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
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.
Ken Burns' documentary about Mark Twain falls seriously short of its
By Kathy O'Connell
"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
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.