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"Sandra W. Bradley" <[log in to unmask]>
Tue, 29 Jan 2002 10:30:03 -0500
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Here's the second part of my message: what I think about a few things some
of you have said, for what it's worth and to keep the discussion about the
PBS MARK TWAIN going a bit longer, as John Bird hoped it would.

Harold K. Bush queried, "Why are so many intellectuals and academics so mad
at Ken Burns?  just wondering. . ."

From an "insider's" perspective, I would say that filmmakers, like other
humans and maybe more so because we need money to make films (as opposed to
a ream of paper), sometimes react to success with envy.  Ken Burns' success
with THE CIVIL WAR series was unprecedented.  I actually shared office
space with Ken Burns during the making of that series, but it was before
they had so much money.  In the year and a half we shared office space, I
never laid eyes on Ken Burns himself, but I knew his tiny research staff
well.  As we (SMITHSONIAN WORLD) downsized and moved to worse and worse
neighborhoods to save money and keep afloat, I gave them extra desks.  One
time, I even moved them in our truck --surprisingly to the "high-rent"
National Press Building as I recall now, but it was a long time ago.   As
our series struggled with declining budgets from one season to the next, I
recall Ward Chamberlain, then President of WETA-TV, co-producer of the
SMITHSONIAN WORLD series, asking us why we couldn't put as many hours on
the screen for as little money as Ken Burns could.  He told us Ken Burns
was producing 5 hours on the Civil War in one year for a million dollars.
I don't know how many of you know what the final numbers were in dollars
and years, but it was multi-millions and many, many years.   And, of
course, it didn't end up being only 5 hours long either.  SMITHSONIAN WORLD
was shot all over the world and dealt with myriad subjects in each hour --
highly expensive to produce in terms of documentary programs.  Economy of
scale dictates that 5 hours on one subject SHOULD be a LOT less expensive
per hour to produce than an hour that deals with several subjects with
filming and archival materials from all over the world.  Yet despite
accessible shooting locations, rich archival libraries, and much material
in the public domain, THE CIVIL WAR series ended up costing much MORE per
hour than our SMITHSONIAN WORLD series did.   Why?  I think that the
success of that series was largely due to thorough  -- and innovative --
research. Visually, the series was not innovative.  In documentary style,
it was fairly standard -- as are almost all Ken Burns' films.  Formulaic
even, but using a formula that's paid off with the viewers.   I think THE
CIVIL WAR captured its audience by telling the story through letters from
people we never heard of before.  It was excellent research and it
captured, in a way, not just a time in history but also a thing we could
call the American voice.  Of course, the success was also due to excellent
promotion (which costs an incredible amount of money) and sheer audience

The success of THE CIVIL WAR series, both critically and financially, was
so great that it eclipsed money -- and perhaps even critical recognition --
for many other documentary projects that came after it.  Most of us in the
documentary filmmaking realm have to really struggle just to make a living,
let alone for financial and critical recognition.  Think about the
documentary filmmakers whose names you know.  Perhaps the Maysles brothers?
 Charles Guggenheim? You probably know their names.  What about David
Grubin?  Have any of you heard of Carl Charlson?  Or Dave Clark or Pamela
Mason Wagner?  Or Marty Ostrow?  Lisa Fredrickson and Ron Bowman? These
people all make excellent films, but they are not household words and most
of them have had to struggle between "jobs."  Probably all of them have won
primetime Emmy awards for one or another documentary -- national not local
awards.  What about the name Adrian Malone?  He was executive producer of
ASCENT OF MAN and COSMOS, but I suspect few of you know his name. You think
of COSMOS as Carl Sagan's.  I wouldn't have known Adrian's name except that
I was his senior producer on the SMITHSONIAN WORLD series for four seasons
and I succeeded him as executive producer.

