With something like 70 hours worth of fantastically successful documentary film footage under his belt, Ken Burns is an industry unto himself. No matter the subject, we know that with Burns, we’re in for hours of sleepy guitar noodling, smoothed-over narration, and slow pans over sepia-toned photographs. And no matter what the sepia tones show, we know the subject’s bound to be America in all its epic grandeur—flush with the glory of a few Great Men (and, to a lesser extent, great women) and shamed by its treatment of black folk (and, to a lesser extent, Native Americans).
Burns’ assembly line has its drawbacks: The Civil War and Baseball work so well in part because, as in a Ken Burns film, war and baseball seem to speak to what Americans have in common, subsuming individuals into a clear collective enterprise. But Burns’ methods are ill-suited to describing more idiosyncratic accomplishments, and with Jazz, a 19-hour epic that premiered on PBS last January, the director drew the harshest criticism of his career. (More interested in race than music, he’d given “representative” artists like Benny Goodman no end of screen time while virtually ignoring eccentric but wildly influential figures like Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus.)
Burns is fortunate, then, to have picked for his latest project a writer who practically cries out to be seen as a true American archetype. “I am not an American,” Mark Twain wrote, in a quip that guaranteed his place in Burns’ canon: “I am the American.” Twain had a point. At home and abroad, he was, during his lifetime, America’s best-known citizen. “An American loves his family,” Thomas Edison observed in 1902. “If he has any love left over for some other person, he generally selects Mark Twain.” Hemingway dated American literature, or at least literature written in the American vernacular, to the publication of Huckleberry Finn. George Bernard Shaw was “persuaded that the future historian of America will find [Twain’s] works as indispensable to him as a French historian finds the political tracts of Voltaire.” To this day, it’s impossible to have a conversation about Twain without referencing American culture and only slightly less difficult to hold a conversation about American culture without eventually referencing Mark Twain. It’s hard to imagine Burns equipped with a better subject.
So why is Mark Twain the documentarysuch a powerful soporific? Maybe because for Burns, Twain is too perfect a subject—the director is far too complacent with him. Despite a cast of commentators—Arthur Miller, Russell Banks, Hal Holbrook, William Styron, David Bradley, and others—who go out of their way to describe the dark places that Twain’s comedy flowed from, Burns does little to illuminate them. Instead, the film is full of passages like the following:
Christmas was the apex of the year for the family and for all their guests. For weeks before the holiday, they would be involved in the shipping and receiving of packages, the wrapping of presents, the decorating of the house, the practicing of Christmas tunes, the preparation of elaborate meals, the welcoming of family and friends. It got to the point where Twain would refer to it as “that infernal Christmas suicide.” But Twain was also the kind of father who would literally dress up as Santa Claus and go downstairs and greet his wife and daughters and distribute presents.
Which give you a good sense of the Burns-to-Twain ratio and go a long way toward explaining why the author never emerges as a fully formed figure. Mark Twain was a man who compiled hate lists and groaned over the fate of our “damned human race.” Mark Twain seems to involve a writer who loved kittens.
Twain’s humor fares little better than his rage, though it’s hard to imagine a joke that could withstand the Burns treatment. (“He said, ‘Wagner’s music is better than it sounds!’ Now, is that possible? Of course it isn’t possible! But it’s great!”) And more serious subjects fare even worse. Like Burns, Twain viewed slavery as the greatest stain on the American conscience, took it for his great subject, and took atonement for it to be every white American’s personal responsibility. “We have ground the manhood out of them,” Twain wrote to Yale administrators in 1885, explaining his decision to fund the education of a black law student. “The shame is ours, not theirs, & we should pay for it.” Such anecdotes, and a long dissection of racial politics in Huck Finn, anchor Burns’ film. But because they’re framed in such a way as to be indistinguishable from Burns’ treatment of slavery in other works—and because we’ve heard the same story, from the same man, in the same voice, so many times before—the tragedy somehow seems prosaic.
Still, if Mark Twain captures neither the appeal of Twain’s prose and conversation, nor the drama of his spectacular rise (and even more spectacular fall, into bankruptcy and despair), it does tell us something important about the work of Ken Burns. It tells us that, 70 hours down the line, it’s time for him to find a new narrative, or new ways of telling the same narrative, or maybe, shockingly, both.