He wrote the books on being a man

Preview: Retracing the author's steps, Monty Python alum Michael Palin proves Hemingway's way isn't the only way to define masculinity.

May 03, 2000|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Michael Palin, the Monty Python alum who's become PBS' favorite traveling man, takes a TV walk in the shoes of Ernest Hemingway, and macho manhood will never be the same.

"Michael Palin's Hemingway Adventure," which begins tonight on public television, is a delightful travelogue, but the real fun is in the way Palin subverts the notion of masculinity offered by Hemingway in his writings and life and subtly constructs a new definition of what it means to be a man.

The fun starts with the opening credits. All the iconic Hemingway images are there, offered up in snapshot form: Hemingway on safari, Hemingway at the bull fights in Pamplona, Hemingway with fourth wife, Mary. But, then, you notice that Palin has been inserted Zelig-like into each frame, including one that has Hemingway at a cafe with his arm around a woman -- only the woman's face is Palin's.

As anyone who has ever seen Palin's marvelous work with Python knows, this is not a man afraid to don a dress -- and a wig, some rouge, mascara and pumps. But what would Ernie say?

Palin, who was inspired to do the travel series after re-reading most of the Hemingway canon for his own novel, "Hemingway's Chair," starts out by saying how much he admires Hemingway and how he wants to see the world as the Nobel-Prize-winning author did.

"There's something about Hemingway that struck a chord in me," Palin says. "He brought places to life, exotic places, places I'd never been before. He managed to create a world that, if you're bold and fearless enough, could be your world, too."

And, so, boldly off he goes to Spain with copies of "The Sun Also Rises" and "Death in the Afternoon" in his backpack. Palin does get in a bull ring, but only to face a bicycle with bull's horns mounted on the handlebars. The bike is used to train wannabe matadors, and it becomes apparent all too soon that Palin is not quite made of the right stuff for the ring.

In Valencia, where a giant fiesta is held in connection with the fights, Palin mainly finds himself irate by what he describes as the world's noisiest fireworks display. Again, this isn't exactly the reaction Hemingway had to the flowing of noise, booze, testosterone, adrenalin and sexuality.

As Palin watches a matador finish a bull, he starts moving away from Hemingway by degrees as he says, "For him [Hemingway], to confront death was to experience life at its most intense. I shall never feel about it the way they do, and that alone intrigues me."

Things don't go much better in Africa.

Most of the large animals make Palin nervous, especially one snorting, drooling, old buffalo bull that seems particularly annoyed by him.

When he joins government agents searching for poachers, his main concern seems to be that they might actually catch them -- poachers having been known to shoot poison-tipped arrows at government officials.

The African journey does end an up note, though, when the clouds finally part to show the majestic mountain summit that Hemingway described in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro."

By the time Palin bombs out as a hunter and fly fisherman in northern Michigan, Hemingway's summer haunts as an adolescent, he is finally ready to admit: "I've learned that I almost certainly lack the killer instinct."

Let the record show that he did, though, almost maim his guide when he just missed hooking the man's ear with his sorry attempt at fly casting.

Italy, Paris, back to Africa and on to Cuba and Key West, "Michael Palin's Hemingway Adventure" works on many different levels: There's Palin's charm and self-deprecating style. There are his keen insights on life, balanced nicely by pure silliness from time to time, as when he sheds mock tears while singing an overly sentimental ballad written by Hemingway's mother.

Palin says he came to celebrate Hemingway, and maybe he did. But, in the end, more than anything else, "Michael Palin's Hemingway Adventure" joyously deconstructs the famed "Hemingway code" of manhood, and offers in the person of Palin a far more enlightened notion of masculinity.

`Michael Palin's Hemingway Adventure'

Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67)

When: 9 to 11 tonight

In brief: You're the man, Michael.

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