Ken Burns and Lynn Novick usually make documentaries on expansive themes: baseball, jazz, Vietnam. But through their new project, Burns and Nowick have magnified a person’s life: Ernest Hemingway, the self-proclaimed “dad” of American literature.
“Hemingway” (Hemingway) is a three-part, six-hour documentary, which premiered on PBS on Monday, depicting an extremely complex portrait of the man and the author. Burns and Novick paid tribute to his beautiful alternate prose, but did not avoid the harmful effects of his turbulent life: misogyny, racism, and anti-Semitism; personal betrayal, abuse, and arbitrary cruelty.
Burns and Novick draw inspiration from archival materials and academic research, try to break Hemingway̵
In a Zoom conversation last week, Burns and Novick discussed their interest in Hemingway’s endless “contradictions” and their personal relationship with his famous works. Burns also responded to recent criticisms of PBS for lack of diversity and “over-reliance” on his non-fiction works. This is an excerpt from the conversation.
NBC News: This film focuses on how often Hemingway modifies or exaggerates his life story, and cultivates a mythology around his masculine public image. Which parts of the Hemingway myth do you most want to know?
Ken Burns: This is a very good question. Apart from getting along with this extraordinary writer and his complicated life, I am not sure if we have other agendas, but I know that myths will be the obstacle we need to resolve.
For us, it’s very basic: we say yes [to the project], Which means marrying Ernest Hemingway for many years, facing all the complexity, all the contradictions, all the terrible things and all the wonderful things. In the process, when we began to accumulate the working meaning of the biography, we saw the poisonous and poisonous nature of the myth that Hemingway created by himself.
I remember giving a graduation speech a few years ago. My advice to older people is that insecurity makes us all feel lying. I think this is self-evident. About Hemingway: From a very young age, his fragility, sensitivity and mental illness persuaded him to establish such a narrow myth.
Lynn Novick: Mary Karr said in the movie:[Hemingway’s] Masculinity must be so narrow. “It stays with us because I think I never really thought about it as a tricky issue. But in many ways, he was imprisoned by this masculine personality-it was a kind of hyper-masculine personality. Personality was considered a positive thing at the time.
burn: Mary hinted that it must be tiring. Maintaining the building is annoying because it is an attempt to maintain a control that no one of us has.
What’s interesting is that his works are so frank and direct that each of us lacks control.He is keenly aware of the finiteness of our existence, but most of what we all do is [say], “Don’t bother about the person in dark clothes, behind him is a scythe.”
Ken, “Hemingway” only marks your second description of a novelist. What attracted the two of you to Hemingway as a documentary subject? Do you two have a special interest in his work?
Novick: We both have affinity. I read him in high school English class, and “The Sun Also Rises” fascinated me completely. His reminiscent world and vividly portrayed characters look like real people. This is a wonderful way to read literary works seriously.
Then, I went to visit his home in Key West in the 1990s. Ken and I worked together for a few years, and then I came back and said, “We must do Hemingway.” He was already thinking about Hemingway, so it was a good fusion.
burn: I read him in high school, just like Lynn. I was attracted to him, fascinated by him. I want to be a writer.I read [the short story] The 15-year-old “The Killers” surprised me because there is still a lot to say.
Novick: I think making a film about a writer is challenging. The author’s work is on the page, but we must bring it to life and provide the audience with an opportunity in some way to let us see our fantasy of the novel. This work was done by yourself sitting in a room with a typewriter or pencil, but it was not very cinematic, so we had to figure out a way to represent his creative process and real masterpiece.
The Hemingway version you presented is extremely complicated: an excellent prose designer and storyteller may hate feminism, racism, and be cruel to those around him. Do you find it challenging to distinguish art from artists?
burn: As a producer, our job is to put everything (complexity, good and bad) together, not to separate art from the artists in the film.
There are simple storytelling and moral storytelling. A person in a white hat is a good person and a person in a black hat is a bad person. But life is not like that, real people are not like that. Everyone is complicated; a complicated person is superfluous. As storytellers, we have an obligation to look for this.
We are not afraid to say that he can be one thing or another, and we don’t think we have to step in and make rash judgments about him, which will force him into the pantheon of dust or history. He belongs in both places, or neither belongs to it, it really doesn’t matter.
He is a man who has left an indelible mark on the literary world. He has many negative characteristics that must be questioned. We have no right to make the final judgment. We just need to say: “This is what it looks like. This is racism, intolerable anti-Semitism, bad treatment of wives, sometimes toxic environments for children, and unnecessary cruel treatment of friends-and then this Work is sometimes a loving husband, sometimes a loving father.”
Novick: You have to look at the whole.We hope to be exploring [Hemingway’s life], The audience can make up their minds.
At certain moments in the movie, we really revealed some very difficult and problematic aspects of his life and creation.The writer we love and admire, Abraham Verghese (Abraham Verghese) shook his head [in the film] And said: “He is deeply flawed like you and me. But he is there.” This is not to say that it is okay, but we are saying, “Yes.”
In a letter released last week, nearly 140 non-fiction filmmakers criticized PBS executives for lack of diversity and excessive reliance on white creators. I want to get your reply to this letter.
burn: First of all, I wholeheartedly support the writer’s goal. I think this is very important. One of the reasons why we entered public television is our commitment to inclusiveness and diversity. This is not only our approach in terms of themes, but also within our own company.
But can we do better? Of course we can. Can PBS do better? of course can.
We will work with some underwriters to see if we can really solve this problem with real dollars. Most of the funds we raise do not come from PBS; it comes from external sources. As PBS and letter writers struggle with an ongoing American story, we may be able to help to some extent.
I am very proud of it [PBS] Do it like everyone else. Are the facts not good enough? This just means that we all have room for improvement.