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"Sandra W. Bradley" <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Tue, 29 Jan 2002 10:28:09 -0500
text/plain (206 lines)
I subscribe to the Mark Twain Forum in digest form, so I haven't
participated in the discussion of the Burns/Duncan MARK TWAIN production
before now.

I am a documentary filmmaker.   Most of my work has aired on primetime
national PBS, like Ken Burns' work.  I have also made numerous films for
museums especially the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Like Ken
Burns' films, the films I make take a long time to complete, usually have
relatively high budgets (but not as high as Burns'), and often win
prestigious awards like Primetime Emmys.  I've even been thanked on the
Academy Awards but, to be honest, it's really the subject matter that wins
those, not the filmmaker, at least in the docs category.

In 1991, my most beloved "job" -- the primetime PBS SMITHSONIAN WORLD
series -- came to an end when we lost our funding.  Had there been a
seventh season in that series, one of the programs would have been about
the American places in Mark Twain's life.  We called it MARK TWAIN'S PLACES
in our development brochure.  So, after archiving what was valuable from
the series and filling the dumpster twice a week that summer (disposing of
the research materials of a decade), I wrote a National Endowment for the
Humanities (NEH) proposal for a planning grant to produce a documentary
biography about Mark Twain.

Many of you who subscribe to this forum know the story of my film because
you were on my NEH advisory panel or because I've interviewed you or met
you at ALA or at one of the last three State of Mark Twain Studies
conferences in Elmira.  In a nutshell, I worked on it from 1991 until the
present, raising money, writing scripts, and finally filming.  When Ken
Burns began work on his film, I had about 40 hours of film in the can, but
I knew PBS couldn't air two big biographies about Mark Twain comprised of
the same elements.  I was in a bad spot because I had money for only a
third of my project and no airdate and Ken Burns, as usual, was flush.  So
I threw out my costly NEH scripts and guiltily shelved my wonderful
scholars' interviews.  I set out to tell the story of Clemens' life in a
completely different way, one so unique it could complement Ken Burns'
film.  His would be the intellectual, critical, analytical story of Twain's
life, and mine would be the subjective, emotional story, self-told by the
author. My film wouldn't stand on its own without narration and scholars,
but it would be the ideal companion to the Burns film, adding "heart,"
emotion, and very spectacular present-day color visuals.

When I found that Ken Burns was moving forward, I also decided to try to
complete as much of the story as I could in this new and strange filmic
style, even though I had funding for only a single hour, deferring
compensation for my services and equipment for more than three years. When
I had nearly three hours edited, spanning events from SLC's birth to the
death of Jean, despite big gaps for lack of funding, I sent an hour to PBS.
I assumed PBS would want to make a big Mark Twain splash. I was even so
optimistic as to hope they might come up with finishing money for my film.
But PBS responded with a flattering rejection letter, calling the hour I
showed them "visually lush and captivating" -- then wished me good luck in
finding "another broadcast venue."  They said they had no place for any
more Mark Twain content than the Ken Burns documentary and an upcoming
Great Performances "Mark and Livy" drama.  It had never occurred to me
there could be too much Twain on PBS.

Here are my first impressions about Ken Burns' and Dayton Duncan's MARK
TWAIN before reading what any of you said and before talking with anyone
about what they thought of it.  To cram a life like that into 4 hours is a
feat to be admired, no matter how you do it.  It's what you could
affectionately term a "coffee-table documentary"  -- an overview that's
bound to be somewhat superficial no matter what you do.  For those of us
who have come to love Clemens/Twain with all his flaws, such a thing can
barely help but be disappointing in some ways.  That is what I think
accounts for much of the disparity between what some of you on the Forum
thought and what your friends thought.  How could learning a bit about Mark
Twain NOT prompt the response, "I didn't know" this or that?  If one of you
had simply spoken to a stranger on January 10th and given a 3-minute
nutshell of what YOU know of Mark Twain's life, you'd have gotten the same
reaction.  Think about it.  You probably HAVE gotten that reaction.  I
certainly have and I had it myself when I wrote my first planning grant
proposal to NEH back in 1991.  I did not know a THING about Clemens' life
really.  Anymore than I knew anything about the Holocaust really, before I
made a film of survivor testimony in 1992.  But I THOUGHT I knew.  I just
didn't know.

Actually, the Burns/Duncan MARK TWAIN ran only about 3 and a half hours to
leave time for their "making of" minidocs, so I actually admired how MANY
of the life events they managed to include and how many books they managed
to mention, albeit often in one-line summaries.  As I've worked on my own
film, I've wondered how to cram a sense of that life into even 6 or 8 hours
-- forget giving any sense of the literature and writings, let alone the

So, I knew, of course, that much would be omitted, by sheer necessity.  I
also knew that the Duncan/Burns audience was comprised of neither Twain
scholars, nor Twain buffs, nor necessarily even Twain readers.  If you are
a filmmaker in the process of "getting to length" as we call it in the
editing room, you look at something and you ask yourself if it's a central
truth.  Is it the heart of the matter?  Let's say you have a fascination
with the story of Isabel Lyon for example -- how Twain treated her, what
she thought of him, what work she did for him -- or how Clara may have
treated him at some moment in time in their lives -- and no matter how
interesting it is (even if it warrants a PBS hour on its own), you may
finally realize that it's not what defines him (or her as the case may be)
and you forgive yourself for abbreviating it or even leaving it out.  It's
about trade-offs.  Sometimes you may even be aware that by abbreviation of
some person or life event, you give a false impression.  But you may choose
to do it in the hope that some narrow segment of the audience will go get
books by Ham Hill or Laura Skandera Trombley and others to read more about
Isabel Lyon, Mark Twain, et al.  And, as you forgive yourself, you realize
that Twain himself is the person who most excised things or people like
Isabel Lyon from the public record of his life.  You know that if you
include it, you have to leave out something else.   You think of your own
life and some event in the past that seemed so important at the moment and
you realize that now it's barely significant and you're surprised.  So it
is as you cut things out.  You have no choice.  So I don't look at Ken
Burns' or Dayton Duncan's MARK TWAIN and find much fault with all the
things they left out.  That said, I do think that race, as depicted as it
was in their film seemed not only too central to Twain's life but also
lacking in the contradiction and complexity they could have included, given
the amount of screen time they devoted to it.

