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Warner Home Video presents
Ken Burns' Mark Twain (2002)

"I am a border ruffian from the state of Missouri. I am a Connecticut Yankee by adoption. In me you have Missouri morals and Connecticut culture, and this is the combination that makes the perfect man."
- Samuel L. Clemens

Review By: Robert Mandel  
Published: February 05, 2002

Stars: Samuel L. Clemens
Other Stars: Hal Holbrook, Laura Skandera-Trombley, John Boyer, Hamlin Hill, Russell Banks, David Bradley, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Arthur Miller, Williasm Styron, Jocelyn Chadwick, Ron Powers
Director: Ken Burns

Manufacturer: WETA
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 03h:34m:10s
Release Date: January 08, 2002
UPC: 794054860825
Genre: documentary


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A A+C+B- A

DVD Review

When my daughter Alex, a high school sophomore, recently told me she couldn't stand Walt Whitman because he was full of himself ("Everything is 'I' or 'me,'" she exclaimed), it brought back fond memories of my lazy Loyola English Lit undergrad days spent in spirited cafeteria debate over separation of writer and narrator. "Isn't the writer the narrator?" she asked. "Not necessarily," I replied. For her edification I lectured her on Jonathan Swift's works, particularly A Modest Proposal—in which the narrator offers cannabalism as the means to end starvation—as a prime example in which the narrator by no means reflects the ideals of the writer, who was a highly moral clergyman. In satire, I continued, by creating a narrator in exact opposition, one may shine a brighter light upon one's true intention. By the teary look in her eyes I could tell she had come to a new understanding.I can remember being flabbergasted when I first learned that Mark Twain's real name was actually Samuel Longhorn Clemens. I don't recall how old I was when I came across this fact, but I guess I just didn't understand why he had used a pen name. After all, Clemens was no Jane Austen in need of a masculine persona in order to be published. It wasn't until seeing Ken Burns' documentary that I realized Mark Twain wasn't simply a pen name that allowed Clemens to operate in near anonymity (far from it!), but that Twain was in fact an entire second persona. The name Mark Twain was taken from his apprenticeship days as a riverboatsman on the Mississippi River, and meant "safe water." It was for sure that in the persona of Mark Twain that Clemens was able to reflect the good and evil of the America he lived in, and do so safely, without compromise. Mark Twain took no prisoners. "I am not AN American, I am THE American." - Mark TwainBorn in the small southern town of Hannibal, Missouri, Clemens would first ride the great Mississippi to New Orleans, then travel to Nevada and around the world to settle down in, of all places, Connecticut. Clemens would be a boatsman, a typesetter, a newspaper publisher, a writer, a traveler, a political satirist, a humorist, a businessman, a speculator (he failed to buy into Bell's telephone thinking few would ever use it), and a family man. He would lose almost every one dear to him, from his brother to his daughter to his wife. Forced back onto the lecture circuit he despised, several times, because of his various business failures, the robust young genius became a haunted, bitter old man who lost his religion with the death of his loved ones. Mark Twain was the synthesis of the opposing forces within Clemens. In Mark Twain, Clemens was able to be both brashly funny and boldly insightful to the point of abrasiveness. But with each wound comes healing. Twain allowed Clemens to cash in on the contradictions within his own personality, and his incredible ability to see, remember and recreate the detail of everyday life through the English language. Moby Dick might be a great American novel, but Huckleberry Finn is THE great American novel. Why? While Melville's opus and its rich use of language might well be considered high art, it's Clemens' capture of the true American vernacular and his steady, unflinching characterizations that make Huck Finn pulse with the heartbeat of the real America. "Mark Twain. How I hate that name! I should like never to hear it again. My father should not be satisfied by it, should not be known by it. He should show himself the great writer that he is, not merely a funny man. Funny, that's all people see in him, a maker of funny speeches." - Suzie ClemensClemens, unlike no one else before him, and perhaps because he was both Southerner and Yankee rolled into one, was able to hold up a mirror to the American persona—in particular slavery and race relations—and make people see their lives in an entirely new light. As we follow Clemens from his birth in Hannibal to his death in Connecticut, and around the world in between, we discover that there is more to this American icon than his legendary humor, his bushy mustache and "all-year-round" white suits; in him we see ourselves reflected: the perfect American.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A+

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: Where have you read this before: Because of the format the source materials vary from low-grade 1800s' pictures to modern-day interview footage, therefore, range from horrible to nicely transferred. Nothing to write home to mama about, but who really looks at artifacting in a documentary transfer. Oh, yeah, me. I experienced, however, no DVD-18 related issues, and outside of some artificating and graininess this transfer is what one would expect. Not bad, considering the elements.

