Pro­hi­bi­tion was one of the great failed ex­per­i­ments, as Ken Burns shows in his new five-part se­ries

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Tele­vi­sion - Graeme Blun­dell

MARK Twain said: ‘‘ Noth­ing so needs re­form­ing as much as other peo­ple’s habits. Fa­nat­ics will never learn that, though it be writ­ten in let­ters of gold across the sky. It is the pro­hi­bi­tion that makes any­thing pre­cious.’’

These per­sua­sive words com­prise the epi­graph to Ken Burns’s lat­est doc­u­men­tary se­ries Pro­hi­bi­tion, a five-parter that started last week on SBS, elo­quently telling of the rise, rule and in­evitable fall of the 18th amend­ment of the US con­sti­tu­tion ban­ning the man­u­fac­ture, sale and trans­porta­tion of al­co­hol. Rat­i­fied on Jan­uary 16, 1919, it was re­pealed by the 21st amend­ment in 1933. In the more than 200 years of the US con­sti­tu­tion, the 18th amend­ment re­mains the only one to have been re­pealed.

The groups and forces that cre­ated and op­posed Amer­ica’s dis­as­trous ex­per­i­ment in ban­ning booze pro­vide won­der­ful ma­te­rial for Burns, the Emmy award-win­ning film­maker whose mem­o­rable doc­u­men­taries (many of which he has co-pro­duced with Lynn Novick) in­clude The Civil War, Base­ball, Jazz, The War and The Na­tional Parks.

In­de­fati­ga­ble, Burns is also work­ing on a his­tory of Amer­ica’s De­pres­sion Dust Bowl; The Cen­tral Park Five, the story of a 1989 rape case that trig­gered strong emo­tions among New York­ers and a me­dia storm across the US; and the seven-part se­ries The Roo­sevelts, slated for 2014. Then there’s his se­ries on the his­tory of Viet­nam and a pro­gram on coun­try mu­sic; to say noth­ing of a doc­u­men­tary study of Ernest Hem­ing­way. (This lat­est se­ries sneaked up on First Watch, the SBS pub­li­cists seem­ingly un­aware that Burns cre­ated it.)

Pro­hi­bi­tion is still easy to joke about these days — it can claim few de­fend­ers — just as it was at the time. W. C. Fields said: ‘‘ Once, dur­ing Pro­hi­bi­tion, I was forced to live for days on noth­ing but food and water.’’ We might think of the time when the US tried to po­lice per­sonal be­hav­iour as an al­most com­i­cally iso­lated thing — Al Capone, flap­pers and speakeasies — but it was, as Burns re­veals, the even­tual re­sult of nearly a cen­tury of ac­tivism.

Amer­ica, like Aus­tralia, was prac­ti­cally founded on booze. The hold of the Mayflower, the ship that brought the Pu­ri­tans to Mas­sachusetts, was filled with bar­rels of beer. At Val­ley Forge, the turn­ing point of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War, Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton did his best to en­sure his be­lea­guered men had a half-cup of rum ev­ery day, and when that ran out a halfcup of whiskey. John Adams liked to start the day with hard cider heart-starters and Thomas Jef­fer­son col­lected fine French wines.

By 1830 drink was such a part of the Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence that ‘‘ the av­er­age Amer­i­can over 15 drank the equiv­a­lent of 88 bot­tles of whiskey a year’’, so you can un­der­stand why well-in­ten­tioned types might coun­te­nance en­forced ab­sti­nence, es­pe­cially the women liv­ing with the drinkers, and why a wave of ide­o­log­i­cal fer­vour swept the coun­try as many saw al­co­hol as a scourge, an im­ped­i­ment to a Protes­tant utopia of right­eous liv­ing.

Burns quickly es­tab­lishes a through-line of the city pit­ted against the ru­ral com­mu­nity, na­tives against new­com­ers, Protes­tants v Catholics. He raises ques­tions about the proper role of gov­ern­ment, in­di­vid­ual rights and civic re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, and means and ends and un­in­tended con­se­quences. Who is or who is not a real Amer­i­can is also part of the mix.