Were there things that disappointed me?  Yes, for sure.  Unlike many of you
and your friends, I wasn't moved very much. I didn't cry.  HOW CAN THAT BE?
 I can cry just thinking about Clemens sometimes.   I was terribly
disappointed in their Twain voice.  Their actor sounded to me as if he were
imitating the timber of Hal Holbrook's voice without the personality or
feeling, an understandable interpretation -- it's exactly what everyone
wants and expects. It's awfully hard to get beyond Holbrook because he's so
GOOD at what he does.  But he isn't  so much Clemens as he is Twain --  and
Twain on the STAGE no less, an actor himself.  I myself did listen to the
Will Gillette recording many times, but it didn't jive with what people
like Katy Leary said about Sam Clemens' voice, its richness and beauty, and
its drawl.  Nothing I read added up to a thin, taut voice. I talked to
linguists in the mid-west about drawl and I auditioned 50 actors all over
the country before finding my Clemens voice, a remarkable actor and
director named Johnny Simons.  I wished that Burns/Duncan had had him.

I was moved by some of the Burns/Duncan talking heads and disturbed by
others.  I had the same problem with the mix of "experts" and dearth of
real scholars that many of you had, but I doubt that the average viewer
noticed or knew.  Most of all, though, I realized how valuable MY own
interviews with scholars were. I thought that if anyone would ever give me
some money to finish (like maybe British television?  I know it's an awful
long shot, John Bird -- I know), I would surely need to resurrect my
interviews because they are with real Twain SCHOLARS -- and they speak not
just with knowledge of Clemens/Twain, but also from the heart!

I think my biggest criticism of the Burns/Duncan MARK TWAIN was something
most of you haven't commented about and that is their writing -- I don't
mean their quoting Twain out of context -- I mean the written narration.
Documentary film narration is a catch-all, even sometimes a cop-out.  If
you can't make a transition, let the narrator do it.  Viewers have become
accustomed to not making demands of the writing -- it just leads them on
their way -- or announces what's coming next.  It can be full of
presumption and even errors and most viewers won't know better -- they'll
just accept it.  The narrator becomes a sort of off-camera "voice of god"
-- this all-knowing, faceless authority.  We, the viewers, believe
everything he -- the narrator -- says.  (I say HE because most
documentaries have male narrators.) I felt the Burns/Duncan narration was
too editorial for my taste. At times, the narration even told you what
Clemens was thinking.  When the documentary narration becomes editorial, IT
takes on the role of being an expert or scholar, which I think should be
reserved for those "talking heads" instead.

I think documentary narration should be objective, reserved only for facts,
sometimes for compressing time, unless the narrator actually IS an expert
or a host.  Let the interviewees and Clemens/Twain make the judgements or
even outrageous statements.  Let them argue if it's appropriate.  It would
be ideal for Clemens/Twain and not the narrator to make any judgements or
observations that could be seen as subjective. I realize that Clemens/Twain
sometimes takes too long to say whatever it is, so it's awfully tempting to
let the narrator do it.  And then there's also the problem that Twain
doesn't always TELL THE TRUTH -- so you're tempted to let the NARRATOR
correct him.  I ran into the "truth" problem in my own film, which had
neither narration nor scholars to make things "right" so-to-speak, and I
finally decided that it was alright because it was like reading him.  You
have to read more -- of him and scholars -- to even learn that he might
have been stretching the truth.

Many of you faulted Burns/Duncan for editing Twain's words, but I don't.
As a filmmaker, you have absolutely no choice -- sometimes it's the program
length, sometimes it's that you just don't have enough visual material.
And I would also not criticize their use of quotes and photographs that
were somewhat out-of-context, as some of you did.  There is usually little
choice -- there are not extant photographs appropropriate for every
sequence.  For most viewers, the fact that a photo is out-of-context has
absolutely no significance -- they won't even know.  And really, the goal
of all of us filmmakers is for people to go to the books for more.  It's
okay if they find out more about a photograph even that it was wrongly used
-- in fact, it's the point.

My overall reaction, I suppose, was a sort-of non-reaction.  For me, the
film was not very memorable or very thought-provoking, something I really
like in some high-quality documentaries, though much less common in any
biography, of course.  I got an overview of the life, but didn't get a
sense of Sam Clemens or Mark Twain -- didn't get the heart of the man.  I
was surprised that I wasn't moved by the film, because even the events of
the life itself are moving.  I didn't learn anything that I can think of.
I liked some of the interviews and thought some looked great (ie I liked
the lighting and the look), like Laura Skandera Trombley.  I missed what I
know first hand that Ham Hill and James Cox have to say.  On the other
hand, I didn't find much to criticize given the documentary's style. The
"mistakes" I noted were completely understandable.  There didn't seem to be
much production-value on the screen, given the size of their budget, but
that's part of their formula.  I wasn't sure that I would go and read
anything by Mark Twain if I weren't already interested.  Well, so much for
my reaction before reading your reactions in digest form. I have to send
another message with my reactions to your reactions because this is too
big.  Sorry about that.

Sandra W. Bradley
Wentworth Films & Espritruth Films
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