In fairness to Ken Burns, he does speak and write eloquently on behalf of
funding for public television.  That's not to benefit himself really --
after all, very little of his money is public money.  He doesn't need it
either.  He's "set" so-to-speak, for life.  Rumor was, back in the early
1990s that his work was mapped out for the next decade and beyond.  That is
not at all the life that the rest of us non-fiction filmmakers lead.  So
when Ken Burns speaks out or testifies on behalf of PBS, I feel very
grateful to him.  I feel grateful because he is so famous and so well-loved
and respected.  He doesn't have to testify for his own benefit. That said,
I feel, as do many other filmmakers, that Ken Burns takes few risks.  His
films are not innovative in style.  His subjects are all bound to generate
enormous audience interest and great sales of ancillary products.  Money.
Those of us who break the rules of formula and try to do something
controversial or new really have to struggle -- in every way. Thus, many
filmmakers have spoken of Ken Burns work in less than glowing terms. And I
guess that I think some of this "resentment" -- if you can call it that --
is understandable.

I think Barry F. Crimmins is quite correct when he writes: "What is wrong
with asking that Burns hold to high standards with his high-powered,
financially flush endeavors?"  He should be held to high standards.  I read
an interview with Dayton Duncan somewhere in the last few months in which
he was asked about whether they had filmed in Italy.  Dayton Duncan's
response was that they couldn't on a "PBS budget."  I guffawed aloud,
practically choked actually. Very little of their money for this film was
public.  And they've had, in production dollars, perhaps quintuple what
I've had.  Yet I went to Italy to find the villas and went back later to
film. We filmmakers talk about budgets in terms of putting money on the
screen.  The Ken Burns "formula" -- and a very successful formula it is --
is actually very INEXPENSIVE to produce, unless museums or artists' rights
societies kill you on the image licenses.  Live action filming, with camera
movement (dolly, crane, jib, steadicam) and lighting, is very EXPENSIVE --
especially in places where you have archival considerations and therefore
can't touch anything, move it yourself, or put enough light on it to get
the right material. You don't see much of that luscious footage in Ken
Burns' films.  In fact, given the incredible richness of Mark Twain
locations just in the United States, I was surprised there wasn't more of
that in this one because the opportunity was there -- I did it for my film
with a lot less money.  But part of why there was no such footage, I think,
is Ken Burns' style.  And I think they did some things with this film very,
very consciously for effect -- locked off shots of rooms and settings.  I
think they froze some present day scenes, drained the color, and
sepia-toned them.  This is a conscious aesthetic choice and I have only the
highest respect for such efforts. It's very hard to tell the story they
told using live footage so sparingly.  While I think another approach may
have worked better for the average viewer, the average viewer may well
disagree with me.  I certainly don't make main-stream films when I have
aesthetic control, although in the case of my unfinished Clemens/Twain
biography, I think Clemens had more editorial control than I did. :)  Of
course, that doesn't necessarily make it "main-stream" either.

I shudder at Mark Coburn's assessment that "Twain himself was a man wholly
in Ken Burns' tradition…"  Though I loved Barry Crimmins' response to this,
my reaction is simpler and probably less intelligent.  I just can't think
of Clemens/Twain as formulaic in any way, be it in subject or form or
style. I think that it is Ken Burns' formula that is what has given him his
enormous success and fame.  In fact, I think that Dayton Duncan played a
bigger role in the making of MARK TWAIN by far than Ken Burns probably did
-- this is possible, in a sense, BECAUSE of the films are strongly based on
a formula.  Ken Burns can impact many more films at the same time in
essence co-produced by other filmmakers.  I can't get comfortable thinking
Twain's success and fame were based on any kind of formula. Am I wrong
about that?  I suppose that Ken Burns does lead a "charmed" life as a
filmmaker -- how many of us can have the budgets we want and work lined up
for more than a decade and the prospect of no ageism in a business
dominated by youth?  Not many.  In my mind, I hear some of you say that
Twain's life, too, was "charmed" but I can't see it that way -- despite his
fame, success, and fortune in his own time.  Too many enormous sorrows and
too many failures too.  And too many experiments not just with the written
word.  I mean, Plasmon?  Of course, maybe Ken Burns is fascinating and full
of contradictions on a personal level.

