subs with all the equipment he asked for, including unlimited gasoline, though everyone else's was rationed.

Then he traded in a loyal, supportive wife for a slightly prettier and more adventurous one that he found he had to compete with. And he played dirty. When his bullying didn't keep her in line, he tried sulking. When that didn't get any better results, he got off his a$$ and weaseled his way ahead of her in Colliers by-lines.

Nobody is perfect, God knows, but he seems to have been, as Paul Johnson concluded, a shallow, self-indulgent opportunist. 
 

  • Like 4
Link to post
Share on other sites

Episode 3, "The Blank Page" begins with Hemingway's adventure as a war correspondent who also, despite the Geneva Convention's proscriptions, participated in the conflict as a combatant. He followed the 22nd Infantry Regiment, whose commander, Buck Lanham, would become a lifelong friend. During this time he suffered two more concussions before returning to help liberate Paris, where he was joined by Mary Welsh, who would become, however reluctantly due to his drinking and quick temper, his fourth and last wife. He would also witness scenes of wartime horror in the Hürtgen Forest.

We learn more detail of his marital bedroom proclivities involving gender reversal. Maybe he enjoyed being the passive partner, I don't know, but it doesn't seem to be anything he took great care to hide. We also learn of his son Gregory's proclivity for cross dressing. Gregory would later be arrested in a Los Angeles ladies room dressed as a female, and still later would undergo a sex change operation, though this is not mentioned.

The word schizophrenia is mentioned when his son Patrick is diagnosed, and treated with shock therapy, foreshadowing Hemingway's own medical treatment in the years prior to his death. 

After his marriage to Mary, the familiar pattern of spousal abuse appears, only with a new physical component. His tales become taller and his sexual adventures involve a teenage prostitute, and the company of a young woman he met in Venice, Adriana Ivancich, an 18 year-old he asked to call him, at 50,  Papa.  He would ask her to marry him, he told her, if he weren't certain she would say no.

He would suffer yet another concussion (I lost count, but he rivals Howard Hughes in this area) when he had a fall on his boat. Throughout this episode we see him drinking more and more, later taking pills, and we are often reminded of his father's suicide. Mary said she felt she was watching him disintegrate. 

His long awaited war novel, Across the River and Into the Trees, was published to unkind reviews, and critics suggested his best writing was behind him. Around that time, his publisher sent him a galley of From Here to Eternity, with a request that he provide a blurb. Instead, Hemingway responded with a particularly vicious diatribe  that scholar Marc Dudley suggests he must have known would be widely read one day. In it, he called the author a coward who possessed the psychotic's urge to kill himself.

We learn of a little game he would play in front of friends that involved putting a shotgun to his mouth and pulling the trigger, only to make a clicking sound. 

When Adriana and her mother visited Hemingway at his home in Cuba, he was inspired by her, energized someone said, as if she were a muse, and in the space of eight weeks, he wrote The Old Man and the Sea. It was widely praised by critics. Indeed Mario Vargas Llosa tells us it his his favorite Hemingway novel, while Edna O'Brien, who up to this point has spoken highly, dismisses it impatiently as "schoolboy writing."

Hemingway returned to Africa where he would survive two airplane crashes in two days. The first of which prompted headlines around the world announcing his death, while the second resulted in still another head injury, after he butted it repeatedly and with enough force to open a door to escape a burning plane.

His head injuries by then, compounded with his drinking, were taking their toll. After he won the Nobel, he agreed to a television interview on the condition the questions would be submitted beforehand, and his answers could be read off cue cards. The film is shown of him reading aloud in a grade schooler's cadence, even pronouncing audibly the words "comma" and "period." It is difficult to watch.

Thereafter, Hemingway began but did not finish A Moveable Feast, where he wrote harshly of former friends Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, and he  continued to work on The Garden of Eden, even while knowing it would be too sexually frank to publish, at least in his lifetime.

Of the revolution in Cuba, he said he was convinced of its "historical necessity," not foreseeing perhaps that it might cost him his Cuban home and everything in it, which after the Bay of Pigs, it did. Still, he'd had the foresight to buy a home in Ketchum, Idaho, where he spent his final days.

Treatments at the Mayo, ostensibly for his blood pressure but actually for his depression, followed and then, in the midst of alcohol abuse, over-medication with pills, and ever-increasing paranoia, the inevitable and pitiable end came. The room, or vestibule as it is described, where he pulled the trigger is shown, followed by the newscast of Edwin Newman delivering the news that Hemingway had "killed himself, the sheriff says, accidentally."

