Archive for Sunday, January 6, 2002

Filmmaker focuses on American literary giant for latest PBS production

January 6, 2002


— With its bronze statue depicting Tom and Huck heading off for another adventure, the occasional whitewashed fence and the muddy Mississippi rolling past, Samuel Clemens' boyhood hometown has seen its share of Mark Twain mania over the years.

But even in Hannibal a town of 18,000 that already draws a half-million Twain tourists annually there's speculation about the impact of Ken Burns' new documentary "Mark Twain."

The two-part, four-hour film airs Jan. 14-15 on PBS.

A small advance viewing drew a standing-room-only crowd this fall in this northeast Missouri town 100 miles north of St. Louis. "I deal a lot with the general public's perception of Mark Twain," said Henry Sweets, director and 24-year employee of the Mark Twain Museum. "I think this is going to be a very powerful, very pleasing presentation for the general public."

At Mark Twain historic sites, visitor enthusiasm never really subsides, it just comes in varying waves. So Hannibal museum and tourist officials expect an uptick in attendance, but they don't care to venture too much into the risky calculation that can be affected by everything from weather to the economy.

Few filmmakers in America, however, can focus the public's attention on a particular period or person in history like Burns.

His documentaries, including "The Civil War" in 1990, "Baseball" in 1994 and "Jazz" in 2001, have drawn millions of viewers to PBS; the war documentary was the highest rated series ever on American public television.

Contradictions fuel film

Burns said he was drawn to Twain for the same reasons he selects many of his documentary topics. "I have essentially been making the same film over and over again, which sort of asks the deceptively simple question, 'Who are we?'

"You know Mark Twain once said, 'I am not an American. I am the American.' To me, he just demands to be done. He's a person who seems to embody all of our contradictions," Burns said.

Those contradictions fuel much of the documentary.

Burns tells the story as a tale of two men: the real-life Samuel Clemens, who lost family members to tragedy and was forced to tour the lecture circuit after making bad investments; and his alter-ego Mark Twain, the successful writer whose work has been heralded as the birth of distinctly American literature.

"Samuel Clemens had more ups and downs than anyone you could imagine," Burns said. "He had deaths. He lost nearly everyone and everything that he held dear and still managed to survive.

"And meanwhile Mark Twain was the most conspicuous person on the planet, being funny for a living, and in addition producing literature that, as Ernest Hemingway said about Huck Finn, was the beginning of American literature."

Burns said while people may be familiar with Twain's work, particularly "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "Adventures of Tom Sawyer," his writing still resonates. Burns said he was particularly struck by Twain's gift of reflecting back at his audience, "good and bad, ugly and beautiful, right and wrong ... and did so with an art that will last thousands of years."

Twain on the topic of afterlife: "I am silent on the subject because of necessity. I have friends in both places." And on love: "You can't reason with your heart; it has its own laws, and thumps about things, which the intellect scorns."

Twain has so many well-crafted sayings that people attribute wrong ones to him all the time the assumption being something so witty must have been said by Twain.

When words are enough

Burns said, in many instances, he just got out of the way of Twain's words.

"This is a film that has fewer proportional 'talking heads,' on-camera experts, than most of the films we've made," Burns said. "Basically, at the end of the day, you just want to shut up and listen to him because of the way he could turn a phrase."

Turning Twain's art of the phrase into compelling visuals had its challenges, Burns said.

The documentary team filmed the places Twain wrote particularly his writing room from Quarry Farm in Elmira, N.Y., Clemens' family summer house in the 1870s-80s, and Twain's desk in his billiard parlor in his Hartford, Conn., house.

"We really treated the actual manuscripts he wrote as one would treat an old photograph. We went in and microscopically examined with an exploring camera eye, the kind of landscape of the written work," he said.

Burns said he used a similar strategy in a documentary about Thomas Jefferson when filming a draft of the Declaration of Independence. He thinks it's an effective device in trying to convey the idea that words matter.

"Twain being as outsized and as influential and as funny and as sad as he is, is essentially American history running on all cylinders. And that's what we look for."

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