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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
Fri, 18 Jan 2002 14:49:02 -0600
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
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I am posting this review on behalf of Dave Thomson who wrote.



Multimedia Review:

_Mark Twain: A Film Directed by Ken Burns_. PBS Home Video, 2002.
(2 ea. VHS format tapes), $24.98. Approx. 220 minutes. ASIN B00005RJ24.
(DVD format), $29.98. ASIN: B00005RDB0.

_Mark Twain, A Film Directed by Ken Burns_. Original soundtrack. Legacy
Recordings, 2001. $17.98. ASIN B00005R62L.

_Mark Twain's America, A Portrait in Music_.  Jacqueline Schwab, piano.
Audio CD. Dorian Recordings, 2001. $17.97. 61 min. 38 sec. ASIN B00005Q6JS.

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
David Thomson
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These items and many others are available at discounted prices from the
TwainWeb Bookstore, and purchases from this site generate commissions that
benefit the Mark Twain Project. Please visit:

Copyright (c) 2002 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.

An enclosure in the soundtrack recording of Ken Burns' _Mark Twain, a Film_
proclaims: "Own the DEFINITIVE story of America's Most Beloved Author on
Videocassette and DVD."   If Burns and company had written their companion
volume first, and then made a longer (multi-episode) film based on that
book, they might have had something that more closely approached being
definitive.  As it stands, the less you know about Mark Twain the better
you'll like the film since it's a mere appetizer to Clemens aficionados.

Watching Ken Burns' _Mark Twain_ is a bit like being the captive passenger
on a tour bus.  The speed of the vehicle and the duration of the stops and
what you are shown are all at the discretion of the omnipotent
driver/guide.  Sam Clemens' boyhood in Hannibal is viewed at a fast clip
with a few vague historical references but before you're ready to leave
you've been driven out of the city limits and are speeding through the
journeyman printer phase.

Burns was given unrestricted access to Twain sites in Hannibal, Hartford
and Elmira though only a fraction of the footage shot in those locations
was actually used in the film. The Hartford home got the most coverage,
filmed during all four seasons inside and out.  Very little of Hannibal is
seen except for some Mississippi River scenery. Old photos of the boyhood
home from different eras with drastically different appearances are used in
a seemingly arbitrary way.  One of them is shown when the narrator tells of
the death of Sam's father, but John Marshall Clemens died upstairs in the
Pilaster House which is down on the corner across Hill Street from the
boyhood home.

During the short profile of Clemens' father, the photo seen on the screen
is of an unidentified man circa 1900 standing on the front porch of the
Clemens' birthplace in Florida, Missouri. During the Mississippi steamboat
sequence, the photo of Henry Clemens is one of him taken as an immature boy
rather than the less beguiling portrait of him as the adolescent, a month
shy of his twentieth birthday, at the time of his death from injuries
sustained during the explosion of the steamboat Pennsylvania.

Things slow down a bit at the outset of the Civil War for the secessionist
Missouri home guard stint (which was interpreted here as "Confederate")
then we're off across the prairie on our way to Nevada (but somebody forgot
to include the big unabridged dictionary in the stagecoach inventory, darn
it). We stall out in the middle of the Great Plains for some musings on ham
and eggs.

The film (along with Clemens himself) really gets its bearings when Sam
meets Livy; courts her and weds her and the glorious Hartford days unfold
with the three daughters in that magical palace. But all along, death and
financial woes stalk the Clemens' family fortunes and exact a terrible toll
in the loss of Langdon, Susy, Livy and Jean.  The illness and death of Susy
in Hartford, while her family is out of the country, is truly the most
heartbreaking sequence in the whole saga.  Clemens' personal life rivaled
his best fiction in the absorbing drama department.