Image Transfer Grade: C+

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes


Audio Transfer Review: Twain comes with a Pro-logic encoded Dolby 2.0 transfer, but unless my speakers have blown, it sure sounds like a mono mix emenating only from the center channel to me. Not that I noticed until I went back to re-rereview for review purposes... so it's a very serviceable 2.0 mono mix in which the narration, voice-acting and dialogue are clear and understandable... even with a touch of Southern twang and the occasional hiss or pop.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-

 

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
0 Documentaries
2 Featurette(s)
Weblink/DVD-ROM Material
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
2-Sided disc(s)
Layers: DVD-18

Extra Extras:
  1. Interview excerpts
  2. Interviews with director-producer Ken Burns and writer-producer Dayton Duncan
  3. Quotes and Photographs
Extras Review: "We approach our projects with ignorance and curiosity. This allows us to have a process of discovery. We don't know until it's over." - Ken Burns Most documentaries do not come with a lot of supplements, but leave it to Ken Burns, PBS and Warner Bros. to put on nearly 70 minutes of interesting extras that truly supplement the main feature. Supplements are broken down by side. SIDE ONE: The only real complaint is that each side contains only 8 chapter stops (that DO align with the chapters), but at 1:50:44 for Side One alone, well...The Making of Mark Twain with Ken Burns (10m:00s) and with Dayton Duncan (10m:06s) Two 10-minute interviews with director-producer Burns and writer-producer Duncan help shed some light on their thought processes in approaching Twain as a subject, as well as the documentary, voice-casting, interviewees and crew in general. A conversation with Ken Burns (10m:24s)Burns likes to talk about his subject, and his enthusiasm for it, the culture of documentary making and PBS gets personal. "I'm an emotional archaelogist," he says. He talks about how we need time to truly digest the import of the subject. Hear, hear, Ken. Makes me want to go out and buy The Civil War, Baseball and Jazz.Mark Twain Quotes and Photographs (07m:48s)What I assume are pictures and quotes that didn't make it into the main feature (as many times as I watched this I still can't remember ALL the quotes and photos used). Frankly, I felt detached and uninterested about this one. You may feel differently. Links:Links to PBS' Mark Twain Site and their DVD Site.SIDE TWO:Again, the 8 chapters (for 01h:43m:26s) with static menu system. Can I also complain here about NO SUBTITLES! Why, I think I shall.Ken Burns: Making History (07m:16)Ken Burns exposes the viewer to his filmmaking style, with behind-the-scenes footage (location shoots, staff editing arguments, sound editing) touching on the editing, narration, photography and music aspects of his films. A very nice piece of independent filmmaking exposé. Interview Outtakes(24m:44s)Unused, unrestored (speckles, dirt, camera bounces, loss of vertical hold) excerpts from interviews with Laura Skandera-Trombley, John Boyer, Hamlin Hill, Russell Banks, David Bradley, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Hal Holbrook, Arthur Miller, Williasm Styron, Jocelyn Chadwick, and Ron Powers, who eloquently further discuss Clemens the man, Twain the writer, and Huckleberry Finn, which frankly is worthwhile as stand alone viewing, let alone as a supplement. Links:Links again to PBS' Mark Twain Site and their DVD Site.This is the rare disc, in my opinion, where enough information has been shared to not need a director's commentary.

Extras Grade: A

 

Final Comments

I will throw more platitudes Mr. Burns' way, as he has an ability to dissect a subject in such a detailed, but unmechanical way as to make a still picture seem animated, a single word a poem. While the organization of the whole seems so perfectly laid out, he readily admits it never is, but comes together in some sort of harmonious synthesis of narration and words and photos and music and anecdotes and sounds and scholarly analysis—all after exhaustive research, collection, trial and error. Burns' gift is his ability to discover the humanity of his subject, good or bad. Mark Twain would have been proud. Am I a Twain scholar? Thanks to Ken Burns I am. And I can tell by the teary look in your eyes my discourse has brought upon you a new understanding as well.

 


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