Prohibition was one of the great failed experiments, as Ken Burns shows in his new five-part series
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 Ratified on January 16, 1919, it was repealed by the 21st amendment in 1933. In the more than 200 years of the US constitution, the 18th amendment remains the only one to have been repealed.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