Monday, April 12, 2021

Myth, Legend, Man: HEMINGWAY

Ernest Hemingway was only a man, after all. How’s that for a lede Hemingway himself might’ve enjoyed? For a writer interested in masculinity — a writer of tough, lean, declarative sentences so stripped and spare and straight-to-the-point that one can practically hear the clattering typewriter painstakingly stamp out each letter — he lingers in the public imagination as everything complicated suggested by that designation. At this point he’s passed into cultural assumptions and cliches. We remember him for bull fighters and trench ambulances, for drinking and womanizing, for excursions and adventures, for hunting and fishing, for boating and safari, for shooting and killing. He puffed himself up through self-mythologizing, then sometimes lived up to it. But above all else, he’s a writer and a man. He wrote what he knew. He observed closely, keenly. He wrote careful prose, confronted the difficulties of life. He’s a great writer. And like all great writers he is both exactly what we remember him for, and so much more. He may be a lion of literature, a legend of letters, but he is still only a man and all the complications and contradictions that implies. He was talented — a once-in-a-generation-if-we’re-lucky author who, as Tobias Wolff says, “rearranged the furniture” of American literature. And he was mortal, troubled, fallible, complicated. He was capable of writing about people and places, inner lives of men and women alike, with such vividly drawn and precisely rendered minds suggested in evocative detail drawn in poetic simplicity. And yet he could also treat those around him — his wives, his children, fellow writers, even himself — with breathtaking cruelty. He was masculine to the max, and interested in understanding women, and playing with androgyny. He was quintessentially American, and loved nowhere more than Paris and Cuba. To wrestle with his work is to recognize his genius, and to acknowledge him as a man wrestling with himself.

He’s a figure perfectly suited to the Ken Burns style, intersecting as he does with so many of the great documentarian’s usual thematic interests: Americana, war, letters, literature, the ways social forces and big personalities impact each other. Burns, surely among the most consistent  of working documentarians, and his usual collaborators (co-director Lynn Novick, historian Geoffrey C. Ward, narrator Peter Coyote) load up the six hours devoted to Hemingway with their usual style and technique: perfect pans across striking photographs and documents, well-curated historical footage, an all-star voice-over cast (Jeff Daniels, Meryl Streep, Keri Russel) bringing writings to life, and a handful of literary critics, academics, and writers speaking to the history. Burns’ sturdy filmmaking is not surprising in its construction, but builds to wonderful revelations all the same—a soft, poetic joining of ideas and images that invites contemplation. It may not approach the majesty of his masterpieces (his epic The Roosevelts — a wide ranging, big-picture historical view with all the moving intimacy of close, personal portraiture — is his finest hour in my book), but there’s value to his approach to historical documentary. This particular work digs deep into the man’s life and work, treating both with the rigorous criticism and beneficial biography that builds a full portrait. Brushing past the easy received wisdom — confronting his family’s perspective, allowing debate over some works, acknowledging his blind spots and blurred lines — it leaves you with a good sense of the man and his times, and why, exactly, his work was and remains such an important moment in literary history.

It’s like the best professorial lecture on the topic at hand. There’s a firm steadiness in Burns’ filmmaking that slows the breathing, quiets the mind, and makes one open to listen and interpret, make connections, push back on claims or welcome new information. It also makes the few bum notes — like the late John McCain saying he understands why Hemingway would kill himself — clang. Yet one only needs to see how dry, slow, scattered or undigestible Burns’ imitators’ films are to see what makes his team’s series special. He brings an immediacy to the artifacts, an intellectual engagement to the voices he selects, and a willingness to contrast talking heads. For instance, here Edna O’Brien, who earlier speaks emotionally and persuasively about the short story “Up in Michigan,” scoffs at The Old Man and the Sea, immediately followed by Mario Vargas Llosa declares it his favorite. Burns is building a careful, dense, and thorough picture. But the whole grand sweep of it becomes like sitting in on a great conversation about a notable figure, several hours marching through the chronology of a fascinating life in the company of interesting people arguing for a great writer. Best of all, it sent me back to my bookshelf, to pluck down a volume of Hemingway’s stories and reread them with renewed eyes and even deeper appreciation.

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