Hemingway & Gellhorn
Philip Kaufman is among the strangest cases in contemporary American cinema. He has made one classic (The Right Stuff, 1983), several films with terrific elements (Invasion of the Body Snatchers , The Wanderers ), and a bunch of absolute shockers, starting with The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) and proceeding through Quills (2000) and Twisted (2004).
The Kaufman Problem (for critics, at least) is easily and swiftly stated: it’s hard to sort out whether his core as an artist is what leads most directly to his best work or to his worst work. So he’s a real nutcracker case for auteurism: it’s near impossible to discern (in the terms that Peter Wollen set out in the structuralist 1960s) the genuine, recurring personality or signature of Kaufman from the “noise” created by industry, genres, producer interference, preordained scripts, changing cultural fads, and so forth. Or the maybe all that accumulated noise (sometimes very interesting in itself!) is really what his work amounts to?
Now in his 80s, it is not terribly likely that Kaufman will get to make another major feature film (at one point in the past 20 years, he was in the running to direct a Nicholas Ray biopic). At the same time, as I write these words, he is about to be feted with a complete Cinémathèque française retrospective, in his presence, in March 2020 [update: this event was subsequently postponed due to Coronavirus]. Beginning as a semi-experimental, “ferociously independent director”, runs the central blurb for this event (penned by Jean-François Rauger), then becoming a dazzling representative of the “New Hollywood” that surged forth in the 1960s and ‘70s, but also “vanishing” along with it … A filmmaker with “European” obsessions (we’ll get to those), yet “never losing sight of the need for fascination which constitutes the very essence of American cinema”. That’s a mouthful. Are any of these contexts really helpful in defining Kaufman? Or is it more a matter of positioning and tracking him with the wayward tides of cultural time?
If Kaufman’s career has already reached its logical end (and I hope to be proven wrong about that!), it did not conclude with a tiny-budget, digital film like Alan Rudolph’s wonderful Ray Meets Helen (2017), or a defiantly baroque testament such as Monte Hellman’s Road to Nowhere (2010) – to take two artists emerging more or less from the same historical “moment” in American cinema as Kaufman, but far more easily graspable and recognisable as auteurs in the sense implied above (and also exhibiting – in terms of production opportunities – a sadly more evident downhill spiral). No, Kaufman bows out with Hemingway & Gellhorn, a reasonably handsome HBO production graced with many intriguing digital composites (placing its characters into clips from newsreels and other archival footage) and two big stars: Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman.
Is it recognisably, at least on its surface, a Kaufman film? It sure is. That is, if we have come to regard Kaufman films as needing to contain: a. a parade of famous historical figures from the arts and social-political movements (particularly from the modernist 20th century); b. outsize racial-cultural stereotypes; and c. kinky eroticism. It was Unbearable Lightness, of course that baked ‘c’ into his trademark signature; it wasn’t really part of The Right Stuff (although that does have some terrifically sexy byplay in it). On the ‘a’ count, Hemingway & Gellhorn is an almost non-stop onslaught of faces looking for names, or vice versa: Ernest dukes it out with a hefty fellow in a dubbing/projection room, a guy who, as he storms off, is greeted (by David Strathairn as John Dos Passos, “queered” in this depiction) as “Orson”. We won’t see him again, so a quick follow-up clarifies the matter: “What’s eating Welles?”, or somesuch. Yes, you have just watched the legendary punch-up of Welles and Hemingway during the post-production of Joris Ivens’ The Spanish Earth (1937)! And you will likewise be prompted to note and/or recognise Ivens himself (Lars Ulrich from Metallica), Robert Capa (Santiago Cabrera), among others … not forgetting (in a weird torsion between history and its representations) Robert Duvall, who once played Stalin (for Ivan Passer in 1992), as now a Stalinesque-knock-off named “General Petrov”.
Speaking of which, there’s ‘b’ in our list: lusty Spanish flamenco dancers, Russians drinking vodka and challenging foes to Roulette duels, a dashingly handsome revolutionary hero (Rodrigo Santoro as Paco Zarra, a fictionalisation of the likely Soviet-executed José Robles) … Every stereotype is here, one after the other, shamelessly, and often combined for extra wallop into a single dramatic or comic face-off (such as that between Hemingway and Petrov). Even, at the least inspired moments, Hemingway and Gellhorn themselves descend to the marionette level of “macho writer bear” and “feisty screwball lady” – although Owen and Kidman certainly throw everything they’ve got at the task at hand.
