HTF REVIEW: Ken Burn's "Mark Twain" ***HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Discussion in 'Archived Threads 2001-2004' started by Ronald Epstein, Jan 30, 2002.

  1. Ronald Epstein

    Ronald Epstein Administrator
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    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!
     
  2. Joseph Young

    Joseph Young Screenwriter

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    I would also highly recommend Mark Twain to anyone. I caught this on PBS last week, much by accident, and was riveted to the screen the entire time. It transcends a mere biography of a man seen as mere quaint and folksy author. Mark Twain is a profound character study that becomes a meditation on human nature, on living through adversity and tragedy, on politics, faith, religion, family, and death.

    Ron, I'm glad you were able to find time for this review.. and glad to hear there's at least some supplemental material.

    Joseph
     
  3. Dennis Nicholls

    Dennis Nicholls Lead Actor

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    I being a Twain afficianado got this at Costco the week it came out. I merely presumed that I had missed it on PBS. Imagine my surprize when I found out the DVD was released BEFORE this show had ever aired on PBS. I personally think the video is better than what Ronbo has reported: it's one of the finest 4:3 DVDs I own. Much of the archival photos naturally look grainy, but some of the daylight scenes of the rolling waters really looks like a river to me. (Playback via Tosh 6200 on Marquee 8501LC.)
     
  4. SteveGon

    SteveGon Executive Producer

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    I've been wanting to see this but am hesitant to buy it as I'm trying to cut back on spending. Hopefully, my local library will get it. Fingers crossed! [​IMG]
     
  5. mike martin

    mike martin Stunt Coordinator

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    Just rented this through Netflix (which is the only reason I've stuck with them, the huge inventory of doc's) and enjoyed it immensly. PBS is really doing a great service to us with their DVD output. Everything I've watched has been a wonderfull program with worthwile extras. PBS "gets it". I also recomend Lewis and Clark and New York. Also don't forget about Baseball!
     
  6. Jack Briggs

    Jack Briggs Executive Producer

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    Definitely a must-have. I hope PBS makes much more of its vast catalog of worthy programming available to DVD. I have several PBS-originated DVDs.
     
  7. Ed Faver

    Ed Faver Second Unit

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    This was a wonderful experience. Ken Burns is likely not the first historian of the electronic medium, but he certainly is the best with a distinctive style that is becoming the standard for all documentaries of this type. 'Mark Twain' is a delight, now if only The Civil War would make its DVD appearance.
     
  8. Allen Hirsch

    Allen Hirsch Supporting Actor

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    I saw this on PBS and enjoyed it immensely, as I have all the other Ken Burns series, as well. (The story-telling and photos always make it much more riveting than any description of it sounds!)

    I have Jazz on DVD and Baseball on VHS (pre-DVD). I'm sure I'd find room for the Civil War, too, if they get around to releasing it on DVD.
     

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