Ken Burns brings to light Mark Twain's life and work
Also, PBS brings a Pulitzer-nominated play to television
'I am not an American," Mark Twain once said, "I am the American." When everyone else joined up for the war between the states, Samuel Langhorne Clemens "lit out for the territories," to paraphrase one of his greatest protagonists. But no one would ever think of Sam, aka Mark Twain, as unpatriotic. He was the first author to write in the American vernacular. And he did not hesitate to use his talents as a humorist, journalist, and novelist to attack what he did consider un-American - the great immorality of slavery and racism.
In Mark Twain, a superb new four-hour documentary by Ken Burns (PBS, Jan. 14-15, check local listings), Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" receives its just rewards. Though the book has been at the center of controversy ever since he wrote it in 1884, first accused of vulgarity and more recently of racism, it stands as the first American novel to create a fully realized African-American character.
"He took a black person and made him a human being," says civil rights activist Dick Gregory.
"It is still one of the most banned books in the country, and for completely insane politically correct reasons," Mr. Burns said in a recent interview. "I feel that that section in the film on Huck Finn blows out of the water any justification for the banning of that great book."
Clemens withstood a series of terrible tragedies: He lost brothers, his father, three of his four children, and his wife during his own lifetime. He made and lost fortunes, attempting to retire from literature and the lecture circuit to try his hand at inventing and at business - always looking to get rich (or richer) quick. But he ultimately lived by the pen, and the prolific author of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," "Life on the Mississippi," "Roughing It," "Pudd'nhead Wilson," and so much more lovingly kept America laughing at its own flaws.
Burns keeps an easy flow of ideas going - nothing stilted about the film's form. Amazingly, every time you see a talking head in one of his films, that scene is unrehearsed. "It's a happy accident of location and trial and error of placing it around the film. We also go in with a very open process in the way we shoot and work on our scripts, so that [the film] can evolve during the course of editing."
Consequently, every film has a revelatory feeling about it - we are discovering Mark Twain's life and work here, not simply being informed about them.
"I think that his great understanding of the American character would be the obvious reason someone like me would be drawn to him - and I am," Burns says. "I also think he speaks universal truths that affect all of us around the world. But I think it's his ability to negotiate and reconcile tragedy with humor and in other ways that makes him so valuable to us today."
Playwright Donald Margulies is having a good TV year. First, his Pulitzer Prize-winning "Dinner with Friends" received a fine production on HBO last year, and now PBS has nabbed his Pulitzer-nominated Collected Stories (Jan. 12, check local listings). It is the second offering in the new series "PBS Hollywood Presents," and it is clearly a gem.
The play is a series of conversations between a successful writer and professor, Ruth Steiner (played with layers of crusty power by Linda Lavin), and her protégé, Lisa Morrison (energetically realized by Samantha Mathis), a gifted young woman whose enthusiasm for her teacher can be overbearing.
But over the years, the two women become friends, colleagues, almost mother and daughter - until one day, young Lisa writes a novel that maybe she shouldn't have. Is her story an homage or a theft?
"The impetus for the play was an incident between the English poet Stephen Spendor and the American novelist David Levitt," Mr. Margulies said in a recent interview. "Levitt wrote a novel drawing on Spendor's autobiography, and Spendor succeeded in suppressing it in England - at least until deletions were made."
The question of intellectual property is a controversial issue right now, but Margulies doesn't reduce his examination of human character to pat socio-political truisms. In this play, there is also a struggle between youth and age, and a spiritual struggle between mentor and protégé. The complexity of their relationship is phenomenal - no sex, no men, no petty political differences, very little professional jealousy.
Every artist battles with influences - not only the influences of mentors and heroes, but of friends and family. Margulies is interested in that struggle. He tries not to judge his characters, giving each woman her own moral scope.
"Art is really making something else, something new, something fresh out of the familiar, and very often, the familiar is drawn from the personal. It's trying to find a way to see the everyday in new ways.... We draw not only on our own experience, but on the experience of those who are closest to us, those who fill our days or confound us or fascinate us.
"I empathize with both women's point of view. I think Lisa's motivation was an act of love, not exploitation. But it's easy to see it as exploitation."