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By Elias Savada | June 28, 2014

Scott Teems looks more like a member of the Allman Brothers Band than a film director. He fits the general physical requirements: long, flowing hair, scruffy facial hair, and, of course, born in Georgia. But, no, he’s a filmmaker (and currently a story editor on the cable TV series “Rectify”), and, based on his latest film, “Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey,” a rather good one. So now, he has two features under his belt, both starring American icon Hal Holbrook. Back in 2009 he directed and adapted “That Evening Sun” (cue the Netflix DVD queue), a well-reviewed regional Gothic drama about a cantankerous, octogenarian farmer whose unexpected return home churns up a steaming pot o’ trouble and betrayal. Let’s hope their collaborations continue.

Armed with the same cameraman (Rodney Taylor), and re-teaming with Laura D. Smith, who produced the Teems-directed short “The Network Effect Featuring Dr. Steven Shepard” (2012), made for Cisco Systems, “Holbrook/Twain,” the opening night film at this year’s AFI DOCS festival, shows a very assured hand at the helm. While I haven’t been to all the AFI DOCS/SilverDocs first night premieres (and some I’ve really suffered through), this was easily the best ever. Often these events are suck-up programs to a earnest (and perhaps well-heeled) sponsor, but this year I felt the festival’s excellent program committee held forth their ground with strength and dignity.

The first thing I noticed was the film’s color. Radiant black-and-white. No polychromatic distractions. Just luminous tonal qualities. Then, it’s all Holbrook, the now 89-year-old actor (who spritely traversed the stage at the Newseum Annenberg Theater to introduce the film). In case you can’t tell from the film’s title (or caught any of the thousands of one-man shows the prolific actor has performed as the illustrious Mark Twain), this is a lovely road trip, whether down memory lane or into the heart of America, examining the man and the ever-changing character he has played since 1954. Yes, for 60 years, in a seven-decade career. Or 13 years longer than Samuel Clemens bore his famous pen name.

The picture was actually the idea of Holbrook’s actress wife, Dixie “Designing Women” Carter, who approached Teems with the notion for this documentary a couple of years before she died, in 2010. Per Teems, of Holbrook’s very persuasive third spouse, “She didn’t ask me, she told me that I was going to direct this film.”

Throughout the film the viewer’s taste for Twain is constantly whetted thanks to Holbrook’s meticulous, old school preparation process. He has copious notes that he has written about each of his performances. If he’s returning to a venue where he’s presented his “Mark Twain Tonight” on a previous occasion, no matter how long ago, he pulls out the few sheets of paper on which he recorded audience reactions to his material. If something didn’t work, he annotated it. He creates a mental blueprint for each show, constantly changing material; it’s never exactly the same show. This incredible flexibility to swap in any dollop of Twain’s wit (Holbrook refers to them as “little bombs”) at a moment’s notice is because of the actor’s encyclopedic knowledge of his subject.

But, oh, is Holbrook a glorious creature of habit. Eschewing big star dressing rooms, he’s got a makeshift makeup box he takes everywhere, about 4×4 square feet with two old-fashion incandescent bulbs to light his face as he applies his own maquillage (hardest part: the nose). In between the steadfast preparation routine and a smattering of performance sketches, we learn about the man. A penniless actor who arrives in New York City with the proverbial $200 in his bank account and a wife and infant to support. The happenstance that allowed him to discover his penchant for Twain. Early success that let to his appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Not acting in his first movie till he was 40.

Also: The actors (Sean Penn, Martin Sheen, Emile Hirsch, Cherry Jones, Robert Patrick, Annie Potts) who were inspired by or worked with him. Hundreds of scrapbooks filled with countless notices, reviews, etc. Twain experts who chime in with extended, well-deserved praise. Holbrook and his family offer up connect-the-dots comments on his various marriages, and the strained relationships with his now-grown children.

In the end, like Holbrook’s enchanting rhythms on stage, “Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey” expertly catches the mesmerizing beats of a man who continues to share his life—in the guise of one of America’s greatest humorists—with his adoring public.

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