Mark Twain: A Film Directed by Ken Burns

By , csmonitor.com

In January, PBS will be airing the latest of Ken Burns' documentaries – this one dedicated to the life and works of Samuel Clemens. For those who may like to get a jump on the broadcasts, the website for Mark Twain: A Film Directed by Ken Burns is online now.

With a basic design, and fonts, icons and colors harmonious with Twain's period in history, the main section of the site uses a simulation of one of the writer's lesser-known creative media – the scrapbook – to explore his life. (It seems that Twain kept scrapbooks throughout his life, and even invented and patented the "self-pasting" scrapbook – his only financially profitable invention.)

Opening the Interactive Scrapbook, ("...quite commendable in all respects...") the visitor is presented with nine chapters – ranging from his childhood and time as a riverboat pilot, to the end of his life and his impressions of heaven. Each chapter (between five and seven pages long) holds, in true scrapbook tradition, photographs, illustrations, press clippings, a few two-dimensional artifacts, and some explanatory and illuminating text. Less traditional, but equally welcome, are recommended links, e postcards, streaming audio and -sometimes streaming- video.

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In addition to the Scrapbook, the site offers a behind-the-scenes look at the documentary-making process with Film Makers. Here, RealVideo clips feature the series producers (Burns and Dayton Duncan) discussing the steps leading up to this particular finished product – from choosing Twain as a subject, through research, interviewing, narration, (the 'voice' of Mark Twain is provided by actor, Kevin Conway) to editing, and even adding the right musical score to accompany the images. (A few clips from the soundtrack are available in the Film Makers' Shop section.)

Finally, Learn More offers five (middle and high school) Classroom Activities, with downloadable PDF Student Handouts and related links. While some of these activities fit into fairly typical educational patterns, (such as an examination of the influence of slavery on Twain's writing) others are more, 'novel.'

One Activity encourages students to become "enormous noticers" by seeking out details and humor in everyday life. Another has them examining the difference in comedic delivery between Twain's deadpan lectures and current stand-up comedians. (Could this plant the seeds of an entire generation of Mark Twains? We can but hope.) In addition to the activities, Learn More also contains a Chronology, website and reading recommendations, and Selected Writings (which include an excerpt from Tom Sawyer and a speech Twain made on his Seventieth Birthday). If you're a fan, you won't have to be in school to get something worthwhile from Learn More.

My only real beef with the site is the fact that images aren't linked to larger versions. In many cases, this is only a minor irritant, (most photographs are large enough for comfortable viewing) but some documents (such as Twain's "Around-the-World Tour Itinerary," and the "Notice to Burglars" that he posted on his house after a robbery) are too small to be legible – and being presented with text that you won't be able to read can get rather frustrating.

Still, the site's well worth the time, and while it will be an effective 'companion' to the documentary when it airs, it's also serving as a nice ad for the documentary right now.

Mark Twain: A Film Directed by Ken Burns can be found at http://www.pbs.org/marktwain/.

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