Again, A Year Or Two With Ernest-“Papa: Hemingway In Cuba” (2015)-A Film Review
By Film Critic Emeritus Sam Lowell
[I will not bore the reader with yet again a detailed rationale for my recent taking myself “out to pasture,” retiring with the caveat that if I found something that interested me in the film world I reserved the right to comment via a timely review. Not as my erstwhile fellow film critic, Sandy Salmon, whom I cajoled into taking over the day to day chores at this site while he too waited to fade into the sunset of retirement, stated in his review of this same film when “the spirit moved me” which he falsely accused me of stealing from the Quakers who hardly had a copyright on the expression if Sandy would have known if he had been out in the real world over the past fifty years. Shockingly in taking over the job Sandy has needed the support of an associate, Alden Riley, to do the heavy legwork (like actually watching the films to be reviewed, grabbing summaries from Wikipedia maybe stealing some lines from reviews on Amazon, writing the first draft so I am not sure exactly what Sandy’s role is in all this). Up until the end I has done all that myself.
But I will let that pass as well since today I feel I need to say a few words about why I am doing a review of a film Sandy with a big assist from Alden who had to read from scratch some of Hemingway’s short stories which apparently neither he nor Sandy had read or more probably in Sandy’s case had not read in fifty years, already put in the can, Papa: Hemingway In Cuba, a semi-biopic of the old man who had so much influence on our generation of guys who liked to write, who liked that smooth clean sparse language while pushing on the story line without a lot of embellishment. For one of the few times in recent memory Sandy, once he found out the film was slated for review, and I watched the presentation together (Alden watched it later when he was assigned the heavy legwork). That is where the current tempest in a teapot got its start.
As Sandy stated in his review he and I had gravitated toward Hemingway in our respective high school days and never left that admiration behind. Although we both agreed that the story presented on film while gripping in parts had been overwrought about the emotional traumas Hemingway was going through as he aged, aged not gracefully ending upon the other end of a self-imposed shotgun blast we argued over who would do the review. Frankly I invoked my “seniority,” my emeritus status since the mere subject matter of the film, what did Sandy call it, what do the poor besieged Quakers call it, oh yeah, got me in a “the spirit moves me” mood.
The long and short of it was that Sandy went to the site administrator, Pete Markin, to complain that that “old geezer” was stepping on his toes. Pete brought us into his “office” which did not help much since the scene got a little ugly. I reminded Sandy, Sandy, bigtime film critic for the American Film Gazette back in the day that I had to tell him who Orson Welles was, who had produced Citizen Kane, what it was about and where it stood in the pantheon of world classic films when he had first started out in the business. Had to remind Sandy too that he was the one who wrote that glowing review about Planet of the Apes and how it was a sure bet to win, get this, the Oscar for Best Picture that year (and I think for Best Actor too and it was not Charlton Heston who he was touting). The film critic fraternity laughed about that one for years at our annual gatherings. From there only got worse until I let sleeping dogs lie and told Pete too let Sandy have his damn review.
Then the review came out and I could not believe that we had watched the same film. Couldn’t understand why Sandy did not take on Hemingway’s alcoholism, his taunting of his fourth, count them fourth wife, Mary and the severity of his writer’s block in the decisive period just a couple of years before he took his own life. Worse, worse of all Sandy only paid perfunctory mention to one of the great stories of the time, the Fidel Castro led guerilla war fight against the hated Batista regime in Cuba the results which still reverberates to this day. He totally failed to mention the scene where Papa and his young writer friend and acolyte (Ed in the movie) had doggedly come to grips as witnesses to a battle in the city between those two forces just like Papa had in the old days in Spain. I complained to Pete and he, pulling his hair out yet again, agreed that I could give “my take” on the film. See Pete knew, or I will assume that he knew, who was the guy to have done this review in the first place. Sam Lowell]
Papa: Hemingway in Cuba, starring Giovanni Ribisi, Joely Richardson, Adrian Sparks, filmed in Cuba, 2015
I have to agree with the esteemed regular film critic in this space that there was no question young men, and I have to agree with him on this as well maybe women too but Ernest Hemingway by subject matter and by reputation seemed to be the quintessential man’s man writer for good or evil, of the generation before mine and of my own generation who had a taste for the literary life saw him (along with Scott Fitzgerald on his good days, his The Great Gatsby good days) as the paragon of solid sparse writing that drew us in. Writing up a storm about the futility of World War I, the post-war alienation of the Jazz Age which his friend and fellow exile Scotty Fitzgerald practically invented, bullfighting in the hot afternoon in some drunken corrida, the glorious struggle in Spain where there appeared to be time enough to make the earth shake not just with mortars but with love and a million other short stories some of which made their way into film (and reviews by me, and, okay, okay Sandy).