Only Raúl Ruiz in Klimt (2006) really knew how to restage these mythic scenes of cultural celebrities in love and war, with all their associated stereotypes, clichés and performance modes, and make it work by putting the lot into strategic quotation marks: all as tableaux from a prewritten book (or a thousand prewritten books). Kaufman, more on the side of that “need for fascination which constitutes the very essence of American cinema”, tries to keep things more or less “real” and casual, but can never risk us missing the significance of anything that’s floating past. No less than Klimt, in fact, Hemingway & Gellhorn – scripted by Jerry Stahl (of Permanent Midnight  fame!) and the immensely gifted Barbara Turner (1936-2016: Georgia , Pollock  and The Company , all remarkable) – is a patchwork of quotations from interviews, oft told tales and several credited biographies, plus some necessary bridging extrapolations of the imagination (“dramatic re-enactment” – perhaps especially in the sex scenes).
The different, trademarked bits of Kaufmanian cinema don’t always come together coherently here. The film is framed, intriguingly, by a (probably compositely derived) interview with the elderly Gellhorn (Kidman in heavy make-up: no Irishman effects on the faces here!) that begins, and mostly proceeds, as an intimate narration addressed to us – until, at the last, it’s pulled back into one deliberately awkward interview that breaks down on the uttering of the famous Wikipedia quote from the great and proud journalist: “Why should I be merely a footnote in his life?” Long before that, though – the first words we hear, in fact – there’s another Wiki passage:
If I practised sex out of moral conviction, that was one thing; but to enjoy it ... seemed a defeat. I accompanied men and was accompanied in action, in the extrovert part of life; I plunged into that ... but not sex; that seemed to be their delight, and all I got was a pleasure of being wanted, I suppose, and the tenderness (not nearly enough) that a man gives when he is satisfied. I daresay I was the worst bed partner in five continents.
OK: a bit grim, but definitely honest, testamentary stuff. But how to square the content of that monologue with the scenes of Gellhorn in erotic congress with the Big Guy? Martha seems to be “plunging” into sex alright here. These are (ahem) the “European” scenes, and not just because they’re supposedly happening in European locales: we are back into a rerun of the sophisticated, continental erotica of Unbearable Lightness, Henry & June (1990) and Quills. Meaning: H & G’s first fuck, as war bombs explode in Madrid and ceiling plaster falls over their tangled, naked bodies, is a “spontaneous” recreation (or anticipation, or something) of the opening sequence of Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour (1959); while an odd bit of (initially hesitant and dysfunctional) intercourse that takes place in a dressing room, as our lovers stare (amazed!) at the queer, gender-fluid masks and clothes coming on and off vulgar-cabaret performers in the adjoining space, is (I guess) some kind of vaguely Kubrickian, Eyes Wide Shut (1999) type of evoked cinema-orgy-simulacrum.
Speaking of simulacra: sometimes, the real heart-and-soul of this film seems to be in those fiddly digital composites of fact and fiction that I’ve already mentioned. These sections and flashes occasionally work quite well. Kidman’s superimposed face stares out at us gravely from Holocaust footage; her and Owen dive in and out of war scenes and The Spanish Earth, as well as chatting with US Presidents and their First Ladies (a fat lot of good – in a fine irony – that does their predominantly leftist causes). Kaufman almost arrives to a paroxysm of artifice here, as if his film were a sombre, historical-modernist inversion of an Amy Heckerling comedy – her melancholic Vamps (2012) is not really so far away, after all, from exactly this: history as a cartoon slide-show of citations that can, nonetheless, move us deeply.
Hemingway & Gellhorn, for all its awkwardness as “historical drama”, is never less than interesting to watch, and is sometimes captivating. Like Zalman King, another, far less celebrated contemporary, Kaufman was able to parlay a certain 1960s-era, sexual-liberation sensibility all the way into the feminist 21st century – successfully giving a glossy editorial spin, datelined “now”, to the retrospective recreation of 20th century scenes, cultural movements and heroic personages. It’s more of a successful highwire act, on this split-level of now and then, than Alan Rudolph managed in, say, The Moderns (1988), Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994) or Investigating Sex (2001). And that’s partly because Gellhorn and Hemingway, in reality, went on to such vastly different destinies – allowing a split in focus, and a structural comparison in the way we’re invited to view and assess them.
So if this is indeed Kaufman’s last film (and his last stand), it’s not too bad – and a heck of a lot better as a testament than Twisted.
© Adrian Martin 27 February 2020