Movie – Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women is based on the biography of the same title written by Harriet Reisen. The docudrama gives us an intimate look at the great American author Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888). She was raised by transcendentalist parents and grew up living near many of the well-known intellectuals of the day, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau. The documentary uses dialog taken from diaries and letters, as well as interviews with scholars of American literature. Poverty made it necessary for her to go to work at an early age as a teacher, seamstress, governess, domestic helper, Civil War nurse and writer. It was the tremendous popularity of her most famous work Little Women that lifted the family out of poverty. Alcott became the equivalent of a multimillionaire in her lifetime, based on the astounding sales of her books. Most surprising is that she led, anonymously and under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard, a literary double life, not discovered until the 1940s. As Barnard, Alcott penned some thirty pulp fiction thrillers, with characters running the gamut from murderers and revolutionaries to cross-dressers and opium addicts. The documentary is a remarkably detailed portrait of a strong-minded woman who was far ahead of her time and much more complex than the dainty lady others have presented.
Movie – Ernest Hemingway: Rivers to the Sea is the DVD for American Masters, a PBS documentary about the life of the Nobel Prize winning author Ernest Hemingway. The treatment is typical post-Ken Burns music/words over pictures montage. Obviously, you can’t pack Hemingway’s work and adventures or complex personality into 90 minutes, but the narrative does capture most of his life. It uses fragments of his fiction, diaries and letters plus interviews with his friends, relatives and various academics. More than 40 years after his death, Hemingway is one of the most widely read, and widely written about, American authors. In literally throwing himself into a variety of challenging and potentially life-threatening situations, Hemingway swayed public perception of writers from that of presumed privilege to that of bold action. He lived a “big” life but under the macho exterior beat the heart of a sensitive soul. The documentary, in a kind of stream-of-consciousness style, moves through his early life in Oak Park, IL, to his war injury in World War 1 Spain, to Paris in the ‘20s, to his home in Cuba, to his final days living in Ketchum, Idaho. It speaks to the difficult art of writing and the writer’s lonely life, as well as bullfighting, fishing, big-game hunting, gangsters, boxers, soldiers and, of course, his four wives.
Movie – Mark Twain is a biographical documentary about the great 19th-century American author Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain), directed by Ken Burns. Burns distills the essence of Samuel Clemens into almost four hours via interviews with many Twain scholars, plus other authors, such as Arthur Miller and William Styron. Hemingway called Twain’s book, Huckleberry Finn, the beginning of American literature. The character “nigger Jim” represented the first time that a black man was given a voice in literature. No aspect of Clemens’ life was omitted from this documentary – his family and relationships, his failed businesses, and his travels through Europe. Burns documents Clemens’ life with hundreds of photographs, maps, journal entries, readings and even a few very early film clips of Clemens himself. Clemens was raised in Hannibal, Missouri, along the Mississippi River. As a young man, he traveled west and moved frequently from city to city working as a printer’s apprentice, a steamboat pilot, an unsuccessful prospector and a newspaper reporter. He later became an essayist and novelist, and his comic genius was soon apparent. Twain made money doing speaking tours, where he regaled audiences with humorous stories of his travels and life on the Mississippi. He was a poor kid who became very wealthy and built a fabulous mansion, yet railed against the indulgences of capitalism. I loved this documentary about Mark Twain’s legendary life. Did you know that Mark Twain was a lifelong creator and keeper of scrapbooks? He took them with him everywhere and filled them with souvenirs, pictures, and articles about his books and performances.