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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Wed, 30 Jan 2002 01:25:20 EST
text/plain (219 lines)
Okay, folks, I'm throwing my 69 cents in.
    My review of the film ran the Sunday before it aired (and, if Ken is to
be believed and I see no reason not to, Connecticut Public Television was the
only PBS member station to preempt part of the film --- for a UConn women's
basketball game).
    Unfortunately, my newspaper's Web site is extremely temperamental, so I
though it would be easier to simply post the review.
    All comments, pro, con and indifferent, are welcome.
    I've been writing about Burns' work for nearly 20 years now, and have an
enormous amount of respect for him, which is why the review is so mixed.

Kathy O'Connell
Meriden, Conn.

Ken Burns' documentary about Mark Twain falls seriously short of its


By Kathy O'Connell

Record-Journal staff

   "I do not claim that I can tell a story as it ought to be told," wrote

Sam Clemens in "How to Tell a Story." "I only claim to know how a story

ought to be told."

   It hurts, it really, really hurts, to report right off that Ken Burns

disregarded that bit of wisdom outright, if he ever ran across it in the

first place.

   His two-part, four hour "Mark Twain," which public television will

broadcast Monday and Tuesday, deserves to rank right up there with his

finest portrait of an American character so far, his brilliant, funny and

revealing "Huey Long," which was released in 1985.

   But "Mark Twain" falls so seriously short of its complex and compelling

subject it makes you wonder why.

   It's not that the film isn't needed; it is, more now than ever, perhaps.

   It's just that here's an indisputably gifted filmmaker who devoted 11 1/2

hours to the Civil War, 18 to baseball and a little more than that to jazz,

and he squashes the life of the first great writer in the American language

into four hours?

   Well, perhaps not squashed, exactly. As with his 1998 profile of Frank

Lloyd Wright, Burns' portrait of Twain seems truncated, rushed and too often

redundant. It also lacks the almost giddy sense of discovery that

characterize his best films.

   Samuel Langhorne Clemens was, in his own time, best known as a humorist,

though he was a popular writer of great invention and linguistic agility.

His reach is long and formidable, and his work still causes scaredy-cat

school boards to debate whether "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" belongs in

junior high school curricula.

   While what Burns delivers is admirable in terms of background and

explanation, that "Mark Twain" is so limited in its range of voices doesn't

do anyone any favors, not those who might discover him because of this film,

and certainly not those of us, Twainiacs for years and years, who know our

Sam deserves better.

   I kept flashing back, for example, to Burns' third film, "Statue of

Liberty," made in 1984. Working on a shoestring but with a clear passion for

his subject and its possibilities, that film was engrossing, revealing,

touching and funny all at once.

   Alas, that's not the case with "Mark Twain." For a film about a man who

was so often so scathingly funny, Burns' Mark Twain has little humor in him,

which is tidily explained by a depressingly limited range of talking heads

again and again as how Twain dealt with all the sorrow in his life.

   Burns also pirouettes around the Twain-Clemens dichotomy explored so

engrossingly by Justin Kaplan in his 1966 Pulitzer Prize-winning "Mr.

Clemens and Mark Twain," but since he uses so few onscreen commentators -

and Kaplan, though listed as a consultant, is not among them - the result is

strangely distancing, as if Mark Twain were nothing more than a role Sam

Clemens sought to play.

   And the music, as good as it is, is downright intrusive. It's as though

Burns has gotten so formulaic in the execution of his smaller projects he's

forgotten when silence would serve better than yet another mournful

rendition of "Sweet Betsy from Pike" colliding with someone's commentary.

   The choice of voices is rather odd, too. While Hal Holbrook makes

wonderful sense and is very fine indeed - the companion book is worth buying

for the extended interview with him - the dynamic David Bradley, a very fine

Twain scholar, is not heard from nearly enough.

   We hear from William Styron and Arthur Miller that Twain probably

suffered from depression. We hear from the affable Russell Banks and Ron

Powers about the forces that shaped Twain. But nowhere do we hear from those

writers living right now, particularly Roy Blount Jr. (also listed as a

consultant) and Garrison Keillor, about the sheer impact of Twain on their


   Missing, too, are any references at all to Twain's powerful influence on

popular culture, of our time as well as his own. Twain lent his name and

face to all sorts of things; he even registered "Mark Twain" with the U.S.

Patent Office in the late 1870s.

   That whole facet, and an important one, of Clemens' enduring influence

are missing here. Not deliberately, but merely ill-advisedly, as if Burns,

who frequently defends the length of his major projects, suddenly decided

four was all Twain was going to get and that was more than enough.

   This gives Hartford short shrift, to be sure; it would have been nice to

know exactly what it is Clemens found so attractive about a city that seemed

far more dynamic 130 years ago than it does now.

   That abbreviated approach, however, also attempts to distill entirely too

much about a very complex figure into too small a space. What probably would

have been thoughtful reflections in a longer version too often come off here

as psychobabble and stabs at political correctness.

   It might have worked had his choices been shrewder. There is way too much

of Ron Powers, whose 1999 book on Twain's youth, "Dangerous Waters," is

splendid, but Powers' on-camera presence is less than riveting. There is not

nearly enough, either, of Bradley, or Shelley Fisher Fishkin, editor of the

Oxford Mark Twain and author of one of the best books on Twain and popular

culture in recent years, "Lighting Out for the Territory."

   I mean, had I not already known, as a serious follower of the work of

animator Chuck Jones - identified in his single, too-short appearance here

as a "cartoonist"; c'mon, Ken! - that much of the inspiration for Jones'

Wile E. Coyote came directly from the influence "Roughing It" had on the

young Chuck, I'd have been lost.

   But that's just it. Burns' best work is seamless, engaging as it is

intelligent and engrossing. There are tiny hints of those same qualities all

through "Mark Twain," but they're never fully realized.

   If ever a film deserved a director's cut, Burns' "Mark Twain" is it.

   In its present form, though it's hardly a waste of time - especially if

you haven't renewed your acquaintance with Twain since high school - it

doesn't do justice to either its subject or its maker.

Ken Burns' "Mark Twain" will be broadcast Monday and Wednesday at 8 p.m. on

Connecticut Public Television.

Two CPTV-produced specials, "Mark Twain's Neighborhood: Nook Farm" and "Ken

Richters as Mark Twain, America's First Standup Comedian," will be broadcast

respectively at 10 p.m. Monday and 10 p.m. Wednesday.