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Thursday, 29 July 2021
The great pictures of Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway recovering from injuries at the American Red Cross Hospital in Milan, Italy, 1918.
Ernest Hemingway Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.
I really enjoyed watching Ken Burns' Hemingway series. It's like watching a man car crash from being a great and visionary writer (the short stories are coming from the library soon... but otherwise no I haven't) to a gaslighting bore of a man wallowing amidst the carcasses of his vomit strewn legend.
'Yes. I think Martha Gellhorn threatened him fundamentally. His writing begins to decline. He sort of goes into his shell, he doesn’t want to go out. She wants to go out and cover the world, particularly the greatest cataclysm in human history. He’s not so sure, having been through the first world war and having done the Spanish civil war. And so I think he’s terrified of her, maybe emasculated. I think she needed her independence. As she said, she wanted her name back. She thought he could be a partner and he had pitiably no ability to be a partner.'
As he got older, he didn't take kindly to those more talented than him - he ended up flying to Europe to cover the Second World War as a journalist, leaving Gelhorn (who was always going to go, who basically shamed him into going) to take a boat.
One of the most enjoyable features of the series was Ken Burns' use of still images.
Here's what he said about these still images.
Your films are particularly celebrated for their use of archive photography. What is it about the still image that is rendered powerful in moving pictures?
'My father was an anthropologist and he was also an amateur still photographer. I wanted to become a film-maker and I ended up going to a college where all of my teachers were social documentary, still photographers. And so the still photograph is a kind of DNA of my work. I look at a photograph as if it is the arresting of an alive moment. So as I film it, I want to take that feature film-maker’s sensibility and each photograph is a master shot that has a long shot, a medium shot, a close-up, a tilt, a pan, a reveal detail. In the opening of The Civil War you tilt from an innocent boy’s face down to his waistband stuffed with two revolvers. That spoke a million words.'
So the still image becomes something different. It's lingered on, there is movement (on the screen at least) as different elements are highlighted. That creates a dynamism of reading where one lingers over the separate elements of face, gaze, gesture, body, environment, relationships.
There's one image at the end where Hemingway has collapsed into his injury-raddled alcoholism and his eyes stare out, a shell of a man. It's an image that runs into the clip of him giving his stilted scripted delivery to a movie camera, the pain of his end rubbing raw on the screen.
It's basic montage, a way of bringing drama out of a still image of everyday life, of combining, repeating, and layering so that the still image stretches out into time. In the documentary everything is considered, and everything matters - and that extends to the still images, and these are then 'altered' through scale and movement in a very quiet kind of Tretyakov photomontage where the cutting and the scaling are gradual and slow and performed through movement of the photographs on the screen. These photographs are so full of content, so naturalistic, and so powerful, there is an elevated drama to them, a drama that is added by the connections made by the photographs' movements across the screen. Eyes, hands, gestures, bodies, emotions are connected through this movement and so these still images look like cinema - really good social realist cinema.
They made me contrast them with staged photographs where a similar thing happens, where everything is considered, everything matters, where connections are sought to be made between different elements. But somehow they never look like the images chosen in this kind of documentary - mostly because they are not. They definitively aren't that idea of the 'great photograph' that connects to the time when Hemingway was at his writing heights, and that we (or I) still have moments of romantic yearnings for. These staged images look like staged images that are trying to look like cinema in a way that comes from an idea of cinema that comes from an earlier staged photography.
It makes me wonder what a great picture is and how photographs loop across time and link into different visual and cultural histories and how we read that and intuitively understand it at a really fundamental level without necessarily being consciously aware of it.
And the more traffic a particular loop receives, the more fatigued we get with a particular idea of what an image is or can be. It's not about being a great image anymore because that very idea is stuck in a distant past, it's about being interesting and engaging, and many other things I'm not quite sure of. But interesting, yes. And the images in Hemingway were interesting, so where am I? I'm not quite sure.