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Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Wil Vinton's The Adventures of Mark Twain



Because of the media savvy of most citizens in the West, thanks to growing up, as we have, with a constant glut of cinematic cliches, it is often easy to accurately assume what a film is going to be like. If we are told, for example, that it is a children's film, then we will often rightly figure on something happy and trite and sugary in its sweetness, and just about as filling as candy. If we can see that it is done in a medium such as Claymation, we may jump to that assumption right away. Now and then, however, we may find our assumption to be altogether mistaken. Indeed, we may find what is ostensibly considered a children's movie that shocks us, not from any snide cynicism or brutality that has come to pass for kids' entertainment, but rather by its profound intelligence and sensitivity. Such is the case with the Claymation animated feature The Adventures of Mark Twain.


The Adventures of Mark Twain is a high water mark across many genres, being an exemplary expression of children's' films, the works of America's most celebrated author, and Wil Vinton's patented animation style (made famous by a group of singing dehydrated fruits). As the film opens, we are told the enduring legend of Twain's connection to Halley's Comet. The comet, which cycles every 75 years, came in 1835, the years of Samuel Clemens' birth. Reckoning that his fate was tied to that of the comet, he accurately predicted the natural close of his own life in 1910, when it returned. According to Mark Twain, A Biography by Albert Bigelow Paine: 
[T]here were other nights, too, when the stars were blazing out, or when the moon on the water made the river a wide mysterious way of speculative dreams. [Mark Twain] was always speculating; the planets and the remote suns were always a marvel to him. A love of astronomy—the romance of it, its vast distances, and its possibilities—began with those lonely river-watches and never waned to his last day. For a time a great comet blazed in the heavens, a "wonderful sheaf of light" that glorified his lonely watch. Night after night he watched it as it developed and then grew dim, and he read eagerly all the comet literature that came to his hand, then or afterward. He speculated of many things: of life, death, the reason of existence, of creation, the ways of Providence and Destiny. It was a fruitful time for such meditation; out of such vigils grew those larger philosophies that would find expression later, when the years had conferred the magic gift of phrase...
He talked astronomy a great deal—marvel astronomy. He had no real knowledge of the subject, and I had none of any kind, which made its ungraspable facts all the more thrilling. He was always thrown into a sort of ecstasy by the unthinkable distances of space—the supreme drama of the universe. The fact that Alpha Centauri was twenty-five trillions of miles away—two hundred and fifty thousand times the distance of our own remote sun, and that our solar system was traveling, as a whole, toward the bright star Vega, in the constellation of Lyra, at the rate of forty-four miles a second, yet would be thousands upon thousands of years reaching its destination, fairly enraptured him.
The astronomical light-year—that is to say, the distance which light travels in a year—was one of the things which he loved to contemplate; but he declared that no two authorities ever figured it alike, and that he was going to figure it for himself. I came in one morning, to find that he had covered several sheets of paper with almost interminable rows of ciphers, and with a result, to him at least, entirely satisfactory. I am quite certain that he was prouder of those figures and their enormous aggregate than if he had just completed an immortal tale; and when he added that the nearest fixed star—Alpha Centauri—was between four and five light-years distant from the earth, and that there was no possible way to think that distance in miles or even any calculable fraction of it, his glasses shone and his hair was roached up as with the stimulation of these stupendous facts.

By and by he said:

"I came in with Halley's comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don't go out with Halley's comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: 'Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.' Oh! I am looking forward to that."
The Adventures of Mark Twain was released in 1985, just in time for when Halley's Comet last came near Earth in 1986.

With the stage set, we are introduced to a curious world in which Twain and his literary creations live side-by-side. In order to meet his destiny, Twain has borrowed a wondrous paddlewheel zeppelin  from Tom Sawyer Abroad, and it is onto this craft that Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher stow away. Much to their surprise, Twain doesn't seem angry, and even appears to know who they are, though they're sure they've never met him before. While on their globe spanning tour to meet the famous celestial body (stopping by such sights as Big Ben and the Sphinx along the way), the youngsters are treated to some of Twain's greatest stories, both from the mouth of the American bard and from the ship's "index-o-vator" which takes them from animated tale to animated tale.

The real story, however, is the mind of the great writer, and its grappling with the great questions of life, love, the afterlife, death and the dark side of humanity. This is quite heavy material, but the style and substance of the film treat it so well that one barely notices, and rather finds themselves deeply moved by the experience. The stories chosen for the film are uniquely suited to it. The only expected one is The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calavaras County, which is told at the very beginning. It is a nice, lighthearted piece of comedy that eases us into the deeper ponderings to follow.

After The Celebrated Jumping Frog are a series of more profound interludes, including the touching Diary of Adam and Eve, about the development of the love affair between humanity's first couple. In this short, as in the short stories that inspired them, Twain thinks on the ancient battle of the sexes, lampooning it and society by satirizing how both started. Ultimately, he affirms the grace and meaning brought to our lives by love.

