In his latest documentary series, Hemingway, the great Ken Burns chronicles the life of one of 20th-century America’s most influential and personally complex authors
“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains…” The legendary opening lines of A Farewell to Arms (1929), in the author’s own hand, with amendments and words crossed out, float on to the screen. We are deep in the land, and in the mind, of Ernest Hemingway.
Thus opens the three-part, six-hour documentary series on the author, beginning on BBC Four at 9pm BST on Tuesday. And this is no routine account of a great literary life, either. Hemingway is the latest offering from the world’s greatest documentary maker, Ken Burns, in collaboration with Lynn Novick, representing that rarest of experiences: one genius telling the story of another.
Since the Seventies, the 67-year-old film-maker has built up an astonishing one-man archive of American history and culture, in series such as The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994), Jazz (2001), The Vietnam War (2017), and Country Music (2019).
His style of narrative – rigorous, humane, broad in its horizons – is instantly recognisable and always compelling. While others have sought to write The Great American Novel, Burns has spent decades trying to capture the essence of America on film, the scale of his ambition matched only by the mastery of his craft.
Hemingway, whose life was as much an act of creation as his novels, is a natural subject for the director, personifying as he does the yearning of middle-class America in the 20th Century not to lose touch with its wild, pioneering origins.
The hard drinking itinerant author, aficionado of bullfighting, wounded war hero, hunter and amateur boxer was, one should never forget, a child of the Chicago suburbs, born in 1899. For all the performative virility that he later cultivated, the young Ernest was brought up androgynously, frequently dressed in girls’ clothes by his eccentric mother, Grace.
From his father, Clarence, on the other hand, he learned to love the great outdoors – hunting, fishing and canoeing – establishing a tension within Hemingway’s soul from the earliest age between free-range machismo and a personal identity that was more complex and vulnerable than his swashbuckling public image allowed him to disclose.
“It’s like he changed all the furniture in the room.” says the American writer, Tobias Wolff. “The value of the American declarative sentence, right?” This is so, but as Burns shows in the first episode, the path to literary greatness was by no means linear.
After a stint as a reporter on The Kansas City Star, Hemingway served in Italy in the First World War as an ambulance driver. In his battle to save wounded soldiers, he was hit by more than 220 shards of shrapnel – which were removed surgically without anaesthetic.
After this brutal rite of passage, Hemingway met his first wife, Elizabeth Hadley Richardson – “Hash” – who described the experience of falling in love as “a great explosion into life”. The couple eloped to Paris where Hemingway the author began to emerge from his chrysalis – inspired by the salon of Gertrude Stein, the work of Picasso, Miro, Cézanne and Stravinsky, helped on to the first rung of literary endeavour by Pound and Joyce (who had recently published Ulysses).
What more could an aspiring writer ask for? Not, certainly, for two years of work to be lost by Hash, left in a valise on a train to Lausanne. It was a misfortune from which the marriage never truly recovered. But it was also a classic Hemingway moment: a test of his character inflicted by smirking pagan gods.
This is riveting documentary television, a rare example of factual film-making in which greatness lies on both sides of the camera. What Burns captures from the start is the agonising duality of his subject, the price Hemingway paid as writer and human being for all the drama and performance. “He loved an audience,” says Edna O’Brien, “and in front of an audience he lost the best part of himself.”
Our next Creative Sensemaker Live is on Friday 25 June, at 13:00 BST, and will ask: Is classical music boring and elitist? Among the speakers will be the chief executive of the English National Opera, Stuart Murphy, and Emily Benn, of the string quartet, Statutory Instruments (and Tortoise chief of staff). You can book your place here.
Here are this week’s recommendations.
Supernova (selected cinemas, 25 June)
Real-life best friends Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth star in this superb movie about a couple coping with dementia. Tusker (Tucci) is aware that his decline is accelerating and frets, to heartbreaking effect, about the price that Sam (Firth) will pay for his gradual detachment from reality. Unlike The Father, in which Alzheimer’s is explored exclusively through the terrified eyes of Anthony Hopkins, Supernova steps back to ask what the illness can do to even the strongest of relationships. Both actors deliver magnificent performances.
Bosch Season 7 (Prime Video, 25 June)
Inspired by Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels, Amazon’s adaptation – now reaching its final season – is police procedural television at its very best. Titus Welliver (a world-class mimic, as well as a fine actor) extracts every last drop of weariness leavened by reluctant optimism from his character, and is supported by an excellent ensemble cast – notably Jamie Hector (the unforgettable Marlo Stanfield in The Wire) as LAPD Detective Jerry Edgar, Bosch’s younger partner and perennial conscience. The formula has never strayed far from the tropes of the genre – the only oddity being Bosch’s ridiculously grand home – but the series has never relaxed its pace or taken its audience for granted. We’ll miss you, Harry.
