HANNIBAL, Mo. — Samuel Clemens' hometown has grown accustomed to Mark Twain mania over the years. But even in Hannibal — a town of 18,000 which draws a half-million Twain tourists annually — there's eager anticipation about Ken Burns' new documentary.
An advance viewing of "Mark Twain" drew a standing-room-only crowd 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 of the Mark Twain Museum. "I think this is going to be a very powerful, very pleasing presentation for the general public."
At the Twain historic sites here, visitor enthusiasm never really subsides. Still, Hannibal tourist officials expect an uptick in attendance once people across the country see the four-hour film (airing on PBS Monday and Tuesday at 8 p.m. EST).
What captures the attention of Burns tends to turn the head of America as well. His documentaries, including "The Civil War" in 1990, "Baseball" in 1994 and "Jazz" in 2001, have drawn million of viewers to PBS; the war documentary was the highest-rated series ever on public television.
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.
It's those contradictions which fuel much of the documentary.
Burns is telling 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 American literature."
Burns said while people may be familiar with Twain's work, particularly "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," his writing still resonates. He said he was particularly struck by Twain's gift to reflect 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."
Consider Twain (1835-1910) on the topic of the 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."
Burns said he just got out of the way of Twain's words much of the time.
"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."
But turning the act of writing into visually compelling moments had its challenges.
Burns filmed the places where Twain wrote — particularly his writing room from Quarry Farm in Elmira, N.Y., Clemens' family summer house in the 1870s and '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 said.
Burns, as well, wanted to focus on the reach of Twain's celebrity.
He said he thinks one of the great moments in the documentary occurs when Kaiser Wilhelm III meets Twain and tells him he's his favorite author; Twain returns to his hotel that night and his porter there tells him the same thing.
Burns, too, has experienced his own brand of fame.
"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 about ideas. It's about the power of ideas, and the meaning of who we are."
And he said that question is one that never ceases to interest him. "You know, if I was given 10,000 years, I would not run out of topics from American history," he said.
Mark Twain, he said, "is essentially American history running on all cylinders. And that's what we look for."
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