A good documentary

It’s the middle of winter and there are times, like last week, when you just plop yourself down on the couch and watch ANYTHING. The funny thing is that every once in a while, you’ll catch something worthwhile – and that’s exactly what happened to me last night when I caught Ken Burns’ documentary on Prohibition.

Fortunately I’m a fan of the show Boardwalk Empire, so I was already interested – but what I didn’t know was how much that I didn’t know! It’s an amazing story.

The Purple Gang

The Purple Gang wanted no publicity

And guess who agrees with me? Ken Burns. Here’s what the filmmaker had to say about the HBO show (over now, sadly) that starred Steve Buscemi:

“I’ve really enjoyed watching it. It’s terrific. I think they have another huge hit on their hands in the mode of ‘The Sopranos,’ and they’re not that dissimilar. Americans always love to watch people who get to kill people (who) piss them off and women who take their clothes off at the drop of a hat.

“They’ve done their homework. It’s very complex and nuanced, and they’ve found many of not just the primary characters, but the secondary and tertiary ones.  We’re always amazed, when we’ve done films, that it seems to, for many of the films, fit into the zeitgeist of the moment. And while I’m sure we began work on this project well before it was even a gleam in their eye — we do not have the resources of HBO, so it takes us a little bit longer, and we like to do it right and dive deep down into the subject — it was nice to see it received so well. I don’t think I’ve missed an episode, and thrilled that they’ve got a second season.”

Ken burns filmmaker

This is as good as pictures of Ken Burns get.

Wow. Burns wasn’t finished. He went on to discus a major theme of the documentary, which covered the unintended consequences of prohibition – and how that led to the rise in power of organized crime.

Continues Burns: “If I told you that I had been working with Lynn for several years on a film about single issue political campaigns, wedge issue campaigns that metastasized with horrible unintended consequences, if the story was about the demonization of recent immigrants to the United States and, as always, African Americans, if I told you we’d been working on a film that involved smear campaigns during presidential elections or unfunded congressional mandates or, more importantly, a whole group of people who felt they’d lost control of their country and wanted to take it back, you would insist that we had abandoned our historical interests and were covering the contemporary political scene.”


“We don’t have a political axe to grind or to make some political points. All of those similarities that I pointed out to you have to be inferred in the course of this film. You know, at one point when German Americans are enemies, we changed the name of sauerkraut to liberty cabbage.
Yeah, but like the Germans in America sauerkraut stuck around. Liberty cabbage? Not so much.

“They resonate, and one begins to understand as Ecclesiastes does that human nature always is the same. We leave it up to our audiences to forge those connections, but I think towards the end of the film, we make a very strong point that Prohibition and its abject failure didn’t do anything about alcoholism. That’s a real problem, and it’s a bittersweet way to leave this film. The impulse at the beginning of the film to solve it remained at the end of this film, at the end of the Prohibition era, and we have not solved it. ”

Key difference between me and Ken Burns – he can work Ecclesiastes into conversation while I need spell check to find him on Wikipedia.
“But we are certainly suspicious of these single issue attempts to, with the stroke of a pen or the creation of an amendment, to somehow forever enshrine into our Constitution solutions that take a much more nuanced and, I would suggest, democratic solution.”

Well said, Mr. Burns, and thank you for your excellent filmmaking.

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