Scott Teems seems more like an Allman Brothers Band member than a producer of movies. He suits the basic criteria of physics: thick, flowing skin, scruffy facial hair and, of course, Georgia-born. No, actually, he's a writer (and presently a plot editor for the "Rectify" cable TV series), and a pretty good one based on his latest movie, "Holbrook / Twain: An American Odyssey." So now, under his hat, he has two characteristics, both of which are American icon Hal Holbrook. He directed and adapted "The Evening Sun" (cue the Netflix DVD queue) back in 2009, a well-reviewed rural Gothic drama about a cantankerous, octogenarian farmer whose sudden return churns a steaming pot of trouble and treason. Hopefully their partnerships will continue. Armed with the same cameraman (Rodney Taylor) and re-teaming with Laura D. Smith, who created the short "The Network Effect Featuring Dr. Steven Shepard" (2012) directed by Teems, made for Cisco Systems, "Holbrook / Twain," the opening night film at this year's AFI DOCS festival, is showing a very stable hand at the helm. While I haven't been to all the first night premieres of the AFI DOCS / SilverDocs (and some I really struggled through), this was easily the best I've ever seen. Such activities are often suck-up programs for a serious (and perhaps well-heeled) sponsor, but this year I felt the excellent program committee of the festival was holding their ground firmly and with dignity. The first thing I saw was the color of the movie. Black-and-white sparkling. No problems of polychromy. Only luminous characteristics of the tonal. Then it's all Holbrook, the now 89-year-old actor (who drifted through the stage to present the movie at the Newseum Annenberg Theater). In case you can't tell from the film's title (or saw any of the thousands of one-man shows the legendary actor presented as the revered Mark Twain), this is a beautiful road trip, either down the memory lane or into America's heart, exploring the man and the ever-changing role he's portrayed since 1954. Indeed, in a seven-decade career, for 60 years. And 13 years longer than the famous pen name that Samuel Clemens bore. In reality, the image was the idea of the actress wife of Holbrook, Dixie "Designing Women" Carter, who approached Teems a few years before she died in 2010, with the notion of this film. Per Teems, the very convincing third spouse of Holbrook, "She didn't ask me, she told me I was going to make this film." Thanks to Holbrook's careful, old school preparation process, the viewer's taste for Twain is constantly whetted throughout the movie. He has copious notes about each of his performances that he has written. When, no matter how long ago, he returns to a venue where he delivered his "Mark Twain Tonight" on a previous occasion, he takes out the few sheets of paper on which he recorded reactions to his material from the crowd. He annotated it if something didn't work. For each series, he builds a conceptual model, constantly changing material; it is never exactly the same show. This remarkable versatility to swap at a moment's notice in any dollop of Twain's humor (Holbrook refers to them as "little bombs") is due to the encyclopedic knowledge of his subject by the director. Oh, yeah, it's a magnificent habit thing, Holbrook. He's got a small make-up kit everywhere, about 44 square feet with two old-fashioned incandescent bulbs to light up his face as he's applying his own make-up (hardest part: the nose). We hear about the person between the steadfast regimen of planning and a smattering of quality sketches. A penniless man who comes to New York City with the proverbial $200 in his bank account and support for a wife and child. The incident that helped him to discover Twain's penchant. Early success that allowed the Ed Sullivan Show to appear. Not acting in his first movie until he was 40. Finally, like the enchanting patterns on the stage by Holbrook, "Holbrook / Twain: An American Odyssey" expertly captures the cynical beats of a man who wants to express his experience with his adoring public - in the guise of one of America's greatest humorists.
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