ON KEN BURNS AND HEMINGWAY

Caught the new Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary on Hemingway and ended up enjoying it, though it contained moments of painful bathos in the commentary. The film could have better reconciled the apparent contradiction between Hemingway’s direct “declarative” style and the subtlety of a story’s unseen action. Such insights are valid and valuable, and a part of Hemingway’s signature aesthetic, but the film repeated these motifs without explaining their coexistence. Also, at the risk of digression, I think it’s worth pointing out that the assertion “what’s left unsaid is important” is no longer a surprising truth or unusual angle in literary criticism. Whether one agrees with it or not, it is a common viewpoint championed much more often than the promotion of spectacle and detail.

I was more interested in the way the documentary presented the timeline of Hemingway’s life. They made the case a few times that he relied significantly on his second wife’s family fortune to finance his adventures. I have not read any Hemingway biographies, but having read many of his novels and their introductions, gathered that once he’d published The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms, he had become financially independent. I saw him as a figure similar to J.K. Rowling or Stephen King in his financial success, yet the film hints that this was not the case. I was intrigued by this point and wish the directors had further explored this aspect of his career.

For all my reading life, I have had a strange relationship with Hemingway’s work. I first encountered most of his stories through the lens offered by undergraduate professors. They tended to spin the myth of his life and work in a way that the Burns documentary attempts to mitigate and, to some extent, unspin. But I didn’t have a problem with what has come to be known as his “masculine” style. I did not struggle with his approach to the morality of combat, hunting, fishing, philandering, and drinking. Instead, I tended to dislike the standard interpretations of his work. And when I voiced this disdain, I encountered the second problem of being lumped in with those who saw him as an old-fashioned, violent, egotistical bully.

I’m not saying those (to the extent true) are good things, but they weren’t the main issue. I was more concerned with how Hemingway’s art was often presented as realistic and juxtaposed with writers like Algernon Blackwood, Robert E. Howard, and H.P. Lovecraft, whom many considered less able to imitate real emotions.

The idea of “Hemingway as Realist” proved problematic as, over time, I read more of his work and got really into the writing. I read For Whom the Bell Tolls a few times, and while I felt spellbound by the characters and style, the real revelation came from discovering its utterly idealistic views on love, war, and survival.

Instead of seeing Hemingway as a Realist with a sentimental touch, I began to see him as a Romantic intoxicated by earned sentiment. I saw him as an idealist who understood that you could only reach the sublime when you acknowledge stark realities. The Burns documentary purports to try and get around these issues, but with limited success. While it touched on ideas that Hemingway’s views on love and the erotic were more fluid and imaginative than classic interpretations offered, it didn’t go far beyond. With an overconcern regarding the themes of suicide and “masculine” bravado, the film made too much apology to break into new territory. I still recommend giving it a view, because as always, Burns is on his game when it comes to weaving in authentic texts—excerpts from letters, novels, and early articles—with photomontages in a way that creates a memorable and intriguing portrait of his subject.

Carl R. Moore is the author of Chains in the Sky and Slash of Crimson and Other Tales (published by Seventh Star Press)

4 responses to “ON KEN BURNS AND HEMINGWAY

  1. I love Hemingway for the brilliance of what he leaves out and how he leaves it out. He doesn’t need flowery dialog, because the unspoken is unspoken so eloquently. My husband was hung up on what he considered Hemingway’s toxic masculinity and let that leak over into a detestation of his writing. “He liked cats” was my trump card. Unanswerable! Boom!

    • Hi Marian! Yes, you say it well. I think taking apart a story’s engine can teach a lot about why one includes or doesn’t include a scene. One of the problems with putting the camera right on the action is that if it’s not drawn PERFECTLY, even an action scene can slow a story’s pace. This is part of why the threat of violence, for example, in FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS, keeps the story rolling and the characters developing without putting in a grand shootout and getting bogged down in a potentially slow description. But that doesn’t mean I give any author a pass for never revealing a full-on spectacle. Stephen King is good with this–we need to see what’s in Room 217, and if he had not painted the picture of the murderous corpse coming after the kid, the story would have suffered immensely and been far less memorable.

      • Absolutely. On the other end of that spectrum, there’s “M”. We see a little girl playing with a ball going off with a stranger who buys her a balloon. Then we see her empty dinner plate, her ball rolling to rest, and her balloon in the telephone wires. Ghastly, and we didn’t see or hear an instant of terror or violence.

  2. True–it’s two different aesthetics and I wouldn’t say one is necessarily more effective than another. I would say though, and only speaking anecdotally, that the “less is more” approach is often put forth as if it is a rare insight when I think it is in fact the more established rule for how to present horror. I think there are two reasons–one, writing a good spectacle, a good reveal, is HARD and requires great skill to keep it from getting boring, and two, a lot of people get grossed out by gore and so the idea is that you’ll lose more audience by grossing people out than by keeping up the suspense. I think there is the risk of boring some folks though, by too much suspense (I stopped watching The X-Files for this reason back in the day–just went on and on and on with conspiracies and no aliens). But really, it’s the difficulty of providing a truly interesting and exciting spectacle. I would venture the aliens in the ALIENS movies are grotesque and intriguing, whereas those in the INDEPENDENCE DAY films less so.

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