With its bronze statue depicting Tom and Huck heading off
for another adventure, the occasional whitewashed fence and the muddy
Mississippi rolling past, Samuel Clemens' boyhood hometown has seen
its share of Mark Twain mania over the years.
But even in Hannibal -- a town of 18,000 which already draws a
half-million Twain tourists annually -- there's speculation about the
impact of Ken Burns' new documentary ''Mark Twain.''
The two-part, four-hour film airs on PBS Jan. 14-15.
A small advance viewing drew a standing-room-only crowd this fall in
this northeast Missouri town 100 miles north of St. Louis. ''I deal a
lot with the general public's perception of Mark Twain,'' said Henry
Sweets, director and 24-year employee of the Mark Twain Museum. ''I
think this is going to be a very powerful, very pleasing presentation
for the general public.''
At Mark Twain historic sites, visitor enthusiasm never really
subsides, it just comes in varying waves. So Hannibal museum and
tourist officials expect an uptick in attendance, but don't care to
venture too much into the risky calculation which can be affected by
everything from weather to the economy.
Few filmmakers in America, however, can focus the public's attention
on a particular period or person in history like Burns.
His documentaries, including ''The Civil War'' in 1990, ''Baseball''
in 1994 and ''Jazz'' in 2001, have drawn millions of viewers to PBS;
the war documentary was the highest rated series ever on American
Burns said he was drawn to Twain for the same reasons he selects many
of his documentary topics. ''I have essentially been making the same
film over and over again, which sort of asks the deceptively simple
question, 'Who are we?'
''You know Mark Twain once said, 'I am not an American. I am the
American.' To me, he just demands to be done. He's a person who seems
to embody all of our contradictions,'' Burns said.
Those contradictions fuel much of the documentary.
Burns tells the story as a tale of two men: the real-life Samuel
Clemens, who lost family members to tragedy and was forced to tour the
lecture circuit after making bad investments; and his alter-ego Mark
Twain, the wildly successful writer whose work has been heralded by
many as the birth of distinctly American literature.
''Samuel Clemens had more ups and downs than anyone you could
imagine,'' Burns said. ''He had deaths. He lost nearly everyone and
everything that he held dear and still managed to survive.
''And meanwhile Mark Twain was the most conspicuous person on the
planet, being funny for a living, and in addition producing literature
that, as Ernest Hemingway said about Huck Finn, was the beginning of
Burns said while people may be familiar with Twain's work,
particularly ''Adventures of Huckleberry Finn'' and ''Adventures of
Tom Sawyer,'' his writing still resonates. He said he was particularly
struck by Twain's gift of reflecting back at his audience, ''good and
bad, ugly and beautiful, right and wrong ... and did so with an art
that will last thousands of years.''
Twain on the topic of afterlife: ''I am silent on the subject because
of necessity. I have friends in both places.'' And on love: ''You
can't reason with your heart; it has its own laws, and thumps about
things, which the intellect scorns.''
Twain has so many well-crafted sayings that people attribute wrong
ones to him all the time -- the assumption being something so witty
must have been said by Twain.
Burns said, in many instances, he just got out of the way of Twain's
''This is a film that has fewer proportional 'talking heads,'
on-camera experts, than most of the films we've made,'' Burns said.
''Basically, at the end of the day, you just want to shut up and
listen to him because of the way he could turn a phrase.''
Turning Twain's art of the phrase into compelling visuals had its
challenges, Burns said.
The documentary team filmed the places Twain wrote -- particularly his
writing room from Quarry Farm in Elmira, N.Y., Clemens' family summer
house in the 1870s-80s, and Twain's desk in his billiard parlor in his
Hartford, Conn., house.
''We really treated the actual manuscripts he wrote as one would treat
an old photograph. We went in and microscopically examined with an
exploring camera eye, the kind of landscape of the written work,'' he
Burns said he used a similar strategy in a documentary about Thomas
Jefferson when filming a draft of the Declaration of Independence, and
he thinks it's an effective device in trying to convey the idea that
For his part, Burns is finding it difficult these days to work
incognito, to slip into a small community for the footage he's after
without being asked to speak to local chapters of civic
''I enjoy a wonderful kind of nutritional celebrity, that is to say
when people stop me in the streets, in the airports, in towns, as they
do everywhere, they basically want to talk to me and finish a
conversation they already think they've been having,'' he said. ''And
that conversation is at a really high level. It's about history. It's
''You know, if I was given 10,000 years, I would not run out of topics
from American history,'' he said.
''Twain being as outsized and as influential and as funny and as sad
as he is, is essentially American history running on all cylinders.
And that's what we look for.''