- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 12, 2002

Mark Twain tweaked our funny bones to help us swallow his more sobering discourses on our culture. The author, says documentarian Ken Burns, needed buckets of humor to deal with his own parade of tragedies.
"His life was filled with bankruptcy, the death of nearly everyone close to him, yet he was the funniest man on Earth," Mr. Burns says during a recent phone interview to promote "Mark Twain," his latest PBS documentary.
"The tragedy in his life is overwhelming. No one person should be expected to suffer what he suffered," says Mr. Burns, whose past documentaries have included "The Civil War," "Baseball" and "Jazz."
The man formerly known as Samuel Clemens lost three of his four children, plus his wife, father-in-law, father and three siblings, the latter during his childhood.
Mr. Burns' two-part, four-hour presentation of Twain's dramatic life begins at 8 p.m. Monday on WETA-TV (Channel 26), with the second installment airing at the same time Tuesday.
"He's the juiciest of subjects. He's the first to write in American, to create an American literature," Mr. Burns says. "He had the courage to hear how we spoke and see how we lived apart from the European tradition."
Mr. Burns' film covers the wealth of Twain's literary contributions, as well as his tragic moments.
and how much life to do," he says. "It's our funniest and our saddest film."
"The source of humor is not joy but sorrow. 'There is no laughter in heaven,' he said," recalls Mr. Burns. Twain quotes spill from the director's tongue, his zeal for his subject matter unsullied by months of poring over film reels.
The documentary benefits from the copious material the author left behind. Twain, Mr. Burns says, is a researcher's dream.
"He was the most conspicuous person on the planet," he says. "The most recognized, photographed [man] on Earth. He always looked for a great quote."
The film takes creative leaps with some of its source material, like interviews with actor Hal Holbrook, who has portrayed Mr. Twain for decades onstage.
"He knows Mark Twain better than any Mark Twain scholar. He's lived with him for 45 years," Mr. Burns says. Rather than have the actor restage his material, though, the director sat him in a chair and asked him who Twain was.
For all his eloquent prose, Mr. Burns says, Twain also should be remembered for dealing with a tough topic.
"Race is the number one issue in internal American life," the filmmaker says, and Twain confronted it in tomes such as "Tom Sawyer" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Those accounts, particularly "Huckleberry Finn," continue to cause controversy for their depictions of black characters more than a century after publication.
That should not draw attention away from his writing skills, Mr. Burns says.
He describes Twain, a scholar who considered his riverboat days as "his Harvard and his Yale," as "a superb craftsman of words."
Twain never saw himself as above the intellectual fray, though.
"He could poke fun at the human race with a self-deprecating wink," he says.
"Mark Twain," given its four-hour span, appears less ambitious than Mr. Burns' heralded triumvirate of "The Civil War," "Baseball" and "Jazz," which clocked in at 11, 18 and 19 hours, respectively.
"All of them are intense," he says of his documentaries. "I try to bite off more than I can chew, then learn how to chew it.
"The best thing is being in the editing room," says Mr. Burns, who talks proudly of lugging film equipment himself. "No amount of images, cogent interviews is anything unless you find the coherent structure to put it together."
The mass of information seems overwhelming at first, he says, then "suddenly, you have an idea it might be to add a sentence or add an image."
His films coax viewers accustomed to sitcoms to sit still for hours to view history from his directorial seat. They also grab headlines and incite editorial-page dustups.
The fame, he insists, does not alter his approach.
"I live in a small town in New England," he says. "All of my celebrity plus 50 cents gets me a cup of coffee. That's how it should be."
He sees documentary work as his cultural obligation. "There is an evangelical dimension to this. We're a people who don't normally have a past," he says. "We burn our past like rocket fuel. It's not a good thing.
"We're desperate for national self-definition," he continues. "That's something we don't get from 'Survivor,' from 'Wheel of Fortune.'"
He credits the success of his previous projects to his team's ability to avoid ramming messages down the viewers' throats.
"We want to give enough wiggle room so people can come to their own [conclusions]," he says.
Mr. Burns has several projects nipping at his heels, including films featuring Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, and a lighter piece on the first transcontinental car.
Some might scoff at the impact one documentary can make, but he harks back to debates during his college days at Hampshire College in Massachusetts.
Is television a passive medium, his fellow film class students wondered, or one that can inspire action?
The young documentarian soon found out with his 1981 film "Brooklyn Bridge." After it aired, he heard from viewers who visited the site and began sharing their own bridge tales with loved ones as a result of the show.
As for his latest project, the majesty of the subject matter continually amazes Mr. Burns.
"There are lots of 19th-century humorists. Only he survived today. His humor was, and still is, universal," he says. "Everyone got it."

WHAT: "Mark Twain"
WHERE: WETA (Channel 26)
WHEN: 8 p.m. Monday and Tuesday

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