Mark Twain's America in 3D (1998)
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We All Live in Mark Twain's America
So far as I can tell, the difference between the two options Rotten Tomatoes gives me for where to enter this is whether I'm writing about the theatrical release or the DVD. There also seems to be a third, and I haven't looked to see if it's the same movie yet again. I'm putting this under the entry for the theatrical release even though I haven't seen a true IMAX theatrical release since the early '90s. This is because I don't think there's any difference among them, so that's the date all entries should be under. I'm aware that I'm asking too much to expect Rotten Tomatoes to get their act together on this one. Why should they start with this? But as usual, I thought I'd point out that they have screwed up and explain why I made the choice I did. So here we are.
Obviously, there isn't much in the way of footage from most of Mark Twain's life. As it happens, I've just gotten access to some of it; there's a public domain movie channel for the Roku, and among other things, it's got footage of the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake. But you're not exactly going to get Mark Twain's boyhood in Hannibal on film, is what I'm saying. Instead, what we have here is a combination of pictures and reenacting. A Fourth of July parade in modern-day Hannibal, which passes right by the large statue of Tom and Huck. Those reliable friends of filmmakers everywhere, Civil War reenactors. The famous photo of Mark Twain on his porch in a rocking chair, a small and blurred kitten by his feet. And over it all, the slow, soothing voice of Anne Bancroft telling us the life story of one Samuel Clemens, as well as what the country was like as he grew up in it.
The movie uses considerably fewer of the famous Twain quotes, choosing to leave out "those unaccountable freaks" and "this will sell us another five thousand copies for sure." Instead, there are rather lengthy passages about his Civil War experiences, his travel abroad, and his hopes of fame and fortune from gold mining. Let's face it. Anyone could tell us that he was the first person to submit a manuscript which had been typed. ([i]Life on the Mississippi[/i], which he had in fact handwritten first and which was typed by someone else.) However, the film chooses instead to go with the Twain who was so determined not to invest in another dang fool gadget that he missed out in becoming partners with a young man by the name of Alexander Graham Bell.
Which, I have to tell you, is probably apocryphal. I can't say for sure, but Alexander Graham Bell wasn't a nobody. He could, after all, afford the lawyers he ended up needing for the patent disputes. But that's the thing about Mark Twain. He invented himself. Mark Twain and Samuel Clemens might be said to be two different people. However, I can forgive him this when I can't forgive William Faulkner, because Mark Twain never wanted you to take him seriously. Why should you? He didn't. The stories he told about his own life were pretty firmly tongue-in-cheek, and he knew you knew that. Think, possibly, about a favourite uncle, one whose delight is in stringing a story out for as long as possible before you realize he's making the whole thing up. I wouldn't exactly say the film captured that Mark Twain, but it definitely hinted at it.
The problem is that Mark Twain today is as much legend as man. I'd imagine that increasingly few people actually read his books; I must confess I haven't read a lot of them myself. People know of Tom and Huck, but I don't think they really know them. And even if people have read the books, I don't think they necessarily think about the fact that, unlike Tom and Huck, Sam Clemens grew up. As it happens, the first piece of Twain I ever read was a letter he wrote to his youngest daughter, Susie, claiming to be a letter from Santa Claus. This means that I've spent most of my life thinking of him as a grown-up with children. The movie includes the quote about how, in his days as a Confederate officer, Twain was nearly captured by Ulysses S. Grant's men. Which is funny. But how many people know that Samuel Clemens then befriended the general and helped the dying man write his memoirs so that the Grant family wouldn't starve?
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