The Stranger had seen everything, he had been everywhere, he knew everything, and he forgot nothing. What another must study, he learned at a glance; there were no difficulties for him. And he made things live before you when he told about them. He saw the world made; he saw Adam created; he saw Samson surge against the pillars and bring the temple down in ruins about him; he saw Caesar’s death; he told of the daily life in heaven; he had seen the damned writhing in the red waves of hell; and he made us see all these things, and it was as if we were on the spot and looking at them with our own eyes. And we felt them, too, but there was no sign that they were anything to him beyond mere entertainments. Those visions of hell, those poor babes and women and girls and lads and men shrieking and supplicating in anguish – why, we could hardly bear it, but he was as bland about it as if it had been so many imitation rats in an artificial fire.
And always when he was talking about men and women here on the earth and their doings – even their grandest and sublimest – we were secretly ashamed, for his manner showed that to him they and their doings were of paltry poor consequence; often you would think he was talking about flies, if you didn’t know. Once he even said, in so many words, that our people down here were quite interesting to him, notwithstanding they were so dull and ignorant and trivial and conceited, and so diseased and rickety, and such a shabby, poor, worthless lot all around. He said it in a quite matter-of-course way and without bitterness, just as a person might talk about bricks or manure or any other thing that was of no consequence and hadn’t feelings. I could see he meant no offense, but in my thoughts I set it down as not very good manners.
“Manners!” he said. “Why, it is merely the truth, and truth is good manners; manners are a fiction. The castle is done. Do you like it?”
Any one would have been obliged to like it. It was lovely to look at, it was so shapely and fine, and so cunningly perfect in all its particulars, even to the little Flags waving from the turrets. Satan said we must put the artillery in place now, and station the halberdiers and display the cavalry. Our men and horses were a spectacle to see, they were so little like what they were intended for; for, of course, we had no art in making such things. Satan said they were the worst he had seen; and when he touched them and made them alive, it was just ridiculous the way they acted, on account of their legs not being of uniform lengths. They reeled and sprawled around as if they were drunk, and endangered everybody’s lives around them, and finally fell over and lay helpless and kicking. It made us all laugh, though it was a shameful thing to see. The guns were charged with dirt, to fire a salute, but they were so crooked and so badly made that they all burst when they went off, and killed some of the gunners and crippled the others. Satan said we would have a storm now, and an earthquake, if we liked, but we must stand off a piece, out of danger. We wanted to call the people away, too, but he said never mind them; they were of no consequence, and we could make more, some time or other, if we needed them.
When it comes to Mark Twain, darker is usually better. What’s striking is how few people realize just how dark Twain could get — check out A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and tell me if it feels like a jolly medieval romp to you. The video clip above, which takes off from Twain’s “The Mysterious Stranger,” is a good example of how spooky Twain could get in his bleaker moods.
The clip is from The Adventures of Mark Twain, a 1985 folly directed by Claymation impresario Will Vinton, better known as the man who brought you the California Raisins and the Oscar-winning short “Closing Time.” The bizarre plot has Twain piloting an airship in search of Halley’s Comet so he can be rid of the tedious human race; Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher come aboard and try to convince Twain to keep sharing his talents with the rest of mankind. The journey incorporates scenes and dialogue from various Twain stories, in ways that frequently reminded me of Between Time and Timbuktu, a made-for-TV movie from the early 1970s (long overdue for revival) that strung together elements from Kurt Vonnegut’s work.
Come to think of it, a better comparison would probably be Baron Prasil, a 1961 epic from Karel Zeman that is one of the strangest, most ambitious and borderline incomprehensible films ever made. It was briefly distributed in this country as The Fabulous Baron Munchausen and saw a fleeting video release to capitalize on Terry Gilliam’s film. You’ll get some idea of the flavor from the opening, in which an astronaut arrives on the moon to be greeted by Cyrano de Bergerac, Jules Verne and . . . well, take a look:
Zeman was hugely ambitious, and his films constantly strained against the limits of early 1960s filmmaking techniques. The Fantastic World of Jules Verne, a predecessor to Baron Prasil, was designed to look like a series of Victorian engravings, and damned if Zeman didn’t pull it off most of the time.
Terry Gilliam is reportedly a fan of Zeman’s work; you can certainly see a stylistic debt in this other clip from Baron Prasil:
Zeman’s work has that slightly nightmarish texture that seems to be the house style for Czech stop-motion films, such as Jan Svankmajer’s 1988 take on Alice in Wonderland:
Zeman and Vinton shared a problem: their films didn’t slot neatly into any particular category, but because they used animation, they were tagged as children’s movies. I saw The Adventures of Mark Twain at an afternoon screening in a theater packed with kids, who quickly lost interest and spent the film talking and running up and down the aisle. The “Mysterious Stranger” scene was literally above their heads.