Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Mark Twain and Halley's Comet

[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." And a little later he added:

"I've got some kind of a heart disease, and Quintard won't tell me whether it is the kind that carries a man off in an instant or keeps him lingering along and suffering for twenty years or so. I was in hopes that Quintard would tell me that I was likely to drop dead any minute; but he didn't. He only told me that my blood-pressure was too strong. He didn't give me any schedule; but I expect to go with Halley's comet."
Halley's Comet, June 6, 1910. 

The news of his condition, everywhere published, brought great heaps of letters, but he could not see them. A few messages were reported to him. At intervals he read a little. Suetonius and Carlyle lay on the bed beside him, and he would pick them up as the spirit moved him and read a paragraph or a page. Sometimes, when I saw him thus-the high color still in his face, and the clear light in his eyes—I said: "It is not reality. He is not going to die." On Tuesday, the 19th, he asked me to tell Clara to come and sing to him. It was a heavy requirement, but she somehow found strength to sing some of the Scotch airs which he loved, and he seemed soothed and comforted. When she came away he bade her good-by, saying that he might not see her again.

But he lingered through the next day and the next. His mind was wandering a little on Wednesday, and his speech became less and less articulate; but there were intervals when he was quite clear, quite vigorous, and he apparently suffered little. We did not know it, then, but the mysterious messenger of his birth-year, so long anticipated by him, appeared that night in the sky.—[The perihelion of Halley's Comet for 1835 was November 16th; for 1910 it was April 20th.]

On Thursday morning, the 21st, his mind was generally clear, and it was said by the nurses that he read a little from one of the volumes on his bed, from the Suetonius, or from one of the volumes of Carlyle. Early in the forenoon he sent word by Clara that he wished to see me, and when I came in he spoke of two unfinished manuscripts which he wished me to "throw away," as he briefly expressed it, for he had not many words left now. I assured him that I would take care of them, and he pressed my hand. It was his last word to me.

Once or twice that morning he tried to write some request which he could not put into intelligible words.

And once he spoke to Gabrilowitsch, who, he said, could understand him better than the others. Most of the time he dozed.

Somewhat after midday, when Clara was by him, he roused up and took her hand, and seemed to speak with less effort.

"Good-by," he said, and Dr. Quintard, who was standing near, thought he added: "If we meet"—but the words were very faint. He looked at her for a little while, without speaking, then he sank into a doze, and from it passed into a deeper slumber, and did not heed us any more.

Through that peaceful spring afternoon the life-wave ebbed lower and lower. It was about half past six, and the sun lay just on the horizon when Dr. Quintard noticed that the breathing, which had gradually become more subdued, broke a little. There was no suggestion of any struggle. The noble head turned a little to one side, there was a fluttering sigh, and the breath that had been unceasing through seventy-four tumultuous years had stopped forever.

He had entered into the estate envied so long. In his own words—the words of one of his latest memoranda:

"He had arrived at the dignity of death—the only earthly dignity that is not artificial—the only safe one. The others are traps that can beguile to humiliation.

"Death—the only immortal who treats us all alike, whose pity and whose peace and whose refuge are for all—the soiled and the pure—the rich and the poor—the loved and the unloved."
From Mark Twain, A Biography by Albert Bigelow Paine (Excerpted from Chapters XXVIII, CCLXXXII and CCXCIII)

Sunday, 27 July 2014

July Giveaway - Mark Twain

To celebrate our month devoted to The Adventures of Mark Twain and the stories that inspired it, our July giveaway is for a collected edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur`s Court and several short stories, and as an added bonus, a collection of Tom Sawyer Abroad and Tom Sawyer, Detective.



To enter, just leave a reply to this post that includes, through your name, profile, etc., a means to get in touch with you if you should win. The prize draw will happen at 12:00 am on Sunday, July 27th.

And the winner is... Nobody?! Oops, nobody left a comment, so it looks like poor Mark Twain is left to languish. Sorry about that! Hopefully the next time we do this, I'll have something a little more appealing!