With co-di­rec­tor Novick, Burns tells his story in three chap­ters. This week’s A Reel Racket picks up from the time Pro­hi­bi­tion goes into ef­fect from Jan­uary 17, 1920. While en­acted to pro­mote a more or­derly Amer­ica, it has the op­po­site ef­fect: doc­tors and pharmi­cists, fed­eral agents and lo­cal cops, rab­bis and fu­neral di­rec­tors des­per­ately find ways around the new law.

As Burns says, it’s a great story: sexy and vi­o­lent, dan­ger­ous and dra­matic and as con­tem­po­rary as to­day’s news, as the war on drugs still raises ques­tions of leg­is­lated moral­ity. ‘‘ It’s about sin­gle-is­sue pol­i­tics, un­in­tended con­se­quences, the de­mon­i­sa­tion of im­mi­grants, smear tac­tics in presidential elec­tions, un­funded con­gres­sional man­dates, the role of gov­ern­ments in our lives, war­rant­less wire­taps and the de­cline of a civil dis­course,’’ Burns told Im­bibe mag­a­zine. ‘‘ And it’s about a whole group of peo­ple who feel like they’ve lost con­trol of their coun­try and want to take it back by any means pos­si­ble.’’

The most ar­rest­ing se­quences once more con­firm Burns’s be­lief that the pho­to­graph is the core of visual sto­ry­telling; that the still im­age is the es­sen­tial build­ing block of doc­u­men­tary visual cre­ation. There are talk­ing heads, of course, mood­ily pho­tographed, among them gnarly colum­nist Pete Hamill, who’s seen his way around a drink or two, and Daniel Okrent, who was also fea­tured in Base­ball and whose 2010 book, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Pro­hi­bi­tion, is the fac­tual source on which Pro­hi­bi­tion is con­structed. Hamill, great tal­ent among a dis­tin­guished list, does tell us that in fact he hasn’t had a drink in three decades but would be proud to touch the stuff again in a pub­lic protest against any leg­isla­tive at­tempt to deny his fel­low cit­i­zens that right.

The drama may flat­ten out oc­ca­sion­ally, as it al­ways does in Burns’s work. It can seem too well-in­ten­tioned at times and a lit­tle self­con­sciously stately. Some­times it grows a lit­tle scat­tered as yet more char­ac­ters join the in­ter­sect­ing nar­ra­tives, but the story is won­der­fully res­o­nant, fas­ci­nat­ing and, yes, ed­u­ca­tional. There is a lot to take in.

No mat­ter how di­dac­tic he gets at times, and he does in­deed, Burns is one of TV’s great show­men. As much an au­teur as David Si­mon, or David Milch or Larry David, he in­vented a new kind of sto­ry­telling. His shows are mile­stone events in the medium’s his­tory, all of

them am­bi­tious and au­thor­i­ta­tive au­dio­vi­sual his­to­ries reach­ing mil­lions of view­ers.

Pro­hi­bi­tion fol­lows his fa­mil­iar style — why would we want any­thing too dif­fer­ent? — un­fold­ing through a stylised or­gan­i­sa­tion of per­sonal anec­dote and in­ti­mate, of­ten ex­tremely mov­ing, doc­u­men­ta­tion. Few film­mak­ers have used the Amer­i­can voice to such dra­matic ef­fect, es­pe­cially that of Burns’s cus­tom­ary nar­ra­tor Peter Coy­ote, who is a dis­tin­guished ac­tor, au­thor and screen­writer. His fa­mous voice is slightly gritty but warm with a sto­ry­teller’s pres­ence. The other nar­ra­tive voices read­ing from the doc­u­ments of each pe­riod — they in­clude Tom Hanks, Jeremy Irons, Blythe Dan­ner, Sa­muel L. Jack­son, John Lith­gow and Sam Water­ston — sonorously cap­ture the civilised glo­ries of the 19th-cen­tury rhetor­i­cal tra­di­tion.

