Dirt: Hemingway, good, bad & ambient

Ken Burns's new documentary.

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Watch: Hemingway (PBS). Kyle Chayka consumes the latest Ken Burns documentary as educational background noise.

Lately, digital entertainment seems to exist on a spectrum from timely to evergreen and dramatic to ambient. You can sit on the couch and watch appointment viewing on your TV screen with a weekly miniseries, then break down the plot with recaps afterward, or you can prop up your laptop and stream never-ending, meaningless Netflix reality TV series while you cook or clean.

Podcasts are a common choice for ambient consumption: They can play in the background during any kind of task, chore, or craft-based hobby and provide parasocial accompaniment. But what if I told you video documentaries could also be podcasts if you just don’t look at them? Ken Burns’s latest documentary, Hemingway, a three-part series on the life and work of Ernest Hemingway, is essentially a podcast with moving pictures. The pictures and video clips are fascinating — particularly the newly shot footage of Hemingway’s villa in Cuba that’s used as b-roll — but they’re all pretty much ancillary to the audio.

The documentary is a classic mix of educational interviews with living writers and scholars, who are all huge Hemingway fans, and archival footage and recordings of Hemingway speaking, or just existing. The author’s jolly but pained son Patrick provides the closest source on the man himself, while Jeff Daniels reads excerpts from Hemingway’s books in a manly baritone. I watched the three two-hour-long episodes almost entirely while I was doing other things: chores, work, Instagram scrolling. They were perfect for the purpose because I could look at the screen or safely ignore it entirely. The experience made me think that future Ken Burns documentaries should be released in parallel as podcasts.

To be honest, I didn’t know much about Hemingway, fact-wise, before watching the films. If you’re a writer feeling particularly precarious in terms of your “career” and “legacy” I would maybe not recommend them: The narrative backbone is the changing stances of critics on Hemingway’s work, which is like a roller coaster, drastically up and down with every few books. Most often the critics hate one of the books but it sells well, or both the public and the critics hate it, and Hemingway suffers a massive crisis of confidence that causes him to drink more, get divorced, launch into an affair, get injured, or some combination thereof.

The writer interviewees’ commentaries might be the strangest part. Of course one wants other artists analyzing an artist’s work, but Hemingway’s actual contemporaries are dead and can’t be filmed. Tobias Wolff, Mario Vargas Llosa, Mary Karr, and Edna O’Brien are all boosters, taking inspiration from Hemingway’s fiction or at least his mythological stature, partaking of the archetype of the heroic scribe. It would have been more interesting to show dissent, but someone arguing that Hemingway is better forgotten — for his misogyny, colonialism, toxic masculinity, bad writing, whatever — wouldn’t give much momentum to a six-hour series.

Hemingway was likely a genius, definitely an alcoholic, probably had brain damage from many concussions, and lived to read his own obituaries when he survived a plane crash during an African expedition. Yet what stands out from the documentary is not the novelist but his various wives and lovers, drawn with much sharper relief, their struggles with the film’s subject imparting a pathos that’s weirdly missing from the man himself. They make the watch (or listen) worthwhile. — By Kyle Chayka

The Dirt: Make more novelist documentaries while they’re alive.