I love the "nitpicking" discussion of John Bird: "If it weren't for Twain
critics and scholars, we would have only the Paine version of Twain, be
reading the Paine version of "The Mysterious Stranger," see "Tom Sawyer"
and "Huck Finn" as merely boy books, see Twain as merely a humorist, and so
on."  And he's right too.

I love Duane Campbell's list of what Mark Twain experienced and gave us and
share his disappointment when he says, "But to hear Burns tell it, he spent
most of his life doting on the post-Civil War condition of blacks. Yes, he
did that, but he did so much more."

Had Burns/Duncan spent less time on that, they could have explored other
things in more depth -- or even THAT in more depth.  At the same time,
there's a part of me that agrees with Kevin Mac Donnell when he says, "Yes,
he had an agenda, and yes, it's PC, and yes it distorts Twain's image by
ignoring other things, and yes it's the same agenda that he's slopped over
all of his "documentaries" but in this case it may be more helpful than

But for me, John Bird put it best when he wrote: "And while the comments
about Twain and race were good overall (in my view), they failed to take
into account all the controversy--honest controversy. One might think it's
just a happy, `we are the world' when it comes to Mark Twain and race.  I
guess that's my biggest complaint:  it was all just too neat, too pat.
That's where scholars and critics bring in the questions, the ambiguities,
the rough edges.  My first reaction was to call this `Mark Twain for
Dummies'--but then I decided on the (perhaps) kinder, `Mark Twain Lite.'"

John Bird summed it all up when he said: "I did like much of it, but I wish
it had been better, more accurate, fuller,and explored the ambiguities a
bit more.  An event like this only comes along once in a generation or so,
so this will be our Mark Twain for the wider culture for a long time… And
no scholar or critic or even popular writer is going to get a mass audience
like this. So most people "learned a lot." I'm glad, truly glad, and hope
it spurs them to go to the source to learn more. I just wish this had been
better, and it could have been."   I think John Bird is right.  Is Ken
Burns or Dayton Duncan or the Burns formula to blame that he feels that
way?  Or is it that 3+ hours just isn't enough to do justice to the man?
I don't think anyone can answer that question.  And I think, no matter what
the film had been, that it would have been disappointing for many of you
precisely because you are so knowledgeable.

I remember a time many State of Mark Twain Studies Conferences ago (maybe
1993?) when Marianne Curling told me (and Michael Kiskis) at breakfast how
happy she and John Boyer were that I was doing Mark Twain. She said
something like if I did the film about him, the film would be Mark Twain's.
 And if Ken Burns did it, it would be Ken Burns' Mark Twain.  She expressed
her sense, as if it were also John's, that Ken Burns might upstage Mark

Well, things change.  And life ain't fair, of course.  And had I been able
to finish my film, not the way it is now, but with a critical voice too,
all of you would have had serious quibbles, nit-picks, and findings of
grave inaccuracies (I already have committed some of necessity in the
unfinished cut).  You would have found it way too slow, and negligent in
including important issues and incidents, and far too sentimental, given
that Sam Clemens could be a tear-jerker to rival all.  In fact, I think
that all of you would surely have ripped several sequences in my film to
pieces if it ever aired -- no question at all in my mind.

But I also think that's good.  Good, because I think that for the average
viewer my film would have raised questions instead of providing pat
answers. It would have been intriguing, perhaps incomplete, and even
confusing.  Why?  Because of Clemens/Twain, not me.  I hope viewers would
have gone to the library for the answers. I think you guys would have had a
lot more to say about my film (probably much of it negative), were it ever
finished, because it would not have been "safe" or careful.

Thanks to all of you for your insights.

Sandra W. Bradley
Wentworth Films & Espritruth