The Quarantine Stream: 'Hemingway' Strives to Deconstruct the Self-Created Myth of Ernest Hemingway
(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The Movie: Hemingway
Where You Can Stream It: PBS
The Pitch: A six-hour, three-part documentary from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick that explores the life and work of Ernest Hemingway.
Why It’s Essential Quarantine Viewing: Ernest Hemingway is a literary giant. With his terse, minimalist prose he changed the face of American writing, influencing countless writers for years to come. His contribution to the printed page cannot be ignored. But for all his greatness he was also a deeply flawed man – someone who built up his own self-image of a man’s man who liked to fight, drink, and hunt. Despite being inflicted by the horrors of World War I, he reveled in bloodshed. And despite his rigid writing schedule, he created a life of chaos – a life of constant movement, where he would burn through wives, endure multiple head injuries, and ultimately die by suicide.
When we think of Ernest Hemingway, we probably tend to think more of his image than of his actual writing. Yes, Hemingway’s work is monumental, but it’s more the man himself that tends to captivate. This was primarily Hemingway’s own doing – he mythologized himself, embellishing his own backstory to create the image of the manliest of men. A man of adventure, and action. A man of pure, unbridled passion. He loved to drink, kill, fight, and fuck, and he wanted everyone to know it.
To be clear: Hemingway wasn’t making all of this up out of thin air. He really did do things, and was constantly seeking out adventure, or at least his own personal idea of adventure. But as Hemingway, the new three-part documentary from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick points out, even in Hemingway’s own era, his uber-masculinity and machismo seemed dated and even comical. While they were quick to praise his prose, critics weren’t above pointing out the flaws in Hemingway’s bravado. His almost sadistic love of the barbaric “sport” of bullfighting was not above criticism.
Hemingway is a fascinating documentary because it presents Hemingway, flaws and all, without striving to make a statement. Burns and Novik aren’t trying to “cancel” Hemingway, but they’re not exactly celebrating him, either. Instead, they are presenting us with as complete a picture as possible of the man’s life, warts and all.
That means the documentary is equal parts awe for Hemingway’s work and recoiling horror at some of his detestable behavior. Yes, he could write, and write better than almost anyone else of his era. But he was also blatantly racist and cruel, often verbally and in some cases physically abusing his four wives. These are abhorrent behaviors no matter what the era, but Hemingway also finds sympathy for the man. Clinical depression ran in his family, and Hemingway’s own father died by suicide. This death disgusted the young Hemingway, who saw his father’s final decision as weakness. And yet, as Hemingway got older, and his own depression sunk its claws into his brain, he finally began to understand what his father went through.
Some of the subjects interviewed here are a bit too enamored with Hemingway – Edna O’Brien seems particularly dismissive of any mention of Hemingway’s many flaws – but Burns and Novik keep things centered and do their best to tell Hemingway’s story with often brutal honesty. They also often let the man’s work speak for itself – in the form of Jeff Daniels, who voices Hemingway here and spends long stretches reading out excerpts from the author’s work. Daniels’s diction in these passages go a long way toward making us not so much understand who Hemingway was, but why so many people were unable to resist him.
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