Thursday, January 31, 2013

Hemingway and his movies

When they took his stories to Hollywood, even Ernest Hemingway didn’t have the clout to get everything he wanted – but he got most of it. For example, they shot Old Man and the Sea in Peru, not Cuba, I think because Hemingway wanted a 1,000-pound Pacific marlin as Spencer Tracy’s co-star.
Consider this: Of the seven big budget Hemingway stories-cum-movies, not one was set in the U.S. although all were about Americans. Hemingway appears to find Americans more interesting in Pamplona than in Kansas City and we probably are, the expatriate experience being what it is.
So here are the seven major movies from Hemingway books with some carping by me. Generally I think Hemingway worked well on the screen because he didn’t like to write physical description and movies didn’t require it:

For Whom the Bell Tolls – Nobody understood the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) then or now but they trundled the cameras up to northern California in 1943 and got stoicism from Gary Cooper (Hemingway’s personal friend and ideal movie star) and legitimacy from Ingrid Bergman who had just finished Casablanca.

To Have and Have Not (1944) – This is remembered as the Bogart/Bacall picture and actually it’s a pretty good story about chasing Vichyite Nazis in Martinique. Some called it Casablanca in the Caribbean and there’s truth in that.

Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952) – The original was a short story, not a novel. I find it tough to summon rooting interest in a protagonist who is a) unpleasantly self-indulgent and b) terminally ill. Gregory Peck tries but is miscast as a cynic.

The Sun Also Rises (1957) – Written in 1925, it is (my opinion) Hemingway’s best. Couple it with Green Hills of Africa and A Moveable Feast and you’ve got Hemingway in précis. Ty Power and Ava Gardner are fine, but Errol Flynn, as a roué, swipes the picture while enhancing it. I think TSAR stands with Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night as the best American novel. And both made splendid movies.

A Farewell to Arms – It was filmed twice, in 1932 with Helen Hayes and Gary Cooper and in 1957 with Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones. That was back when they gave actors lapidary names like Rock and accepted performances in kind. As a New York Times book reviewer declared in 1929, “The part which will sit least comfortably with the reader is Lt. Henry’s desertion.” This is a much-admired story, although not by me. Desertion in wartime (yes, even from the Italian Army in World War I) is not justified by a lyrical romance.

The Old Man and the Sea (1958) – Hemingway admitted, in the 1930s, that marlin were being “depopulated” in the Cuba/Key West/Bimini fishing grounds. And Hemingway worked to preserve the game fish even as he caught far more than his share and more than anyone could ever eat. For sharks, the bogiemen of the sea, to attack an injured game fish was just a day’s work. Hemingway used to shoot sharks with a tommy gun, so his character, the old man, could hardly have been surprised by a shark attack.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Wise guy responses to classic quotes

One way to keep your intellectual appetite whetted is to duel with famous wise guys from history. Each attributed quote is followed by my response. The plan is to prove that classic wisdom isn’t always classic. OK, so it’s a pugnacious little premise. I don’t care. It’s fun.

“My definition of a philosopher is of a man up in a balloon, with his family and friends holding the ropes which confine him to earth and trying to haul him down.” – Louisa May Alcott
“My definition of a drudge is one perpetually hauled to earth,” I told her. We’d clashed before. I deeply resented her habit of pouring tea onto my trousers.
“Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States.” – Profirio Diaz
I asked Diaz, “Would Mexico’s lot be improved by adjacency to, say China?” The plain truth startled him. In tequila veritas, I shrugged.
“There is a Northwest Passage to the intellectual world.” – Laurence Stern
“And an exit that’s like one of those flume rides at a theme park,” I observed.
“The public be damned.” – William Henry Vanderbilt
Now look, Mr. V, I’m guessing that you don’t mean it … that you’re in a mood, that you’ll retract immediately, right? … What? ... Oh. Well same to you!
“The absurd is the essential concept and the first truth.” – Albert Camus
Camus was spouting nonsense. “That which makes no sense is almost impossible to refute,” I told him, illustrating with plot nuances from the Three Stooges whom Camus dismissed as irrelevant.
“I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.” – William Tecumseh Sherman
And, to make it more Shermanesque, if dragooned to the Inaugural Ball, I will not dance.
“What a horrible invention, the bourgeois, don’t you think?” Gustavo Flaubert
“What would you propose, Gustave – a nation of boulevardiers?” He was shocked at my prescience, having thought me a dolt, and hurried away surely to write Maupassant in whom he confided his intellectual crises.”
“I am willing to love all mankind, except an American.” – Samuel Johnson (1778)
That’s an insult, right? Because seriously Dr. Johnson, a lot of us Americans would pay to come and be insulted by the Great Dr. Johnson in a real London coffeehouse. Oh, and if the Germans ever give you guys any trouble, who you gonna call?
“I love creditable acquaintance; I love to be the worst of the company.” – Jonathan Swift
As do I. It becomes tedious: I smash a flagon of ale; Swift smashes two. I comport myself as a jester; Swift becomes a blithering idiot. Let it end.