Even knowing it was coming, I found it tragic and, like all suicides, pathetic. I believe he knew he was losing the abilities to do the things he wanted to do with his life, and when it became clear that he no longer could live it on his terms, he ended it in the manner he had rehearsed. 

This was not I think one of Burns' more compelling or entertaining works, but I found it worthwhile, even if I'm not, as I expected I would be, eager to read more Hemingway. 

  • Like 3
Link to post
Share on other sites
On 4/8/2021 at 12:22 AM, LuckyDan said:

This was not I think one of Burns' more compelling or entertaining works, but I found it worthwhile, even if I'm not, as I expected I would be, eager to read more Hemingway. 

Great summaries, Lucky Dan.  I wish I had found this while it was showing last week. 

 I'm usually riveted by Ken Burns' documentaries, just the sound of Peter Coyote's  voice puts me in a pleasant trance,  I watched all 80 hours of "Vietnam," but this one interested and irritated me in equal measure.

  • Like 1
Link to post
Share on other sites
1 hour ago, AndreaDoria said:

Great summaries, Lucky Dan.  I wish I had found this while it was showing last week. 

 I'm usually riveted by Ken Burns' documentaries, just the sound of Peter Coyote's  voice puts me in a pleasant trance,  I watched all 18 hours of "Vietnam," but this one interested and irritated me in equal measure.

Thank you, Andrea. Burns and Novick themselves didn't seem to have much affection for their subject, especially Novick, if you read their interviews. Even Jeff Daniels, who voiced Hemingway, said something like, "Lucky for him he could write."

Still, a good way to study any period of history is to study biographies of those who were there. I was hoping to learn, via Hemingway, more about the Lost Generation - and the first episode seemed to promise some of that - and about Fitzgerald, the writing process, and all manner of ancillary topics. Maybe Hemingway's life story, being so intensely self-absorbed, just doesn't allow for much else.

This is one of Burns' shorter docs and I wonder if he didn't decide, after getting too far into it to dump it, to cut his loss, get the story told, and move on. 

 

  • Like 2
Link to post
Share on other sites
On 4/5/2021 at 8:33 PM, LuckyDan said:

Begins on PBS tonight at 9 central. 6 hours in three parts. 

https://www.pbs.org/kenburns/hemingway/

Thank you for posting a link to this in the General Comments/I Just Watched section.  There are so many threads  it's hard to know where to look for things sometimes.  

I found the Hemingway documentary engrossing and was able to watch all three episodes on pbs.org.  Part I especially  made me want to go back and read some of his early novels and short stories.  He packed so much into one life, good and bad, and as the series progressed my feelings about him changed depending on the era.  The romanticized Hemingway:  His early years as an ex-pat writer in Paris.   The brutal Hemingway:  His love of bullfighting; The big game hunting which was underscored by the mindboggling list of animals he killed while on his first trip to Africa.  The tragic end:  After countless concussions combined with his drinking, he was in steady decline.  The NBC interview was painful to watch.  You can see and hear the toll of those concussions and head traumas.  I can understand how he would reach the conclusion that living like that was ultimately unbearable.  It was rather chilling to hear the details at the end, the photo of the spot where he committed suicide, and that his wife left the keys to the gun cabinet out and available.    I think the show was fairly objective showing the best and worst of him.  He could be jealous of other writers, believed in his own myth, embellished his war stories and exploits, replaced wives while still married to the previous one.  He seemed to want his wives to devote their lives to him but ended up being bored and resenting them for doing so.   I agree that biographies that like this are good way to study a slice of history.  I think you're right that more time could have been spent on his family, especially his sons and wives but I enjoyed it overall.  Hemingway's life reminded me of that John Ford quote:  When the truth becomes legend, print the legend.

  • Like 4
Link to post
Share on other sites
6 hours ago, Peebs said:

Thank you for posting a link to this in the General Comments/I Just Watched section.  There are so many threads  it's hard to know where to look for things sometimes.  

After countless concussions combined with his drinking, he was in steady decline.  The NBC interview was painful to watch.  You can see and hear the toll of those concussions and head traumas.  I can understand how he would reach the conclusion that living like that was ultimately unbearable.  

Thanks for contributing, Peebs. I enjoyed reading your thoughts.