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven (1909)

 

The Claymation film The Adventures of Mark Twain features a clip excerpted from Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven, in which the titular riverboat pilot finds himself before the wrong set of pearly gates. Having passed away from causes unknown, he decides to race a comet (which is being run smartly by a crew, much like a riverboat) and finds himself off course. Landing at the first gate of Heaven he finds, he is eventually let in only to discover that it wasn't his Heaven:
“I begin to see that a man’s got to be in his own Heaven to be happy.”

“Perfectly correct,” says he.  “Did you imagine the same heaven would suit all sorts of men?”

“Well, I had that idea—but I see the foolishness of it.  Which way am I to go to get to my district?”

He called the under clerk that had examined the map, and he gave me general directions.  I thanked him and started; but he says—

“Wait a minute; it is millions of leagues from here.  Go outside and stand on that red wishing-carpet; shut your eyes, hold your breath, and wish yourself there.”

“I’m much obliged,” says I; “why didn’t you dart me through when I first arrived?”

“We have a good deal to think of here; it was your place to think of it and ask for it.  Good-by; we probably sha’n’t see you in this region for a thousand centuries or so.”

“In that case, o revoor,” says I.

I hopped onto the carpet and held my breath and shut my eyes and wished I was in the booking-office of my own section.  The very next instant a voice I knew sung out in a business kind of a way—

“A harp and a hymn-book, pair of wings and a halo, size 13, for Cap’n Eli Stormfield, of San Francisco!—make him out a clean bill of health, and let him in.”
That portion of the story was only the beginning, however. Appropriately, Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven was the last of Twain's works to be published in his lifetime.  Like his other stories of that vintage, several of which were selected for The Adventures of Mark Twain, this story is another of the author's meditations on the absurdity of life and the incongruences of religion in respects to the problem of scale. For Twain, "the vertigo of the infinite" is a very real thing. Though the contemporaneous Catholic apologist G.K. Chesterton saw the vertigo of the infinite as "a babyish and hysterical sentiment," it was nevertheless inescapable for the American satirist whose blessing and curse was a keen eye towards human failing. If humanity seemed small and absurd to him, a mere man, how much more must it seem so in light of infinity and eternity?

Twain's sense of proportion manifests in several ways throughout Captain Stormfield as he takes many images of Heaven and applies them literally. It only begins with the recognition that there are billions of worlds that many be inhabited by billions of sentient species, each of which would require a Heaven suited to them. Even individual people would not be pleased with a wholesale idea of Heaven. To be happy, Heaven must be tailored. When Stormfield enters the right district, he learns to appreciate the breadth of Earth's Heaven. It is a mirror image of Earth in many respects, except for size. It must be considerably inflated in order to accommodate all people who ever lived (for everyone gets to go to Twain's Heaven). Consequently, people tend to gravitate into their own districts to be amongst people whose sentiments are comparable to their own. A resident of San Francisco finds little comfort in Heaven's reflection of California, which boats a 99% Native American population.

The biggest names in Heaven are, of course, the Saints and Patriarchs. Unfortunately there is only one Moses for billions and billions of souls, and after a few millennia he's heard it all. Therefore, the Greats of Faith are as distant as celebrities on Earth, and they essentially draw straws for who is stuck having to make a perfunctory public appearance whenever there's a new shipment of arrivals. Some Earthly celebrities show up as well, but Twain's Heaven is also a place of justice where everyone lives according to how they ought to have lived on Earth, doing whatever would have given them the greatest happiness. As a result, kings are reduced to booksellers and grocers are renowned as great generals. The greatest poets of all time never wrote a word while they were alive.

Relative to other books of the type, Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven blessedly lacks the meanness with which an elderly Twain often approached the subject. It's easy to accept it as a remonstrance not to take figurative images too seriously. Whatever Heaven may be, it won't be all harps and halos.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Mysterious Stranger (1897-1908, 1916)

The Mysterious Stranger was the last attempt at a novel by the great American author Mark Twain. Though left unfinished on 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.

The final published edition, which had remained virtually the sole publicly available version until 1969, was a fabrication by Twain's biographer and executor Albert Bigelow Paine with assistance by writer Frederick Duneka. The two pieced the various fragments together and added  interstitial passages to smooth them out. Scholars lit onto the fabrication in 1963, with the University of California publishing an anthology of these unaltered manuscripts in 1969, edited by William Gibson.