Meeting Twain's dark alter ego ("Every man is a moon..."), Tom, Huck and Becky are taken via index-o-vator to the darkest and loneliest thoughts of his notebook and to perhaps one of the most unnerving cinematic portrayal of Satan in The Mysterious Stranger. That text was Twain's last attempt at a novel, and though left unfinished upon his death, editors cobbled together the various scraps and manuscripts into a text that was published posthumously in 1916. What we see in the course of them is a decidedly more serious study of Twain's views on humanity and morality than in his more satirical works.

First of the fragments was drafted in 1897 and is dubbed the "St. Petersburg Fragment" after the fictional American town where Twain set many of his stories. The second fragment, called "The Chronicle of  Young Satan" was written between 1897 and 1900 and moved the story to an equally fictional Austrian village in 1702. The third manuscript was penned in 1898 and set once again in St. Petersburg, known as the "Schoolhouse Hill" fragment. This version included Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, who befriend Young Satan (nephew to the Satan) and share some adventures with him. Lastly came "No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger: Being an Ancient Tale Found in a Jug and Freely Translated from the Jug" or the "Print Shop" fragment, written between 1902 and 1908 and set in Austria in 1490. This final manuscript was published in its own right by University of California Press in 1982, which would have placed it at just the right moment to have raised the public profile of The Mysterious Stranger in time to inspire Will Vinton when planning The Adventures of Mark Twain.

"The Mysterious Stranger" clip from The Adventures of Mark Twain.

The film's rendition of the story pulls from the early chapters of Paine's text, in a sequence likely derived from the second manuscript. The setting is altered, but the events and lines of dialogue are virtually unchanged. In the published 1916 version, life goes on in a bucolic Austrian village in 1590 when a trio of boys meet a mysterious stranger. This stranger has miraculous abilities, including the ability to create living creatures from clay, and eventually reveals himself as an angel named Satan. No, as mentioned previously, he is not the Satan... That is his uncle, and he prides his family on only having had one sinner in the bunch.

As the presence of this angel affects life in the village, the reader is treated to Twain's speculations on human nature and its place in the universe. Towards the end of his life, the author's attention turned ever more understandably to these subjects and the larger subject of theology. One can see it as the natural extension of his satirical mind, so gifted at recognizing the foibles and absurdities of humans and their institutions. The closer he came to his eventual end, the more interested he became in going beyond the foolishness of people and the institutional church to consider the foolishness of humanity and what God is, if there indeed is one. Satan, in The Mysterious Stranger, represents a principle of "the vertigo of the infinite": the cosmic insignificance of humanity. The character even uses the example of whether an elephant would concern itself with the feelings of a tick to explain his apparent indifference to human suffering. 

If there is any fleeting light to shine from it, it is the glimpse of perhaps the only thing that kept the author sane. For all of his facile raging against humanity, Satan does make one observation, which was also quoted in the finale of The Adventures of Mark Twain: "For your race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon—laughter. Power, money, persuasion, supplication, persecution—these can lift at a colossal humbug—push it a little—weaken it a little, century by century; but only laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand."  

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer are alluded to several times (including a crazed psychotic Injun Joe), but the film passes on the more famous works like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court or The Prince and the Pauper in favour of such things as The Damned Human Race. Twain also tells the story of Captain Stormfield's strange trip to Heaven and gets ample opportunity to share his best maxims. Hardly a line of his dialogue - voiced by James Whitmore - goes by that wasn't pulled almost verbatim from one of his stories, essays, or speeches.

The Adventures of Mark Twain is also a brilliant showcase for the Claymation technique. It is easy to think of Claymation as a simple-minded stop-motion relic of the 1980's, the domain of California Raisins or Noids selling one product or another. This film shows how beautifully the plasticine models can move, with a fluidity unmatched even by the best examples of stop-motion. The characters have both an amazing detail yet a clean simplicity to them, which makes them exceptional for expressing emotions. These models seem genuinely alive, which is the best that could be hoped for in any animation style. It demonstrates the versatility of the medium, as the backgrounds of billowing clouds and celestial storms are also painted out of the clay. The ship itself is a delightful caricature of fantasy steam technology.

This film demonstrates what can be done with both children's films and with this genre of retro-Victorian Science Fiction. Neither has to be trite and empty visual candy, but neither does it have to sacrifice aesthetic merit for the sake of intellectual and emotional appeal. It also shows that a story needn't be filled with sex and violence, those twin crutches of the entertainment industry, in order to be serious. The Adventures of Mark Twain manages to excite the viewer with dramatic scenes without requiring violence. In terms of romance, it appeals to something far deeper, more meaningful and ultimately more interesting than mere sex: love. It forgoes biting social criticism in preference for Twain's own intelligent examination of the human condition. And it serves as an excellent springboard into the body of this literary giant, who notes, as repeated in the film, "My books are water; those of the great geniuses are wine - everybody drinks water." This film is certainly a giant in the field of Scientific Romances and of children's entertainment.

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