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PRESS TOUR: PBS 'Prohibition' Another Potent Concoction from the Ken Burns Team
August 1, 2011  | By David Bianculli

LOS ANGELES -- The next documentary from Ken Burns and company, a six-hour look at Prohibition, will run Oct. 2-4 on PBS. It's another strong entry in the Burns canon, directed by Burns and Lynn Novick, written by Geoffrey C. Ward, and featuring, among many others, Last Call author Daniel Okrent. Except for Ward, all of them attended a Television Critics Association press conference Sunday night to discuss the new series -- and, afterward, to raise a glass or two...

I interviewed Burns and Novick privately before the press conference, discussing stuff I'll hold until closer to the Prohibition air date. But here's a taste from the TCA press event itself, which was postponed a day so that Burns could attend the funeral of his mentor. The subject was broached almost accidentally, when one critic asked what or whom inspired Burns to make documentaries.


"That's a tough question to answer right now," admitted Burns, who explained that while attending the experimental Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., in the early 1970s, "I fell under the influence of a social documentary still photographer named Jerome Liebling [right], who was a fiercely great teacher and
photographer of extraordinary images, and taught not only the still photographers, but us filmmakers, a kind of relationship to the world and taking images...

"He passed away last Wednesday, and last -- this past Friday, my birthday, we buried him in this gentle rain in Amherst, Massachusetts, his home for the last 40-plus years.

"So I would have to say, in simple answer to your question, that if he had not existed, you would not know me or my films. This interest in still photography, and the notion that the image contained complex information that did not need to be manipulated -- that one could go in and not hold a still photograph at arm's length, but explore it with an energetic and exploring camera eye, and take back from it a representation of a reality that you could almost will, that you could ask questions of the people and the events in it, about where they came, who they were, what their past was, what their future might be -- was this broadly humanistic influence on all of us who came in contact with him...

"And one of the reasons why we moved this session to Sunday night from Saturday was just to give me a chance to get back from his burial. But as Dizzy Gillespie said of Louis Armstrong, 'No him, no me.' I feel the same thing about Jerry Liebling."

The mood of the press conference wasn't all somber, however. Author Okrent, responding to a question about whether he enjoyed alcohol, answered in the affirmative -- but also with an anecdote of historical interest.


During Prohibition, Okrent said, when Herbert Hoover (pictured at right) was Secretary of Commerce, "He would stop at the Belgian embassy, where he could legally have his martini every night before going home." And after his Presidency, when in his 80s, Hoover's doctor ordered him to cut down on his two-martini-a-night drinking habit.

"He said, 'Mr. President, you can't do this. It can only be one martini a night,'" Okrent continued. Hoover's solution? "He got himself 10-ounce [martini] glasses."

Another light response came when the panel was asked, as a way to entice young adults to tune in to Prohibition and pay close attention for the entire six hours, if anyone could suggest a really good drinking game while watching the documentary?

"That," joked Novick dryly, getting a huge laugh from reporters, "is in our educational outreach materials."


Eileen said:

Ken Burns' homage to Jerome Liebling is lovely. Wonderful news that a new Burns documentary is on the very foreseeable horizon. I love his work, and am always knocked out by the details, details, details.

I continue to believe that American History high school classes in this country would be well-served to incorporate Ken Burns' documentaries into their lesson plans. My favorite history teacher was a Sister of Charity who pre-convent had taught in Germany during Hitler's rise to power. She was a firm believer in having her students read the newspaper every night. You'd enter her class, and she'd throw out a word, i.e., Biafra, and you'd better know what she was talking about, and be able to speak extemporaneously for at least five minutes. No text books were ever involved, and yet I learned more in this class than all my other history classes combined as she firmly believed American History was an absolutely integral part of education.

Our kids today have no historical frame of reference, and what they do have has been so politically watered down that it no longer resembles the events as they occurred.

I'm so looking forward to this show; if I had high schoolers they would be "lashed to the mast -- or at least my couch" for this one.

Thanks for the heads-up.

[My pleasure -- as is reading your comments, as always. -- DB]

Comment posted on August 1, 2011 1:27 PM

Check out "A Twist of Lemon," the story of Prohibition in Los Angeles and of Mabel Walker Willebrandt, Los Angeles-based lawyer appointed in 1921 by President Warren G. Harding to enforce Prohibition for the nation as Assistant Attorney General. Labeled "Prohibition Portia" by some wags, Willebrandt sent bootleggers, smugglers and crooked politicians to prison for eight years, while Eliot Ness was still a college boy.