Continuing their attempts to record every fundamental moment or figure in American history, Ken Burns and Lynn Novicks detailed six-hour documentary “Hemingway, ”Follows the title author’s historical formation. Use Burns’ now routine formal gadgets – photo pans and zooms, talking heads, Peter Coyote Narrative – “Hemingway” translates the author’s life into his novels in a way that may worry literary critics who have strayed from biographical criticism but will be intriguing to fans of Burns’ particular form of reporting. That Burns and Novick chose this particular moment to capture someone who appears to be the face of the white male literary canon and whose literary holdings have plummeted over the past few decades is an odd choice, especially as numerous BIPOC filmmakers recently petitioned PBS have submitted to stop their dependence on Burns’ special type of national hagiography. Despite persistent extra-textual questions about Burns and Novick’s reasons, “Hemingway” is still an encyclopedic glimpse into one of the most famous American authors, good or bad.
READ MORE: “Eradicate All Brutes”: Raoul Peck Presents a massive, cinematic history lesson [Review]
Burns and Novick unfold over the course of three two-hour episodes, tracing Hemingway’s childhood through his war experience, expatriate field trips with the likes of Gertrude Stein (who really deserves their own six hour deep dive) and F. Scott FitzgeraldBefore getting into a rhythm and charting every novel in Hemingway’s relatively small oeuvre – he published only seven in his life – he was referring to his life experiences at the time. With Jeff Daniels Hemingway give a voice, and a bevy of actresses who utter his four wives, including Keri Russell, Patricia Clarkson, Mary Louise Parker, and Meryl Streep“Hemingway” pays undue attention to his marriages and reflects his writing in the context of who he was married to at the time. Perhaps most interesting is his relationship with Martha Gellhorn, voiced by Streep. Hemingway’s relationship with Gellhorn is a bitter writer and journalist herself, and is essentially an entire episode, while Burns and Novick detail their tumultuous relationship while Hemingway woos them and enjoys their willingness to travel to cover the Spanish Civil War with him . When they got married and Hemingway finally demanded that Gellhorn settle into a life of domesticity, a life that she actively opposed, a pattern began to develop. Despite Hemingway’s appeal and courtship by women outside the boundaries of femininity during the period, he nonetheless called for regressive marriage roles.
However, the overarching thesis used by authors like Tobias Wolff, Edna O’Brien, and Tim O’Brien – the common denominator of these authors is their advanced age – as well as literary critic and, strangely enough, the late one John McCaincalls for critical reprisals for an author who has often been reduced to stereotypical depictions of toxic masculinity. Burns and Novick make this picture difficult and focus heavily on Hemingway’s androgyny in his prose, but also on his sexual inclinations, including details about his sex life that could make a PBS viewer blush. How many viewers are interested in this argument depends in part on positive memories of Hemingway’s work. Unlike his contemporary Fitgerald, Hemingway apparently never had a fundamental work that crossed periodized literary boundaries. Sure, “A Farewell to Arms” or his Pulitzer Prize-winning work “The Old Man and the Sea,” which Edna O’Brien bluntly dismisses as an immature writer, have become part of the standardized canon, but The Rise was nevertheless associated with the New Criticism, which Hemingway very much preferred terse prose as the subject of study. Because this work was reconsidered in the course of feminist, post-colonial and critical racial studies, not to mention calls for canon expansion, Hemingway’s work was rejected more frequently, also because of his troubling views on gender, race and colonialism.
READ MORE: “Spy City”: Dominic Cooper’s Pitch Perfect Performance Enhances AMC + ‘s Exciting Spy Story [Review]
Not so much arguing with these tropes, Burns and Novick confuse some of these critical notions, presenting Hemingway as a restless genius exercising a certain kind of masculinity, often to the detriment of his family – his interaction with his transgender daughter, Gloria, is special painful to watch – which did not live up to his ideal of a family structure. In addition, particular interest is paid to Hemingway’s story of concussions, which total nine and are believed to have partly led to his creative and physical breakdown, as well as his over-dependence on alcohol. As is so often the case, Burns and Novick draw succinct and tangible lines between the suicide of Hemingway’s father and his grudges against his mother throughout his life to his own suicide. It is an ordered biography of birth to death that openly points to Hemingway’s enduring importance in literary studies. Unless “Hemingway” seeks the kind of veneration it initially alludes to, neither does it attempt to present its author on a literary continuum, which only suggests that Hemingway has come under the mantle of nationalist authorship Mark Twain, itself the subject of yet another major Burns documentary.
“Hemingway” is in many ways exactly what one would expect from a Burns and Novick who is meticulous in their research process, yet is tailored to reinforce their implicit central argument that whatever subject they take on is worthy of study and in a broader sense contained in Burns’ special tableau of the American experience. For most of their work, this argument makes sense, as they have recorded war and music genre alike. However, while we are grappling with who to read and why, “Hemingway” feels particularly antiquated. As we work to reconfigure our understanding of national literature and question the involvement of numerous authors, one has to wonder where, if at all, Hemingway fits in. “Hemingway” offers a comprehensive overview of the author, but it still never addresses the question of why we should read him any more. [B-]