The phenomenally prosperous Florentine Films in its bucolic New Hampshire
setting consists of some very happy campers according to the PBS profiles
accompanying the show.  Burns and co-writer Dayton Duncan are delighted to
be here thank you, and have a foolproof system that runs like a well oiled
but routine machine. Bright eyed and precocious; hyperactive and intense;
he's the twenty-first century's own Dorian Gray who has a hidden portrait
somewhere that displays the psychic wounds administered by the musicians
and buffs who were disappointed with his Jazz series.

The gestation process of a Burns documentary begins with the recording of
voice overs with Burns putting some fine actors (working at "scale")
through grueling paces to extract performances from them that come up to
his high standards.  The music is prerecorded under Burns' supervision and
the film is cut to the music rather than being scored after the fact. The
music is engaging and much of it of the period though the style of playing
is frequently a bit more contemporary to cater to the modern ear.  There's
so much talk in the Twain documentary that the music is dialed down for the
most part and is more ambient than obtrusive. However, to properly exploit
the sales possibilities, much of the music is put out in a sprightly
recording with some of Kevin Conway's maple syrupy readings of Clemens'
words thrown in for good measure. An opportunity to use some really
relevant music during a pivotal event was lost when a Beethoven adagio was
used in place of the Negro spirituals that Sam actually played on the piano
in Florence as Livy lay dying.

Burns' prestige opens the doors to hallowed archives where he can film
priceless photographs to his heart's content.  The photos will not always
be shown in chronology with what's going on in the narrative of the life
story but such is documentary license.  A steamboat named City of Memphis
is shown as one of the boats Clemens steered as a pilot.  The picture is of
a sternwheeler with the same name that was built in 1898 as opposed to the
sidewheeler that Clemens was aboard which was built in 1857, forty one
years earlier. An 1874 photo of Clemens shaking hands with actor John T.
Raymond is used to represent Clemens and his publisher congratulating each
other after the first printing of _Roughing It_ in 1871.

Burns interviews eleven scholars and writers as well as actor Hal Holbrook
who brings raw vitality and emotional vehemence to his deeply felt
observations of Clemens. Ron Powers, Shelley Fisher-Fishkin, and Laura
Skandera-Trombley provide commentary in extreme close up shots.  An out
take features Skandera-Trombley stating that she believed that Olivia
Clemens really was her husband's collaborator (in a way) and making a solid
case that Clemens defined America and Americans to the rest of the world
and continues to be one of our best ambassadors, translated and enjoyed in
every written language. Writer William Styron (who wrote of his own
struggle with depression in _Darkness Visible : A Memoir of Madness_)
brought a special poignancy to his insights of Clemens' own tortured
psyche. Playwright Arthur Miller gave a refreshing appreciation of Clemens'
"expansiveness of spirit" and "limitless sympathy."   The two-sided DVD
edition of the film includes a selection of out takes with eleven of the
guests.  These consist of four parts: Twain the Man, Twain the Writer, Huck
Finn and Older Twain.

The guests help to illuminate and define the personality of the man and the
merits of the writer and none of them really contradict each other.
Regarded by them with affection and admiration, the magnitude of his genius
and his multifaceted career and enthusiasms are addressed satisfactorily.
Consequently, the film really succeeds better as a "portrait" than a
biography. Clemens' great gifts are elucidated: exuberance; a heightened
sense of awareness; outspokenness; compassion and sympathy; a profound
personal as well as social conscience and an honesty that infused his
correspondence, journalism, essays, fiction and platform speaking.  His
humor was the delicious frosting on the cake.

Clemens' foibles and personal demons are defined: a penchant for guilt and
depression that was exacerbated by the terrible losses of his loved ones;
his volatility and blasphemousness; his ego and vanity; his striving to be
richer that led him into investments which resulted in financial woes, self
imposed exile and the dividing of his family and ultimately the
disillusionment and cynicism that deepened in his last decade.