Spiral: From the Book of Saw (VOD, general cinema release)
By my count, this is the ninth in the Saw franchise that was launched in James Wan’s original movie in 2004. Like all the others, it is absolutely not for the faint-hearted and is also extremely silly: what serial killer, in all honesty, goes to so much trouble and builds such complicated contraptions just to make a point about police corruption? All the same, it is hard to deny that the series has been consistently entertaining for grindhouse horror movie fans. As it happens, Spiral is notable for its preposterously impressive cast: Chris Rock, Samuel L. Jackson, Max Minghella…what are they doing in a movie like this? That is the true mystery, much more so than the killer’s identity which is fairly well telegraphed. Still: if you like this sort of thing, you’ll love this movie.
Why We Kneel, How We Rise – Michael Holding (Simon & Schuster)
A remarkable exploration of the struggle for racial justice, by one of the greatest test cricketers of all time. Holding enlists such icons as Usain Bolt, Michael Johnson, Naomi Osaka and Thierry Henry to trace the intimate connections between the sporting world and the Black Lives Matter campaign – connections that are bound to be a matter of debate at the Tokyo Olympics where taking the knee is to be forbidden. A book full of insight and wisdom that everyone should read.
Animal – Lisa Taddeo (Bloomsbury Circus)
After the runaway success of Three Women last year, widely characterised as a 21st-century successor to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Lisa Taddeo returns with her first novel. Harrowing and often elusive, the story traces the experience of Joan, a woman in her late 30s moving from Manhattan to Los Angeles after the suicide of a former lover. The memory of sexual trauma and the prospect of death stalk the novel’s pages. Trust and love are constantly under threat. Not an easy read, by any means, but an essential one, Animal is audacious and proud in its furious candour. Taddeo is one of the very few writers at work today whose books one simply cannot afford not to read.
If the past is any guide, the aftermath of the Covid pandemic may yield some curious and outlandish social experiments. As Anna Neima writes of the years immediately after the Spanish Flu: “The greatest public health catastrophe in modern history following so closely on the heels of the deadliest war caused something like collective trauma…no lessons, it seemed, could be taken from the pandemic – there was only a sense of immense, incoherent loss.” Part of the global response, as Neima reveals in fascinating detail, was the establishment around the word of experimental communities – from the Bruderhof in Germany to Santiniketan-Sriniketan in India – in which individual groups, in effect, pressed the reset button. Needless to say, the results were far from utopian; but the stories are utterly compelling – and inspire the reader to wonder what counterpart communities, digital and real-life, might be springing up around the world in the post-Covid years ahead.
Call Me if You Get Lost – Tyler, the Creator (25 June)
I struggle to think of a live act whose performances I have enjoyed more than Tyler’s, not least because his regular references to Theresa May, who banned him from entering the UK in 2015, are so entertaining. So a new record from the artist also known as Felicia the Goat and Igor is always to be eagerly anticipated. The pre-released track Lumberjack augurs well for the Grammy-winning rapper’s sixth album, and his return to these shores to tour (he is warming up with US festivals) can’t come soon enough.
Winner of the 2020 US National Chopin Piano Competition, Chelsea Guo is – remarkably – both a virtuoso pianist and an acclaimed soprano. This dazzling collection showcases this dual artistry, both in her interpretations of Chopin’s ‘Preludes’ and of works for voice such as ‘Moja pieszczotka’; ‘In mir klingt ein Lied’ (Étude, Op.10 No.3); and ‘Di piacer mi balza il cor’ from Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra. One of the best classical albums of 2021 to date.
More than a quarter century has passed since Garbage burst onto the scene and it is much to the credit of the four piece from Madison, Wisconsin, that their seventh studio album is still so full of angry energy and mosh pit brio. Though Version 2.0 (1998) remains their masterpiece, No Gods No Masters gives it a run for its money. “I give myself the creeps,” sings Shirley Manson, with the unapologetic ferocity of a goth girl determined not to grow middle-aged. All power to her elbow.
Flying through five thousand years of history from 3200BC, Kensington’s V&A offers an Iranian itinerary of must-sees. Expect robes, domes, and Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (The Book of Kings) (900s), a neat narrative topped and tailed with timelines. But beneath this epic lie precious pockets of everyday Persian life, like manuscripts depicting miniature manufacturers, construction workers chipping bricks and hauling clay. Too often, Iran’s turbulent 20th Century is glossed over, a blip in an otherwise plural past. But the diversity of modern Iranian art – of android Zoroastrians and women’s impassioned wails – perhaps captures Persian pluralism most vibrantly, and certainly demands more than the final throes of this exhibition.
Thank you, Jelena. You can read a longer version of her review here.
Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations to firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s all for now. Have a great week.
Photographs Lloyd Arnold/Hulton Archive/Getty Images, Netflix, BFI/BBC Films, Twisted Pictures, Amazon Studios, Courtesy Wellcome Collection