I've got the rerun of episode 3 on the TV now, sort of half-watching, but I'm starting to wonder if we are discounting too strongly the possibility of mental illness completely independent of the drinking - which certainly exacerbates mental issues - and the concussions. I don't know if his doctors at the Mayo ever spoke publicly about what they observed in Hemingway, but there does seem to be, as the documentary reminds us, something genetic happening across three generations.

  • Like 1
Link to post
Share on other sites
2 hours ago, LuckyDan said:

Thanks for contributing, Peebs. I enjoyed reading your thoughts.

I've got the rerun of episode 3 on the TV now, sort of half-watching, but I'm starting to wonder if we are discounting too strongly the possibility of mental illness completely independent of the drinking - which certainly exacerbates mental issues - and the concussions. I don't know if his doctors at the Mayo ever spoke publicly about what they observed in Hemingway, but there does seem to be, as the documentary reminds us, something genetic happening across three generations

Thanks, lucky.  I enjoyed reading your take on this program, too.

Good point.  Yes, I'm sure there were mental health issues but perhaps masked or confused with the brain damage from the concussions. The drinking was probably some form of self-medication.   Suicide certainly runs in the Hemingway family with something like 7 family members taking their own life.  I believe Mariel Hemingway wrote a book a few years ago about her own depression and her family's history.  Before watching this doc I always assumed he killed himself because of mental health issues.  Most likely it was some tragic combination of mental illness, numerous head traumas, and the effects of heavy drinking.  Very sad ending.

  • Like 2
Link to post
Share on other sites
37 minutes ago, Peebs said:

Thanks, lucky.  I enjoyed reading your take on this program, too.

Good point.  Yes, I'm sure there were mental health issues but perhaps masked or confused with the brain damage from the concussions. The drinking was probably some form of self-medication.   Suicide certainly runs in the Hemingway family with something like 7 family members taking their own life.  I believe Mariel Hemingway wrote a book a few years ago about her own depression and her family's history.  Before watching this doc I always assumed he killed himself because of mental health issues.  Most likely it was some tragic combination of mental illness, numerous head traumas, and the effects of heavy drinking.  Very sad ending.

It really was a sad ending, and the final image of the documentary of the snow-covered top of Kllamanjaro, and the voice-over reading about reaching its peak, struck me on first viewing, and even more so on second, as almost cruelly anti-climactic. We don't come away feeling Hemingway is an immortal giant of literature resting on the summit. Quite the opposite. I'm sure Burns and Novick meant that shot to be a touching tribute, but coming so quickly after the description of his death by suicide, in the throes of mental illness, it seems forced and misses widely. 

  • Like 1
Link to post
Share on other sites
6 minutes ago, Peebs said:

 Before this documentary, any mention of Hemingway in Idaho always brought this photo to mind:

Ernest Hemingway kicking a beer can, 1959. Photograph by John Bryson. [576  x 762] : HistoryPorn

That is a great shot. He does seem to have had a playful, whimsical side to him. It's a shame he chose not to develop that more, or was somehow unable to let it come out more.  

  • Like 1
Link to post
Share on other sites
14 hours ago, Peebs said:

Thanks, lucky.  I enjoyed reading your take on this program, too.

Good point.  Yes, I'm sure there were mental health issues but perhaps masked or confused with the brain damage from the concussions. The drinking was probably some form of self-medication.   Suicide certainly runs in the Hemingway family with something like 7 family members taking their own life.  I believe Mariel Hemingway wrote a book a few years ago about her own depression and her family's history.  Before watching this doc I always assumed he killed himself because of mental health issues.  Most likely it was some tragic combination of mental illness, numerous head traumas, and the effects of heavy drinking.  Very sad ending.

You might be able to throw in bad parenting choices as well, in some of these cases.

Link to post
Share on other sites
27 minutes ago, txfilmfan said:

You might be able to throw in bad parenting choices as well, in some of these cases.

Too easy. The best parenting cannot undo genetics.

  • Like 1
Link to post
Share on other sites

I'm a Ken Burns fan but not a Hemingway fan so I made the decision not to watch. I really appreciate this conversation for distilling what was essential about it. 

  • Like 2
Link to post
Share on other sites
4 hours ago, DougieB said:

I'm a Ken Burns fan but not a Hemingway fan so I made the decision not to watch. I really appreciate this conversation for distilling what was essential about it. 

Have a look anyway. I'm not big on the Roosevelts or country music, but I enjoyed his docs on those topics. 

