Tuesday, July 8, 2008

the adventures of mark twain, by will vinton

So, following up on Svankmajer's Alice, this week Film Club tackled another "literary" animated film, The Adventures of Mark Twain, which is a far weirder film than it might initially appear.

The premise of the film is intriguing right out of the gate. Adventures is neither a biopic of Twain nor a straight-ahead adaptation of Twain's work, but rather both of these, set in the context of a third thing: an adventure tale in which Twain pilots an airship into space to observe Halley's Comet.

That's odd enough as an artistic choice, but the film complicates the story considerably by having Twain be joined by three stowaways: Twain's own fictional characters Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Becky Thatcher.

So, OK, this is enough to qualify the film as a kid-friendly entrant in the series of films we did a while back that combine re-enactments of a writer's work with the story of a writer's life in various complicated ways (American Splendor, Adaptation, The Hours, and Naked Lunch). And this business wherein fictional characters meet their creator collapses two layers of reality, which always has the potential to be deeply fraught. If the characters recognize what's going on, they're going to realize something about their own status as fictions, and this leads into some pretty tricky existential problems. After all, What would you ask if given the potential to directly address your creator? [I'm reminded here of the culmination of Grant Morrison's run on the comic book Animal Man, in which Animal Man, who has had his wife and children murdered during Morrison's run, essentially asks "Why did you make me suffer?" Morrison's response is honest, yet cruel: because it helps sell comic books.]

Anyway, the film flirts with this possibility—there's a "Table of Contents" on the main deck that the passengers can use to access re-enactments of Twain's works:

...and at one point they notice "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" listed in there (as well as the "Injun Joe" episode from Huck Finn's life).

However, they avoid drawing any ontologically-problematic conclusions from this. That's not to say that the film never gets dark. Twain aficionados will know that Twain was born in 1835, when Halley's Comet passed by the earth, and that he correctly predicted that he would die when the comet returned. The film informs us of these details at its outset, and is completely explicit about the fact that the airship voyage is a one-way trip from which Twain will not return.

In this way the film begins to resemble a film like Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man, a single extended meditation on the transition into death. The children recognize that they are being carried along on this voyage, and rightfully recognize that this puts them in substantial peril: much of the film's conflict derives from their attempts to escape Twain's company and return to safety on the ground. At one point in the film, Sawyer, freely speculating about how the newspapers will describe their escape, conjures up the headline "Tom Sawyer, Aeronaut, Saves Airborne Friends From Madman's Deathwish," and by this point in the film Twain has, indeed, begun to be represented as a somewhat deranged figure, haunted, morbid, grief-obsessed.

The film highlights this even further by choosing to present adaptations of Twain's lesser-known and more esoteric or cynical works, including (most notably) the incomplete manuscript The Mysterious Stranger, a work which features Satan as the main character:

...and which emphasizes human suffering as a central thematic concern, which the film doesn't exactly skimp on representing:

This is pretty dark stuff for a young audience, and the resolution is "happy" only on a philosophical, near-mystical level, dealing with such concepts as literary immortality and reconciling the duality of the self:

In short, totally fascinating. Thinking of all this business regarding literary figures taken out of their usual context (and then using this as way to get at an extended meditation on death) put me in mind of Rosencranz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which will be my pick for next week.

1 comment:

Michael Peterson said...

I was starting to worry that I'd imagined this film. I remember it being utterly captivating when I saw it at a young age, but nobody else seemed to remember it. Thank you for the commentary!