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Ken Burns' Mark Twain

Warner Bros. // Unrated // January 8, 2002
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Gil Jawetz | posted February 11, 2002 | E-mail the Author
THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
"I was made merely in the image of God but not otherwise resembling Him enough to be mistaken for Him by anybody but a very near sighted person."

With this quote Ken Burns begins his documentary on the life and words of Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. Burns only makes films about America's greatest subjects. His most famous films are the ones that stretch out over a dozen hours, the ones he considers his trilogy of the cornerstones of American culture: The Civil War, Baseball, and Jazz (His brother's 14 hour New York: A Documentary Film also belongs on that list) In Mark Twain (at nearly four hours merely a short film by his standards) he applies the same gravity to an author considered by many to be the first truly American writer.

Twain's experiences leading up to his becoming the most famous author in the world (printer's apprentice, steamboat pilot, unsuccessful prospector) seemed to have provided him with a very American perspective from which he commented on just about everything in our society. He called the Bible "perhaps the most damnatory biography that exists in print anywhere," and he wrote "The Gilded Age" as an indictment of the wealthy at a time when social and economic divisions were being ignored by many. Having grown up around slave-owning whites (and with slaves certainly too scared to speak out) he later discovered for himself how treacherous that institution was, and he incorporated that anger into what many consider his most enduring masterpiece "Huckleberry Finn."

But Burns' film also makes clear that Clemens was a man of perplexing complexity. While he railed against the indulgences of capitalism he was also a voracious spender and consumer, building a mansion for his family and constantly trying to find new ways to make money. Clemens' life is rife with parallels and contradictions, from the early deaths of his siblings to the deaths of most of his children, from his enthusiastically performing on the lucrative speaking circuit early in his career to his bitterly falling back on it after his finances started to sour. Amazingly, he was born and died during appearances by the rare Haley's Comet.

Burns never lets the viewer forget that Clemens was essentially two men: The formerly poor kid who never wanted to be without again, and Twain, the outspoken storyteller whose public persona was larger than legend. Through his wit and intelligence Clemens managed to blur the line between what was real and what was an act and through legendary publications like "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer", "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court", and "Huckleberry Finn" (which Ernest Hemmingway called the beginning of American literature) he helped define American values.

Ken Burns' Mark Twain is an engaging viewing experience. Its generous use of Twain's own words helps illustrate why the man is revered, even though Kevin Conway's reading of the material is a bit cutesy. Burns' trademark use of archival photos layered with narration, voice over, music, and sound effects is always effective and, along with Keith David's narration, helps suggest the enormity of the subject's importance while still keeping a sense of humor. Those interviewed, including playwright Arthur Miller, author Russell Banks, actor Hal Holbrook, and a bevy of Twain scholars. help convey lots of information about Twain as well as their own emotional experiences with his work. The film is, however, too reverential to include any real criticism of Twain (although charges that "Huckleberry Finn" is actually a racist work are dismissed as short sighted) but the goal of Burns' film (and, indeed, most of his films) is to celebrate the subject in all his contradictory glory and to revel in his finest moments while remembering the low ones as well.

VIDEO:
The full-frame video preserves the original format of the film from its run on PBS. Much of it is made up of Burns' unique style of filming archival still photographs. It has been preserved just fine here. The interviews are shot on film and are nicely lit.

AUDIO:
The audio, also typical Burns, is a complex mixture of narration, interview, score, and layered incidental sound effects. The Dolby Digital surround track reproduces the subtle mix elegantly and perfectly. Closed Captioning is also available.

EXTRAS:
A couple of interviews with Burns and collaborator Dayton Duncan have been included, as well as a short documentary on Burns' filmmaking process, with valuable insights and behind the scenes footage. Outtakes from many of those interviewed for the film are also included. This is a particularly interesting set of extras for those curious about both Twain and Burns.

FINAL THOUGHTS:
As always, patience is a requirement for enjoying Burns' work. Even though this is a relatively short work from the filmmaker it is still longer than a typical biopic. Burns' doesn't engage in the sort of capsule summarization of many other filmmakers and anyone who is willing to spend a couple of nights watching Mark Twain will definitely feel they better know the man for it.

Email Gil Jawetz at [email protected]

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