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PARK CITY - It's been another good year for documentaries at the Sundance Film Festival from what I've heard. I, unfortunately, have missed most, though I did catch up with Alex Gibney's "We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks" today. In a word, excellent. But I'll cover that in another capsule post later on.
The only other doc I've been able to catch up with was actually one of my most anticipated films of the fest: Barbara Kopple's "Running from Crazy." An examination of the Hemingway family's unfortunate history of mental illness and suicide, the film is seen through the eyes of "the littlest Hemingway," actress and model Mariel.
It's a fascinating subject and Kopple is one of the great navigators of the form, having won two Oscars, for 1976's "Harlan County, USA" and 1991's "American Dream." Indeed, the latter is the only film to sweep Sundance's documentary award categories. So the stage was already set for this one to be captivating, and that it is.
I'm a huge fan of Ernest Hemingway, and no small part of that has to do with his lust for life, his fight with demons and the intriguing ideas of machismo that circulated his life and times and, certainly, dominated his work. But his family legacy has been just as intriguing, and particularly the leg of that legacy that stems from son Jack: Joan ("Muffet"), Margot ("Margaux") and Mariel.
Kopple frames the film largely with Mariel's relationship to Margaux, the tragic supermodel who finally took her own life in 1996, building toward that fact. Mariel complicated things for Margaux. Her arrival took attention away from her. And it couldn't have been more evident and come to more of a head than the release of 1976's "Lipstick," which saw Mariel receive great notices after her sister got her the gig, while Margaux's work was largely panned.
It's a classic sort of story, really. And Mariel admits in the film to the internal animosity. "I thought she was stupid," she says with tears of embarrassment in her eyes. "And I was mortified [when people would mistake me for her]." Out of context, those quotes sound odd and catty, but they get to the heart of something the film trades in: the complexity of this family and how much of an outcast from it Mariel really seemed to be.
At one point a revelation is made that is rather stunning: Mariel admits she saw her father sometimes enter the girls' bedroom when they were young and sexually abuse Muffet and Margaux. "I didn't know what he was doing, but I knew it wasn't right," she says on camera, adding that she was never herself abused -- though one is nevertheless left wondering if that is actually true. Further, she hypothesizes that unfortunate past as something relating to how extremely close to their father Muffet and Margaux were, while, again, Mariel seemed to be on the outside of the unit, closer to her mother than anyone else.
Amid all of this, Mariel struggles with the "Hemingway curse." Ernest's 1961 suicide is legendary but two of his siblings also killed themselves, as did his father. This in addition to Margaux. That curse is theorized as a suicide gene and the very potential of such a thing leaves Mariel racked with fear for her own daughters as she participates in charity work and suicide prevention initiatives.
The film is light on formalism. But it is nevertheless a compelling portrait of one of the most enigmatic American families in history.
Everything: Sundance Film Festival
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