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 and his animators when planning their film The Adventures of Mark Twain.

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

Vinton'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.

The Mysterious Stranger is one of Twain's more cynical expressions of thought. Satan 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. Twain is most scathing in his deliberations on the "Moral Sense," or humanity's capacity to discern and define moral activity. Rather than see it as an exultation of sentience, Satan (and Twain by proxy) states that nothing has been a greater cause of suffering and evil, and that the Moral Sense reduces humanity beneath the "higher animals." Ironically, for all of Twain's criticisms of the Bible and Christendom, he came to roughly the same conclusion as the story of The Fall in Genesis. When one reads the Biblical account, it is inescapable that the first thing Adam and Eve do when they acquire the knowledge of good and evil is try to blame one another, followed by all manner of toil as the punishing consequence of their deed.    

Twain at least has the presence of mind not to fall into the mistake of thinking that life in a state of nature is all bliss either. When he extols the "higher animals" and Satan's anarchic indifference, it is not because they are morally superior to humans. Rather, it is because the concept of morality has no meaning to them. Satan is imminently logical and unemotional, which is why "He didn't seem to know any way to do a person a favor except by killing him or making a lunatic out of him." It is on this point where Twain's argument falls apart, having overshot himself to demonstrate the horror implicit to his worldview and thereby providing a compelling reason not to adhere to it.

His angel respects no notion of human dignity - what respect has an elephant for the dignity of a tick? - and Twain's clear meaning is that there is no such thing as human dignity. Like many of the intelligentsia before and since, his objections strain against the self-evident fact that we experience our own dignity as a fact very real and present and important to ourselves. "Vertigo of the infinite" has the curious effect of making the universe considerably smaller, a much meaner and more narrow thing than any one individual person's life. To quote G.K. Chesterton in his commentary on materialistic determinism:
Somehow his scheme, like the lucid scheme of the madman, seems unconscious of the alien energies and the large indifference of the earth; it is not thinking of the real things of the earth, of fighting peoples or proud mothers, or first love or fear upon the sea. The earth is so very large, and the cosmos is so very small. 
Chesterton, a Catholic, is obviously not speaking of the "large indifference of the earth" in the same sense as Twain. To Twain and other proponents of such a view, the indifference of the cosmos makes humanity absurd. To Chesterton, the indifference of humanity makes atheism, materialism, determinism and the other speculative philosophies of learned men absurd. Lovers keep loving, fighters keep fighting, and worshippers keep worshipping regardless of Twain's protestations, and it is difficult to imagine that any of them should be better off to embrace Twain's cynicism.

The Mysterious Stranger ends with the same monologue quoted in the segment from The Adventures of Mark Twain. Out of nowhere, a clumsy artifact of Paine's stitching together assorted manuscripts, Satan says...
Strange! that you should not have suspected years ago—centuries, ages, eons, ago!—for you have existed, companionless, through all the eternities. Strange, indeed, that you should not have suspected that your universe and its contents were only dreams, visions, fiction! Strange, because they are so frankly and hysterically insane—like all dreams... It is true, that which I have revealed to you; there is no God, no universe, no human race, no earthly life, no heaven, no hell. It is all a dream—a grotesque and foolish dream. Nothing exists but you. And you are but a thought—a vagrant thought, a useless thought, a homeless thought, wandering forlorn among the empty eternities!
Yet Chesterton, having published Orthodoxy some years before The Mysterious Stranger, preempts it with a corrective:
There is a sceptic far more terrible than he who believes that everything began in matter. It is possible to meet the sceptic who believes that everything began in himself. He doubts not the existence of angels or devils, but the existence of men and cows. For him his own friends are a mythology made up by himself. He created his own father and his own mother. This horrible fancy has in it something decidedly attractive to the somewhat mystical egoism of our day. That publisher who thought that men would get on if they believed in themselves, those seekers after the Superman who are always looking for him in the looking-glass, those writers who talk about impressing their personalities instead of creating life for the world, all these people have really only an inch between them and this awful emptiness. Then when this kindly world all round the man has been blackened out like a lie; when friends fade into ghosts, and the foundations of the world fail; then when the man, believing in nothing and in no man, is alone in his own nightmare, then the great individualistic motto shall be written over him in avenging irony. The stars will be only dots in the blackness of his own brain; his mother's face will be only a sketch from his own insane pencil on the walls of his cell. But over his cell shall be written, with dreadful truth, "He believes in himself."
The Mysterious Stranger is not a pleasant book. Even in his most troubling passages of other texts, Twain's humor and insight make his work a joy to read. For all his attempts at trying to make us feel sorry for ourselves, one finishes this book feeling sorrier for him than anything else. 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 film: "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."  