  • Like 1
  • Thanks 1
Link to post
Share on other sites

I don't know if it's a new way of looking at things or if I'm just noticing it more, but we seem to have this idea that if a person is bad, their art must be bad. I think I came across that observation in a commentary about Woody Allen, but I've noticed it more and more and I think it's true. 

I remember seeing on twitter some music journalist who took issue with some political remark Eric Clapton had made after Eric had had a couple. The writer, it turned out after some research, had become a sort of Ahab to Eric's white whale. He used a lot of ink denigrating not only Eric personally, but his guitar playing. It was obvious he simply had a political disagreement that he allowed to affect his judgement on talent. 

Maybe I've been guilty of it too, but since we seem to be forming ever more sharply divided teams on culture and politics, we should bear in mind that separating the two (the person and the art) might give us more credibility. 

(This is not directed at anyone in particular, just a thought that occurs to me.)

  • Like 1
Link to post
Share on other sites
18 hours ago, LuckyDan said:

I don't know if it's a new way of looking at things or if I'm just noticing it more, but we seem to have this idea that if a person is bad, their art must be bad. I think I came across that observation in a commentary about Woody Allen, but I've noticed it more and more and I think it's true. 

I remember seeing on twitter some music journalist who took issue with some political remark Eric Clapton had made after Eric had had a couple. The writer, it turned out after some research, had become a sort of Ahab to Eric's white whale. He used a lot of ink denigrating not only Eric personally, but his guitar playing. It was obvious he simply had a political disagreement that he allowed to affect his judgement on talent. 

Maybe I've been guilty of it too, but since we seem to be forming ever more sharply divided teams on culture and politics, we should bear in mind that separating the two (the person and the art) might give us more credibility. 

(This is not directed at anyone in particular, just a thought that occurs to me.)

I totally agree about the state we're in. I first knew Hemingway through his art and didn't know much about him as a person, other than the drinking, the penchant for blood sports and the general hyper-masculinity. His writing didn't resonate with me and in some cases turned me off. His characters didn't seem to be grounded in any world I recognized and weren't appealing enough to me to make me want to explore their world, so I gave up. But, on your advice and the reactions of some of the others here, I'll catch up with the Ken Burns series. Lives gone wrong can teach us as much as lives gone right, or at least that wrong and right aren't easy to define in terms of human experience. 

  • Like 1
Link to post
Share on other sites
1 hour ago, DougieB said:

His writing didn't resonate with me and in some cases turned me off. His characters didn't seem to be grounded in any world I recognized and weren't appealing enough to me to make me want to explore their world, so I gave up.

I don't get the appeal of his writing either, but I'm no literary theorist and there is a large gap in my reading between the 19fh and mid-20th centuries. Fitzgerald and a Faulkner novel or two are as deep as I've gotten into that period. The Sun Also Rises is on my bookshelf but I have no recollection at all of having read it. 

 

 

 

 

 

Link to post
Share on other sites

I watched the second episode and like it- Hemingway was not a easy man but he was a great and still influential writer- I love "For Whom the Bell Tolls".  I missed the sequence about his sexual behavior not sure how much that has to do with anything

Link to post
Share on other sites
On 4/25/2021 at 11:52 AM, jaragon said:

I watched the second episode and like it- Hemingway was not a easy man but he was a great and still influential writer- I love "For Whom the Bell Tolls".  I missed the sequence about his sexual behavior not sure how much that has to do with anything

It wasn't so much a sequence as a leitmotif, something for armchair psychologists to consider, I suppose.

  • Like 1
Link to post
Share on other sites
12 hours ago, LuckyDan said:

It wasn't so much a sequence as a leitmotif, something for armchair psychologists to consider, I suppose.

Hemingway macho persona makes him "difficult" for our "woke" times. In his novel "The Garden of Eden" there is a bisexual relationship- they made a dull movie out it

 

Link to post
Share on other sites
1 hour ago, jaragon said:

Hemingway macho persona makes him "difficult" for our "woke" times. In his novel "The Garden of Eden" there is a bisexual relationship- they made a dull movie out it

 

I know what you mean, but I'm sure there are still women out there who respond favorably to a macho persona. I think Hemingway took it to the *toxic" extreme with the wife-beating thing. If someone finds that "problematic" I can't blame them. 

  • Like 1
Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
© 2021 Turner Classic Movies Inc. A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved Terms of Use | Privacy Policy | Cookie Settings
×
×
  • Create New...