Nothing new in terms of scholarship comes to the surface here but the
splendid array of photographs of Clemens (some of which are reproduced
beautifully in the companion book to the film) are a joy to behold.
_Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_ is the fulcrum upon which the literary
part of the show rests.  Dayton Duncan emphasized this in a recent
interview with Jim Zwick: " . . .we probably wouldn't have done this film
if Twain hadn't written _Huckleberry Finn_. . . it's that book that secured
his place in American literature."  The dramatization of slavery in the
ante-bellum South and consequently its relevance to racism in contemporary
American society brings forth some heart felt commentary especially from
Jocelyn Chadwick, as well as Fisher-Fishkin and Holbrook who champion the
book's unflagging ability to enthrall and appall.

Burns' mantra for this film is the misattributed quote that Clemens said,
"I am not an American, I am the American." (This was probably something
that his friend Frank Fuller said about himself.) During the controversy
over this mistake, Dayton Duncan deferred responsibility to the scholarly
advisors.  It's apparent in retrospect that Florentine Films should have
had a researcher assigned to verify the context of all quotes and
especially one that was to be showcased so prominently.  In a post to the
Mark Twain Forum, Barry Crimmins summed up why we shouldn't cut Florentine
too much slack for its gaffs: "Burns has the budget and the wherewithal to
get it right. If he fails to do so, he's fair game. If this series is
inaccurate, the inaccuracies will become 'fact' unless they are refuted."

The Burns format is getting to be a bit stale, overly familiar and
predictable. Before I saw it, I heard the show had been cut from six hours
to four; but after viewing the out takes on the DVD (which includes a
sequence of photos assembled under the narration of the "White Town
Drowsing" narrative from _Life on the Mississippi_) the excising of those
two extra hours may have been merciful. The success of the Florentine
producers seems to have softened their creative edge to some extent and
subdued their vitality.

The soundtrack _Mark Twain: A Film Directed by Ken Burns_ consists of
twenty-nine selections. Bobby Horton overdubbed himself playing over a half
dozen folk instruments in eleven of the cuts and introduces the film's
signature tune "Sweet Betsy from Pike"(track 2) which was a hybrid of an
old English ballad called "Villikens and His Dinah" and a gold rush song
called "Joe Bowers" who "came from old Missouri, All the way from Pike."
Horton's finest moment is a minstrel style rendering of "Swing Low Sweet
Chariot" (track 29). Peter Ostroushko gives the best acoustic version of
"Sweet Betsy" on track 23. Pianist Jacqueline Schwab also plays "Sweet
Betsy" (track 26) as well as some lovely solo arrangements of vintage tunes
on this sound track and on her own Mark Twain-themed CD.  Schwab's
characteristic gentle style is elegant for hymns like "How Can I Keep From
Singing," "When Tomorrow Comes," and a piece called "Amelia." Guitarists Ed
Gerhard and Al Petteway provide two beautiful tracks and "Fiddlin' Johnny"
plays a hoe down and a rag which are a lot of fun.  The enclosed liner
notes on the CD of the Burns sound track includes a seven-page illustrated
profile on Mark Twain and music by Dayton Duncan which makes a nice
addendum to the companion book to the film.  The total of all tracks was
not included but appears to be around one hour.

Jacqueline Schwab's solo recording _Mark Twain's America: A Portrait in
Music_ contains eighteen tracks with some charming medleys; hymns and
spirituals; parlor piano love ballads; Civil War standards, and a rag.  A
thirty-six page liner notes enclosure written by Schwab with paragraphs on
Twain and Classical Music; Twain, the Piano, and Spirituals; Twain's
Favorites (one of which "Flow Gently Sweet Afton" is on track 13 of this
recording.)  The other tunes that are particularly relevant are "Fisher's
Hornpipe" (played by Blind Tom Bethune at a concert Clemens attended), the
spiritual "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," and the Stephen
Foster song "Gentle Annie" (introduced during Clemens steamboat pilot
days.)  Schwab's last two liner notes are on "Twain and Dancing"; and
"Twain, Improvisation and the Parlor Song Style." She also gives historical
background and lyrics on each of the twenty-six songs on the album (there
are 5 medleys among the tracks.)  The total running length is 61:38.