Funny as a kid I first gravitated toward Hemingway via the movies although I didn’t actually know that until later when I happened to read one of his short stories The Killers which had been made into a movie (actually two one in 1946 but the one I am thinking of is the version done in 1962 with Lee Marvin and, ah, Ronald Reagan who later parlayed that role in the film as a connected gangster into the presidency of the United States or something like that. When I viewed that film one Saturday afternoon at the old Strand Theater in my growing up hometown I felt I knew the story line and lo and behold in the credits they noted that the thing was based on Papa’s short story of the same name. Talk about cinematic license though (and in that 1946 version as well since the story is only a few pages long and is only a “teaser” about a guy who took a couple of slugs without grumbling when a couple of hit men came a calling and the story unfolds from that slight hint of a start).
Like Sandy as a kid anything to do with Hemingway was like catnip and while I usually did my reading during the daytime on many a late night I devoured whatever I could get my hands on at the local branch of the town library. So when Sandy and I saw this film under review together, Papa: Hemingway In Cuba, we almost came to blows about who would review the thing. [See the introduction above for the gory details. Pete Markin] That emotional response on our parts despite the fact that both of us agreed that the film itself seemed kind of maudlin and less than informative as a slice of life semi-biopic.
Naturally since the film is not an actual full biopic about either Hemingway or the young writer, Denn Bart Petticlerc, whose memoir the film is based on the producers used plenty of cinematic license in translating that story to the screen (just as any self-respecting writer would use a great deal of literary license to the same effect). What was interesting and might have been of interest to me knowing what happened in the film Ed, the name for Denn in the film, was that he and Papa met after Ed had sent Papa a “love letter” and he responded by inviting him to Cuba for a little off-hand fishing (one of about twenty “manly” pursuits like boxing which writers like Norman Mailer in the generation after his felt compelled to follow as a mantra for their own writing prowess, bullfighting, safari hunting, deep sea fishing, amateur gun-fighting and seemingly every other on the edge activity except bocce which he never did master for some reason. Hemingway was into “action” in an age when men had to such pursuits to internally prove their manhood rather than like in my generation the more rationale reason to impress the girls. We always on a no dough, no girl Friday or Saturday night hanging around with nothing better to do used to speculate that all that manly-proving frenzy meant he might have been as we used to say “light on his feet.” I never heard anything that way and I am sure I would have in some be misbegotten doctoral thesis if there was any substance to the charge.) Damn I wish I had had the moxie, the balls to send the old man a “love letter” and maybe I would have had the opportunity to learn how to fish (and skinny dip).
In any case the mentor-surrogate son relationship that developed was something very different once a young writer (Ed Myers in the film played by Giovanni Ribisi) caught the attention of Ernest Hemingway (played by Adrian Spark who looked the very image of Papa when I looked at some old photographs). Hell Ed would fly back and forth to Miami at the drop of a hat on Papa’s summons if for no other reason than to go skinny-dipping in Papa’s pool or to sit drinking pina colas while Hemingway sucked up the real booze and got nasty at his fourth wife Mary. (That four marriage should have been the tip-off, take it from a guy with three unsuccessful marriages under his belt and has finally given up that chase, that Papa was not an easy guy to live with any more than I was).
Of course Hemingway seemingly spent half of his life in some kind of exile Paris, Africa, Idaho, or out of America anyway and Cuba was his home along with his fourth wife, the well-known foreign correspondent Mary Welsh, played by Joely Richardson, for a good portion of the last twenty or so years of his life. Funny 1958, 1959 in Cuba was like some kind of fateful muse in the period when Papa and Ed were friendly which also happened to be a time when the Cuban Revolution, Castro’s guerilla fighters, were coming down from the hills to confront Batista and his forces in the cities. It might be worth checking out what Batista’s agents thought of Hemingway rolling around the gin mills of the island having made it clear that he had been in Spain when the deal went down there in the 1930s. In a compelling scene Papa and Ed are “doing the do,” doing what any journalist worth his or her salt would do and go out get the story especially as the Castro forces were coming out of the hills so you knew at that point the regime’s days were short, extremely short so you had best get the story of history in the making or forget it.
As already noted this film suffered from some overwrought emotional scenes of Hemingway in decline, in a love-hate relationship with Mary which seemed cruelty itself on both their parts at time. The real shocker for any writer, even Sandy took note of the fact in passing and then blew it off, though was Hemingway’s frustration that he could no longer write, had “writer’s block” the dreaded words that every writer, pro or amateur, wakes up in the midnight hour sweating about. Where the whole ball of wax comes down is when Ed was sending in copious copy to his newspaper and Papa was standing around his typewriter, the word processor of the day, almost paralyzed with a drink of rye whisky to buck him up. Damn. Papa had the shakes that way too. Sandy did have it right maybe Papa had lost it at the end but go read A Farewell To Arms, The Sun Also Rises, For Whom The Bells Toll, and The Old Man and The Sea if you want to know what it was like when Papa had the words, when he wrote those sparse clean words for keeps. For the young you heard it here first.