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894)

After the initial fame of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the little world of St. Petersburg, Missouri, became Twain's playground for varied literary divergences. The most highly regarded of these is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1885. The Gilded Age romps of Sawyer, for as much murder and mayhem as they involved, were traded in for a sincere examination of life in the American South with all its harsh, squalid, unromantic realities. Quite early on, for instance, the reader is revolted by the horrible situation that the return of Huck's father puts him in. A barbaric man, he punishes the boy for "putting on airs" by being taught to read and proceeds to try and weasel Huck's trustfund (a legacy of the reward in the previous novel) as his "right" he is justly owed. No wonder Huck fakes his death and runs off with Jim, the escaped slave. As an unlearned, rural vagabond, Huck becomes Twain's "wild man" voice of satirical innocence.

Ten years later, Twain takes a different approach with Tom Sawyer Abroad. As something of a parody of Vernian Scientific Romances and dime novel Edisonades, the author takes Tom, Huck and Jim and throws them in with a mad inventor who takes them aloft in his dirigible. One can tell from this short novella and its follow-up Tom Sawyer, Detective that the gas had gone out of Sawyer and Finn for their author. Nevertheless, it does provide him with a few good moments of good-natured fun to poke at the genre.


Jealousy and ambition drove Tom, dragging Huck and Jim with him, to truck up to St. Louis to see the flying machine of a would-be "errornort." He had gotten some pretty good mileage out of being a worldly traveler and taken a bullet at the end of The Adventures of Huck Finn, but like any gossip-hungry people, the citizens of St. Petersburg got tired of Tom's old stories and resumed their rapt awe of the local postman, who once went all the way up to Washington DC. Tom figured that inspecting a real-life airship would be enough to regain his status... He had no idea that the madman who invented it would kidnap them!

The scientist probably couldn't help himself though, on account of his being a genius. Huck Finn, narrator of the story, tells us why:
He was a good enough sort of cretur, and hadn't no harm in him, and was just a genius, as the papers said, which wasn't his fault. We can't all be sound: we've got to be the way we're made. As near as I can make out, geniuses think they know it all, and so they won't take people's advice, but always go their own way, which makes everybody forsake them and despise them, and that is perfectly natural. If they was humbler, and listened and tried to learn, it would be better for them.
The bulk of Tom Sawyer Abroad are little witticisms like this. The story is paper-thin, as betrayed by the novella's low page-count, but the funny episodes and quips that fill the dialogue more than make up for it. Most of that are Huck and Jim ganging up on Tom Sawyer, using their logic to disprove everything he says, especially when it's right.
"Well, you heard what the professor said when he was raging round. Sometimes, he said, we was making fifty miles an hour, sometimes ninety, sometimes a hundred; said that with a gale to help he could make three hundred any time, and said if he wanted the gale, and wanted it blowing the right direction, he only had to go up higher or down lower to find it."

"Well, then, it's just as I reckoned. The professor lied."

"Why?"

"Because if we was going so fast we ought to be past Illinois, oughtn't we?"

"Certainly."

"Well, we ain't."

"What's the reason we ain't?"

"I know by the color. We're right over Illinois yet. And you can see for yourself that Indiana ain't in sight."

"I wonder what's the matter with you, Huck. You know by the COLOR?"

"Yes, of course I do."

"What's the color got to do with it?"

"It's got everything to do with it. Illinois is green, Indiana is pink. You show me any pink down here, if you can. No, sir; it's green."

