Mark Twain: A Film Directed by KEN BURNS He wrote as if there were no literature before him One of the greatest displeasures I have as a DVD reviewer is that I am sent an extremely large amount of DVD product every week that I have to screen, sometimes feeling as if I had just wasted a few hours of my life watching. On the other hand, it is times like THIS that I am thankful I have the opportunity to review product that I may not have ever seen otherwise, and enjoy it so much that I can faithfully recommend it to the membership. You must understand that committing myself to a 3+ hour biography film was a task that I had put off for weeks. There was just so much other product that was available to review that I had put this enormous venture on the backburner. With that, you should also understand that I knew and cared very little about Mark Twain other than knowing about the books he wrote. I never imagined I would be interested in watching a 3-hour film on his life. As usual, I surprised myself. Ken Burn's Mark Twain is an extraordinary story of one of the greatest Americans of our time. To sit and watch this man's life unfold before your eyes is an experience like none other. It is the most touching and inspiring story I have seen in quite some time. This isn't just a story of a man's success as an author, but rather, the story of a man that had just as many failures and tragedies in his life. At some points, I was moved to tears. The film is told through archival pictures as well as interviews of Hal Holbrook, Arthur Miller, and many historians. Most of all, it is told through the words of Twain, himself (Voiced by Kevin Conway), mostly through letters he wrote to his wife and family. He was born in Missouri with the name Samuel Clemens in 1835. The film traces his childhood growing up in the town of Hannibal where he played all sorts of pirate games with his friends, including playing pranks on the townspeople. It was those eternal summers that produced a lifetime of memories that would be relived in his books. At age 14 he became a printer's apprentice. Soon after, he became a steamboat man, riding down the Mississippi river. He was a king without a keeper and his time riding that river became his schooling. Every character he created were inspired from his trips down the Mississippi. The name "Mark Twain" not only became his self chosen nickname (it means Safe Water), but it ultimately became an alter-ego that he struggled with in the dark later years of his life. Though his most well known works include "The Jumping Frog" and "Tom Sawyer", it was "Huckleberry Finn" that became his masterpiece. Growing up, Samuel never knew of race division. Black people were the norm for him. They were the first voices of his youth before he knew any differences. "Huckleberry Finn" literally changed blacks in literature, looking race right in the face. It was a cunningly subverse attack on slavery and racism. His later years became dark and full of tragedies that the film dwells greatly upon, using archival footage and readings from his letters and manuscripts. He went from being a wealthy man who enjoyed wealth but not the corruption of it, to a penniless man who ultimately went bankrupt. How does the DVD look? The programming is split with PART ONE and PART TWO playing over a 2-sided DVD. Originally aired as a television special for PBS, the film is presented in the standard format that preserves broadcast ratio. Although the transfer generally looks very good, it doesn't look film quality. It looks like something you would see on television, hampered with excessive graininess at times. There's also a nominal amount of picture shimmer that is noticeable from time to time. There are no subtitles. The stereo surround track, although not 5.1, is effectively used. Sound is very crisp and clear across the front three speakers. The rears are cleverly used for effects. As an example of this, in scenes where we hear Twain talking to a theater full of people, the rears take on an acoustic echo effect with added cheers of the crowd. It's a very nice mix that adds to the overall environment. Bonus DVD Features The Bonus features are also spread over two sides. Let's begin with Side A.... The making of Mark Twain gives the opportunity for Director Ken Burns and co-writer Dayton Duncan to talk about what they found inspiring about Mark Twain. They talk about going on location and shooting the places where Twain lived, and then the painstaking process of editing all that material into the film. Co-writer Duncan talks about the different elements of production from the consultations with scholars to finding the right voice for Twain, to finding the right music to accompany the film. In A conversation with Ken Burns, the Director talks about the genius of America and its people. He talks about the importance of creating a visual history in order to remember the heroes of our time. He talks of the importance of taking still pictures and adding sounds to them so that the viewer can not just look at and remember a piece of history, but also feel what that moment of history was like. Ken also tackles the question as to why his films are so lengthy. His answer is quite interesting. Mark Twain quotes and photographs tells some interesting stories not originally seen in the film. Using still clips and the masterful storytelling of Twain, we are taken upon small journeys that describe the people and places he has visited. The Bonus Features are continued on Side B.... The most interesting thing I discovered from watching Ken Burns: Making History, is that Ken and his team go into these projects with utter ignorance. This is just as much a learning experience for them, as it is for the audience. Like us, Ken has no idea what he will discover until the project is done. They shoot without a script, relying on the pictures they take to tell the story. This documentary takes takes us from location filming to the editing room as Ken Burns describes the art of his filmmaking. This is a remarkably thorough featurette that touches upon photography, voicing, mixing and music -- all the crucial elements that go into the Burn's fillmaking process. Interview Outtakes contains interviewed material from Hal Holbrook, Arthur Miller and others that were not included in the final film. The material touches upon Twain the man, the writer, and the characters he created. Final Thoughts This is a life story that is as grand as Mark Twain, himself. Even if Mark Twain never wrote a single book, the story of his life is extraordinary enough. Here was a man that grew up in a time when most men did as their fathers did. Twain did everything. This film immerses you in his life. Through Twain's funny and tragic observations, you will ultimately experience his joy and pain. I wasn't kidding when I said this film moved me to tears. I often realize that our forum attracts a young crowd of DVD enthusiasts who would rather watch action movies than sit through a film biography on one of America's greatest authors. If this were a simple documentary, I would never be able to sell this film. However, Ken Burns has created an exciting and emotional journey that will inspire you and make you look within yourself. This is a story of a true human being who wasn't afraid to admit that he was as weird as the rest of us. AVAILABLE NOW!