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Ken Burns: 'Hemingway' reads between the author's lines

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UPI News
UPI News
 2021-04-05
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Ernest Hemingway witnessed the front lines of WWI in Italy. Photo courtesy of PBS

LOS ANGELES, April 5 (UPI) -- Documentary producer and director Ken Burns tackles author Ernest Hemingway in the three-night PBS docuseries, Hemingway, starting Monday.

Burns hopes the series illuminates the details behind the Hemingway legends, he said in a recent Television Critics Association Zoom panel.

"I was aware of this edifice of the macho characteristic and good writing," Burns said. "The writing only increased in its power and glory and majesty."

Hemingway addresses the author's experiences as a wounded veteran, deep-sea fisherman and, as the documentary points out, a "brawler and lover and man about town." Burns includes archival records and experts' accounts of Hemingway's travels, including attending bullfights in Spain and hunting big game.

However, Burns said it was important not to let the legend dictate his story.

"He constructed a mask that was false," Burns said. "Even with that mask in place, the mask of the big-game hunter, etc., he was also questing for a kind of truth."

The series also addresses Hemingway's four marriages and many mistresses, addictions and abusive behavior. Burns said he was interested in exploring Hemingway's dark side.

"As I confronted all of this negative stuff, it became important that the art transcended it and basically didn't excuse it," Burns said. "We hold his feet to the fire."

Burns collaborated on Hemingway with co-director/co-producer Lynn Novick. She said she was reluctant to spend six hours of screen time and years of production dealing with Hemingway's abusive qualities.

"I felt a lot more compassion for him and his struggles and his demons than I did at the beginning," Novick said.

Hemingway begins with the author's childhood. Hemingway's mother dressed Ernest and his sister, Marcelline, the same in an attempt to make them twins.

Sometimes she would dress both children as boys, and other times would dress them as girls. Burns said Ernest's relationship to gender would evolve through his adult relationships with women.

"His wives cut their hair short then to look like boys," Burns said. "He wants them to call him Katherine, and he calls them Pete in the bedroom."

At 18, Ernest joined the American Red Cross Ambulance Service. He became a bicycle messenger to the Italian army in the trenches during World War I.

On July 8, 1918, Hemingway experienced a concussion when a mortar exploded 3 feet from him. After the war, the documentary shows, Hemingway was afraid to sleep alone, began to drink in secret and began to express suicidal thoughts.

Burns said he felt the complexity of Hemingway's personal turmoil, combined with the art he produced, makes Hemingway his most mature documentary to date. Having explored The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz and individuals like Jackie Robinson and Mark Twain, Burns felt Hemingway demonstrated the complexities of self-destructive behavior.

"Nothing in life is good or bad," Burns said. "We are all existing in this very complicated gray area."

Novick said Hemingway's writing revealed more about his attitudes than the public persona he presented. In the series, author Edna O'Brien holds up Up In Michigan as an example of a story in which Hemingway was sensitive to the female perspective.

Up In Michigan depicts a sexual encounter in which the man coerces and pressures the woman. Novick cited Hills Like White Elephants as another example of Hemingway's compassion and empathy for women.

"He puts himself inside the head of women, but he also shows how hard it is for men and women to get together and really connect -- and how things fall apart," Novick said.

Novick said she and Burns began to discuss the possibility of a Hemingway series more than 20 years ago. They filmed their first interview, with Ernest's son Patrick Hemingway, in 2014 while they were producing Jazz.

Burns said the legends about Hemingway were "the baggage we carry." Hemingway chronicles the author's travels as a correspondent for the Kansas City Star and his personal travels to experience the bullfights.

Hemingway also includes private correspondence Hemingway wrote to his family or to colleagues like Gertrude Stein. Novick and Burns hired actor Jeff Daniels to read those letters, as well as passages from Hemingway's published writing.

Daniels said he was also fascinated by the complexities Burns and Novick explored. The fact that Hemingway continued to write as he coped with his demons was noteworthy, Daniels said.

"He easily could have just quit," Daniels said. "Just in reading the work and reading his letters, you get pulled into his darkness. He's sharing something, and maybe he doesn't even know what he's sharing."

Hemingway airs Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at 8 p.m. EDT on PBS.

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