One storyteller captures life of another

Preview: Flashes of insight illuminate `Mark Twain,' Ken Burns' new documentary.

January 14, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

If anyone does American biography better than Ken Burns, I can't wait to see that work. But for now, I don't think it gets much better than Mark Twain, Burns' biography of author Samuel Clemens that starts tonight on PBS.

Not all of it is so terrific, to be sure. There are stretches during this two-night, four-hour film that drag, especially in Part One. But there are other stretches, especially in Part Two, that absolutely sing with such a strong sense of storytelling and surfeit of insight into Twain and the American character that we can't help but be dazzled. No one forges image, interview, narration and music into art the way Burns does. (And, oh, the music - it's always wonderful in a Burns film, but it hasn't been this sweet since The Civil War.)

Typical of Burns' mastery is the start of Part Two, as narrator Keith David says, "By age 50, Samuel Langhorne Clemens had come a long way from his boyhood in the backwoods of Missouri. As Mark Twain, he was the best-known writer on earth, the author of a dozen books: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Life on the Mississippi, and his masterpiece, Huckleberry Finn, the first novel to take the way ordinary Americans speak and turn it into great literature, a cunningly subversive attack on slavery and racism."

After more background about how wealthy, healthy and happy Clemens, his wife and three daughters were, the pictures change from images of their "perfect" life in a palace of a home in Connecticut to a photograph of Clemens standing alone, hands grasped behind his back looking off into the distance.

"But the years to come would not be perfect," David says. "Sam Clemens would find himself increasingly torn between the two worlds and the two identities he inhabited, torn between fame and family, between humor and bitterness, bottomless hunger for success and haunting fears of failure. His reckless pursuit of wealth would lead him and his family to humiliation, turn them into exiles and usher in one misfortune after another.

"In the 25 years that followed his 50th birthday, Mark Twain would become still more celebrated. But Sam Clemens would lose nearly everything and everyone that mattered to him."

And in case that's not intriguing enough, we hear playwright Arthur Miller saying, "I wonder whether in him there is some kind of a symbolization of the American character."

The interview continues with Miller, the author of Death of a Salesman, saying: "There's so much boasting going on - that always goes on. We're a great country for self-advertising. We're God's country. We're a big success. And he had that about him. He was not hiding his light under a bushel. At the same time, underneath there, you smell suffering. And, of course, that's the American dilemma: We're all great successes, but if you push a little bit, you can reach the anguish that's underneath it all."

That's more wisdom than anyone ought to expect of out of a box with moving pictures sitting in the living room, and Mark Twain is filled with such moments - particularly in the discussion of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the story of a white Missouri boy and black runaway slave on a raft on the Mississippi, that comes at the end of Part One.

Calling it our "Homeric epic," writer Russell Banks says: "We are as a people radically different, despite our common threads of history, from Europeans. The elements that make us different are essentially race and space. Twain's work, more than any other writer before him and probably more than any other writer since, embraces those two facts and makes possible an American literature that was otherwise not possible."

As Banks speaks, the screen is filled with a hauntingly lovely picture of the mist-shrouded Mississippi River that invokes the sense of endless space that once characterized the frontier.

Then Dick Gregory addresses Twain's pioneering portrayal of race relations, saying, "Here's a man that came out and put a face on black folks. ... He took a black person and made [him] a human being."

The film also explores Clemens' real-life racial encounters. One interesting biographical footnote involves his relationship with Warner T. McGuinn, an African-American law student at Yale University in 1885, the year Huckleberry Finn was published.

Clemens met McGuinn while speaking at the school, and found out that he was working three jobs and living with the school carpenter to make ends meet. Clemens paid for McGuinn's education, and the young man graduated at the top of class in 1887 before going on to a distinguished legal career in Baltimore and becoming a mentor to Thurgood Marshall.

"I am not an American, I am the American," Mark Twain said.

Who better to tell his story than the American nonfiction filmmaker of our lifetime?

Mark Twain airs at 8 tonight and tomorrow on MPT (Channels 22 and 67) and WETA (Channel 26).

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