The voices con­jure up that time when elo­quence in speak­ing and writ­ing was the mark of the well-ed­u­cated and thought­ful cit­i­zen, and train­ing in or­a­tory was a moral obli­ga­tion. These are won­der­ful voices that add so many lay­ers to the sto­ry­telling. It is one of Burns’s touch­stones, along with the ele­giac sound­track with orig­i­nal ar­range­ments and com­po­si­tions by long-time col­lab­o­ra­tor Wyn­ton Marsalis. The new se­ries neatly and rather res­o­nantly dove­tails with the first sea­son of Board­walk Em­pire, which is also screen­ing on SBS (while the third sea­son con­tin­ues on pay-TV’s Show­time). Pro­hi­bi­tion: we can’t get enough of it. IT may not be a bad thing in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory to judge from the drunken shenani­gans on view in Ter­ri­tory Cops, the new Fox­tel se­ries from John McAvoy’s Eye­works Aus­tralia. Writ­ten and pro­duced by Claire Hay­wood, the fly-on-the-wall se­ries fol­lows the Dar­win po­lice lo­cated on the Mitchell Street strip, the busiest precinct in the Ter­ri­tory. McAvoy and Hay­wood were also re­spon­si­ble for the bril­liant Kal­go­or­lie Cops, an eye-open­ing fac­tual se­ries that sat shot­gun with the cops on the world’s largest po­lice beat. It was an­other, and very suc­cess­ful, lo­cal at­tempt at the lon­grun­ning US se­ries COPS. When it launched last year, it was the high­est rat­ing doc­u­men­tary se­ries in Fox­tel’s his­tory, and this new se­ries is as voyeuris­ti­cally com­pelling.

From the Cen­tral Desert to the Top End, the young cops also pa­trol the bor­ders, lock up the deal­ers sup­ply­ing the out­flung Abo­rig­i­nal set­tle­ments, run down the speed freaks and deal with drunks and over­doses. It’s a huge beat. ‘‘ A thou­sand mil­lion years at least it takes to make some­thing so rich and strange, so pro­found, so un­bear­ably po­tent with dreams,’’ Charmian Clift wrote about the out­back be­tween Alice and Dar­win. It was, she said a land­scape for saints and mys­tics and mad­men.

They are all on dis­play in this se­ries which, like Kal­go­or­lie Cops, shows how the lo­cal po­lice deal not only with or­gan­ised crime and homi­cide but in­ves­ti­gate miss­ing tourists, shocking road ac­ci­dents and croc­o­dile at­tacks. It is en­joy­ably sen­sa­tion­al­ist and presents an ab­sorb­ing ex­oti­cism through real — or seem­ingly real — in­for­ma­tion about po­lice work and mi­lieus about which we know lit­tle but about which we quickly be­come fas­ci­nated.

The show cap­tures some­thing of the frag­ile, ul­ti­mately en­dur­ing magic of the Dream­time but also the way modern forces of eco­nom­ics and pol­i­tics are al­ter­ing what we once saw only as a ge­o­log­i­cal empti­ness or a dis­tantly lo­cated tourist at­trac­tion.

Each episode is bro­ken into three sto­ry­lines. This week’s first episode doc­u­ments a ‘‘ boys be­hav­ing badly’’ sce­nario as se­nior con­sta­ble Josh Streeter heads the City Safe pa­trol at­tempt­ing to keep a lid on the drunken week­end party ac­tion in Mitchell Street; it fol­lows two cops on a nervy stake-out at Kather­ine air­port in pur­suit of sus­pected re­mote com­mu­nity drug run­ners; and the third thread in­volves a bizarre road ac­ci­dent. A highly ag­gres­sive and in­tox­i­cated nude driver be­gins to spit at two of­fi­cers.

