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Burns lets Twain tell own remarkable story

Film explores how the writer turned sorrow into humor

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PASADENA, Calif. — Mark Twain gets the Ken Burns treatment next week on PBS — the award-winning documentary filmmaker and his team use still photography, some archival film footage, the written words of Twain's contemporaries as well as contemporary expert commentary to bring the life of Samuel Clemens to life.

There is, however, one important difference between "Mark Twain" (Monday and Tuesday, 8 p.m., Ch. 7) and Burns' previous documentaries. This one features the voice of its subject more.

"This is a film that has the fewest number of talking-head bites, and essentially it's because Twain is so powerful," Burns said. "It's not something we intended. We just had to get out of the way of Mark Twain and the story."

At four hours, "Mark Twain" is also less ponderous than many of Burns' films — including the 18-hour "Baseball" and the 17 1/2-hour "Jazz." "It's a short film for us," Burns said of "Twain."

And it's a remarkable story of a remarkable man. A man that Burns admits he didn't know all that well before he started work on the project.

"We were not . . . completely prepared for Mark Twain and his delicate relationship with Sam Clemens," Burns said. "While Twain, the literary invention, became, as he put it, the most conspicuous person on the planet, Clemens found himself torn between the two worlds and the two identities he tried to inhabit — torn between fame and family, between humor and bitterness, bottomless hunger for success and haunting fears of failure. It became our mission in this, we believe, our saddest and funniest film, to try to parse the difference between the two personalities."

While Twain's words can evoke uproarious laughter even in the 21st century, his real life evokes tears.

"This is a man who experienced . . . more personal tragedy than any one of us could be asked to experience," Burns said. "The loss of his father early on in life; his beloved brother in a horrible steamboat accident; his father-in-law, who he adored; a son; two of his three daughters; his beloved soulmate. He went bankrupt in front of the world — a humiliating experience. And yet he remained the funniest person on Earth.

"He began to see that the enduring, lasting humor . . . that comes from a font of sorrow, not just joy. And you begin to see that part of his genius — just part of his genius — was to take the chaotic, stupefying stuff that happens in the universe and translate it into something that we can deal with. And quite often it was with humor."

And his is a lesson that the filmmaker as well as the Twain experts he interviewed think still holds up today.

"The one maybe great, irreducible gift that he left us is the knowledge that you can convert sorrow to laughter," Powers said. "Mark Twain's humor came out of unimaginable darkness and grief and guilt and anger. And his device — which became, I think, American device — was for finding humor. It's a very courageous thing sometimes to laugh. And he gave us that."

What Burns and his team do so well is make Clemens into a real person instead of just an icon.

"One of the things that makes me so happy that this film is out is that it's giving us this human sense of the man again after so many years," said Ron Powers, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who has authored two books about Twain. "My feeling is that we've lost a sense of who Mark Twain really is. Decades and decades of academic criticism and Ph.D. theses have put him on a table and eviscerated him and examined him for his psychic wounds and anxieties.

"And, on the other side of the fence, the popular culture is turning him into a Colonel Sanders of literature — putting him in a white suit and making him a happy uncle.

"In between, there is this great vacuum of humanity, and that's what makes him so enduring and fascinating."

And, turning to Burns, Powers added, "I think of all of the people I can think of in the 19th century, the one person I would love to spend time with is Mark Twain. And you've helped me do that."

E-MAIL: pierce@desnews.com