Australian Arts

Ernest Hemingway

21 August 2021

9:00 AM

21 August 2021

9:00 AM

Entertainment in a public place shrivels as the lockdowns continue. The Australian Ballet has cancelled its Melbourne season, Anna Karenina included. Not only the Melbourne International Film Festival but the Indian Film Festival has become a stay-at-home TV screen affair. This is a particular pity given that the latter included a retrospective of films by the great Satyajit Ray and the millennials would have been dazzled to see Charulata or Jalsagar on a big screen.

For the baby boomer generation Ray was a thing of wonder, a supreme artist of the cinema. Marlon Brando said he was one of the four greats and, however you compile your lists, he was one of the greatest masters. You didn’t have to have any inclination towards cinema as something approximating to still life to feel the magic that Satyajit Ray got from his potential monotonies. Perhaps you have to be young to submit yourself easily to the rigour of great filmmaking but how bereft we are when we have to go without it.

Does this matter in a world of streamed television of every variety? A bit more than we are in any position to let ourselves think in the plague time of Covid.

Still, television and the infinite variety of streaming remains our mainstay. It’s funny to think that when Brian Johns, the man who had been head of Penguin, after his stint as as a newspaper man and as a political staffer, became the head of SBS – a significant preamble to becoming head of the ABC – he took two notable steps in the direction of the mainstream: he secured the rights to World Cup soccer and he bought that arguably monocultural documentary series, Ken Burns’ The Civil War.


Remember how Gertrude Stein said in her wry contrary way that America was the oldest country on earth because it had been living in the twentieth century ever since the American Civil War? Well, these days, you would be likely to be lynched (okay, cancelled) if you so much as hummed The Band doing ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ – never mind that Shelby Foote, the great historian of the Civil War, was in a very quiet implicit way, sympathetic to the Confederate side and Edmund Wilson in that stunning collection of Civil War essays, Patriotic Gore, indicates the very dashing and attractive qualities that co-existed with some aspects of Southern life. Remember that it was a quotation from Robert E. Lee that Colin Powell had on his Pentagon wall: ‘It is well war is so terrible or we would grow too fond of it’. Robert Hughes liked to quote that description by the Southern lady of the great statue by Saint-Gaudens of William Tecumseh Sherman on horseback being led by Nike, the goddess of victory: ‘Ain’t that just like a Yankee to make the lady go first?’ Sherman who had burnt down Georgia. Sherman who declared, ‘War is hell.’

If you wanted to track the hell and horror of the American Civil War all you had to do was look at Ken Burns’ The Civil War with its extraordinary black and white photographs of all that doomed youth Ulysses S. Grant and Sherman had used as cannon fodder and listen to the voices grand and humble, black and white, as they enumerated like the words of a lost epic, the daily life, the hopes and sorrows of a nation at war with itself. Ken Burns worked out a technique which juxtaposed the photographic image, often just a shot in stasis, with the accidental grandeur and terrible poignancy of the words of those who fought and died.

He did something similar with The West narrated by Peter Coyote in that Henry Fonda-like voice of his, and he does it in his documentary about Ernest Hemingway that SBS is streaming at the moment.

Hemingway was not a Joyce or Proust figure but he somehow invented the argot of modern fiction, in America and elsewhere: Camus would not be Camus without Hemingway. Ken Burns’ documentary juxtaposes the pain and the massive charisma of the life with the achievements and lapses of the work. There’s plenty of big game drama – the different women in his life including Martha Gellhorn, the journalist – and the depth of melancholy he suffered. It’s a mixed cast Burns has assembled. It’s great to have Tobias Wolf, that fine writer, indicating how the mere feather of fame could be an intolerable weight. It’s interesting to hear Mary Karr (adored by David Foster Wallace), to hear figures as different as Mario Vargas Llosa and Edna O’Brien. He puts his money on The Old Man and the Sea, she thinks it’s tosh.

It’s easy to forget how extraordinarily popular this big bullying heavyweight of a writer was. Everyone in America – and indeed around the world – read Hemingway. They read of the wry sadnesses in The Sun Also Rises and the bright, then dashed, hopes in A Farewell to Arms. At one point – a bit bizarrely – we actually hear the late John McCain read from For Whom the Bell Tolls and articulate his own sympathy for the hero’s desire for oblivion. It’s fascinating how much Hemingway was a figure of grandstanding gesticulation who could also be sad in the depths of his being. The voices in Ken Burns’ Hemingway are best when they are directly imitative. (Gellhorn, for instance, sounds very much like her cultivated earlier 20th century self.) But it’s only in his Nobel Prize broadcast that we hear, very precisely and resonantly, just how masculine and assured Hemingway actually sounded.

There are terrible testaments to everything which went wrong. How Hemingway raged at the son who used to dress in drag and blamed him for his mother’s death. We hear the very affable tones of his other son Patrick as he says that in his last meeting with his father, years before his death, he sounded like King Lear. This is not primarily a literary documentary but a portrait of a flawed hero.

It will appal you and move you in equal measure.

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