The style of pre­sen­ta­tion is fa­mil­iar, with the rough-and-ready hall­marks of be­ing shot in nat­u­ral light and un­der pres­sure: there’s lens flare, oc­ca­sional loss of fo­cus, film­mak­ers in the ac­tion, the odd cam­era shake and ar­bi­trary fram­ing. Given the prob­lems of in­va­sion of pri­vacy and in­formed con­sent, a lot of faces are pix­i­lated, be­com­ing odd ghost-like blurs.

I know many film­mak­ers loathe this form of ma­nip­u­lated fac­tual TV that in their eyes con­tam­i­nates the se­ri­ous­ness of doc­u­men­tary. But re­al­ity TV has come to rep­re­sent the pack­ag­ing of ev­ery­day life as en­ter­tain­ment and shows such as this, with their vis­ceral footage and smart edit­ing, can re­ally suck you in. While it’s a form of fac­tual TV, we are long gone from the doc­u­men­tary ap­proach in which re­al­ity was not ma­nip­u­lated. Now the need to en­ter­tain is para­mount and this smart lit­tle se­ries cer­tainly does that in spades. Pro­hi­bi­tion, Satur­day, SBS One, 8.30pm

Ter­ri­tory Cops, Thurs­day, CI, 7.30pm


THE oddly campy Kitchen Cab­i­net, the halfhour se­ries fea­tur­ing re­li­ably droll ABC po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor Annabel Crabb, re­turns this week. Again, she eats and talks food, recipes and the prob­lems of the day with politi­cians from both sides of the fence, any­where in Aus­tralia. This sea­son she’s shar­ing pesto pasta with fed­eral min­is­ter Peter Gar­rett; West Aus­tralian sen­a­tor Louise Pratt teaches her to cook crab; and Greens leader Chris­tine Milne takes her shop­ping for lo­cal produce in Ho­bart’s farm­ers mar­kets. I’m look­ing for­ward to knock­about Barn­aby Joyce whack­ing to­gether a put­tanesca on his ve­randa.

The idea is based on the ac­cepted wis­dom that din­ner book­ings can turn into an­thro­po­log­i­cal stud­ies. ‘‘ When you ask some­one how they learned to cook, it’s like ask­ing their life story,’’ Crabb says. She ob­vi­ously wants them to drop their guard, their tired slo­gans and re­lent­less spin as they’re forced to pre­pare a meal and share it with her. By and large last sea­son worked, im­prov­ing as the episodes ac­cu­mu­lated and the friend­li­ness be­came less grat­ing and Crabb more as­sertive.

The first episode of this sea­son fea­tures op­po­si­tion Trea­sury spokesman Joe Hockey. When in Can­berra he lives fru­gally in what Crabb calls the city’s most no­to­ri­ous share house, a place where many other se­nior Lib­er­als have bunked down on the freez­ing win­ter nights. Bren­dan Nel­son, even while op­po­si­tion leader, lived in the con­verted garage Hockey calls ‘‘ the sum­mer palace out the back’’. No en­suite, just an old fire­man’s bucket.

As is her fash­ion in the show, Crabb pro­vides dessert — a rather pro­fes­sion­al­look­ing ap­ple and wal­nut layer cake — and Hockey whips up a few su­per­mar­ket snags on the bar­bie.

‘‘ Do we re­ally need salad?’’ he won­ders. Then, shak­ing his head, the agree­able Hockey won­ders aloud, ‘‘ I can’t be­lieve I’m do­ing a cook­ing show.’’

In some ways it’s a per­fectly re­alised ex­er­cise in sus­tained awk­ward­ness. You do hang on to ev­ery word in the hope that some star­tling rev­e­la­tion will be forth­com­ing as politi­cian and pre­sen­ter ma­noeu­vre their way through the some­times un­com­fort­able mo­ments. But Hockey is great tal­ent and does his con­sid­er­able best to keep it mov­ing, gre­gar­i­ous, mod­est and blok­ishly charm­ing.

Kitchen Cab­i­net, ABC2, Wed­nes­day, 9.30pm

Archival im­age from Pro­hi­bi­tion

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