"Indiana PINK? Why, what a lie!"

"It ain't no lie; I've seen it on the map, and it's pink."

You never see a person so aggravated and disgusted. He says:

"Well, if I was such a numbskull as you, Huck Finn, I would jump over. Seen it on the map! Huck Finn, did you reckon the States was the same color out-of-doors as they are on the map?"

"Tom Sawyer, what's a map for? Ain't it to learn you facts?"

"Of course."

"Well, then, how's it going to do that if it tells lies? That's what I want to know."

"Shucks, you muggins! It don't tell lies."

"It don't, don't it?"

"No, it don't."

"All right, then; if it don't, there ain't no two States the same color. You git around THAT if you can, Tom Sawyer."

He see I had him, and Jim see it too; and I tell you, I felt pretty good, for Tom Sawyer was always a hard person to git ahead of. Jim slapped his leg and says:

"I tell YOU! dat's smart, dat's right down smart. Ain't no use, Mars Tom; he got you DIS time, sho'!" He slapped his leg again, and says, "My LAN', but it was smart one!"
Eventually they do get out of the United States and all the way over to Africa, traversing the Great Sahara. One of Tom's pastimes is to hunt out the locations where the stories of the Arabian Nights took place, with an accuracy that astonishes Huck and Jim: "And to me and Jim, as wonderful a thing as any was the way Tom could come into a strange big country like this and go straight and find a little hump like that and tell it in a minute from a million other humps that was almost just like it, and nothing to help him but only his own learning and his own natural smartness."

At last they end up in Egypt, which gives Twain the chance to write a luminous chapter on one of the favourite topics of his later life: perspective, and humanity's place in the great scope of time and space.

We landed Jim on top of the head [of the Sphinx], with an American flag to protect him, it being a foreign land; then we sailed off to this and that and t'other distance, to git what Tom called effects and perspectives and proportions, and Jim he done the best he could, striking all the different kinds of attitudes and positions he could study up, but standing on his head and working his legs the way a frog does was the best. The further we got away, the littler Jim got, and the grander the Sphinx got, till at last it was only a clothespin on a dome, as you might say. That's the way perspective brings out the correct proportions, Tom said... Then we sailed off further and further, till we couldn't see Jim at all any more, and then that great figger was at its noblest, a-gazing out over the Nile Valley so still and solemn and lonesome, and all the little shabby huts and things that was scattered about it clean disappeared and gone, and nothing around it now but a soft wide spread of yaller velvet, which was the sand.
All great adventures must come to an end though, and this one does rather abruptly in a manner that is funny but highly suggestive that the author just ran out of interest and decided to stop.


Wednesday, 2 July 2014

The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985)


The first five minutes of 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. This film 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. It is worth noting 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 globespanning 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" elevator 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. 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 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-lined 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, utterly impossible even to minds stretched out by the Nautilus or Columbia.

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 banes and blessings of the entertainment industry, in order to be serious. In some ways, there is almost an expectation that, to take anything Victorian seriously, it must be "ironic" and explore the Victorians' near fathomless appetite for the perverse. 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: 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.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

June Giveaway - Vintage Mickey

Monthly giveaways continue with a little something straight from Main Street USA. One of my favourite attractions at Disneyland USA is the Main Street Theater, which shows classic black-and-white Mickey Mouse cartoons. Now some of those can come home to you with a copy of Walt Disney's Vintage Mickey.  This DVD includes the first official Mickey cartoon, Steamboat Willie, as well as Plane Crazy (the first Mickey cartoon made), The Karnival Kid (the first time Mickey spoke), The Birthday Party, The Castaway, Mickey's Orphans, Mickey's Revue (the first appearance of Goofy), Building a Building, and Mickey's Steam-Roller.



To enter, just leave a reply to this post and ensure that your name, profile, etc. includes a way to get in contact with you if you win. I will draw a name out of my hat on Sunday, June 29th!

And the (new) winner is... jodi reese! Check your inbox for a message, and to the rest of you, thank hyou very much for your ongoing support of Voyages Extraordinaires! Keep an eye out next month for another giveaway!