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KEN BURNS & LYNN NOVICK: The TVWW Interview (Plus, a Review of 'Prohibition')
October 2, 2011  | By David Bianculli
Two months ago, while on the Television Critics Association press tour, I wrote about the then-upcoming documentary series Prohibition, co-directed for PBS by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. (You can read that story HERE.)

However, I saved a fuller review of the show, and excerpts from a private chat with Burns and Novick before their TCA press conference, until now, as Prohibition premieres Oct. 2-4 at 8 p.m. ET (as always with PBS, check local listings)...

Prohibition is another wonderful, wonder-filled work from Burns and company. Despite its topic, it's anything but dry.

(To hear, or read, my NPR Fresh Air with Terry Gross review of Prohibition, as well as of Showtime's Dexter and Homeland, click HERE. To read our resident business history professor, David Sicilia's, very informed take on Prohibition, click HERE. And to read a review by TVWW contributor Eric Gould in his Cold Light Reader column, click HERE.)

Prohibition, at almost six hours spread over three nights, is the latest Burns entry -- and the latest Burns success -- in a string of nonfiction programs that stretch back to Brooklyn Bridge exactly 30 years ago, and stretch ahead for several years as well.

Next up from Burns' Florentine Films: PBS documentaries on the Dust Bowl; the Central Park Five case about the defendants wrongly accused of raping and brutalizing a female jogger (on that most recent of real-life studies, Burns is working with his daughter Sarah, who wrote the book about the case); a history of the Roosevelts; a biography of Jackie Robinson; and, following up on The Civil War and The War, a documentary series about Vietnam.

Notice how many of those topics overlap, or echo, themes and personalities present in previous Burns documentaries -- the subject of race, almost always, chief among all. There's lots of common ground, and Burns is unafraid to walk and explore it again and again. I told him I now anticipate certain notes to appear in his works, and wait for them, like Alfred Hitchcock cameos in his films.

I wondered, for example, whether Mark Twain, the subject of a previous Burns biography, would show up in Prohibition. It took all of four seconds ("If that," Burns joked), as a Twain quote opens the entire series:


"How great a comment is that?" Burns asked, when I mentioned it. "You almost have to pack up your tent and go home."

Instead, co-directors Burns and Novick, and writer Geoffrey C. Ward, roll up their sleeves and get started.

It's impressive, but by no means surprising, that the entire first installment of Prohibition -- one-third of the running time -- takes place before the Volstead Act and the 18th Amendment came into being. Burns has always been obsessed with context, and with taking time to find smaller stories that illuminate and explain the larger ones.

In this case, he and Novick and Ward are as interested in "everything beyond Al Capone, Model Ts and machine guns" as they are in the stories and conflicts being dramatized in HBO's Boardwalk Empire. Not at all coincidentally, one of the expert historians consulted for Boardwalk Empire, historian Daniel Okrent (author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition), is a major voice in this PBS Prohibition series as well.

He and others bring to life, and comment upon, one gripping human story after another -- Carrie Nation, Mabel Walker Willebrandt, and George Remus, just to name a few.

When I said to Burns that I thought the story of George Remus was so amazing, he was his own feature film, Burns' voice jumped to a higher, more excited register.

"Yes, exactly!" he shouted. "Absolutely!"


Paul Giamatti provides the voice of Remus, when quotes of his are read. Other actors lending their voices to Prohibition include Blythe Danner, Patricia Clarkson, Tom Hanks, Samuel L. Jackson, John Lithgow and Sam Waterston. Watch enough Burns documentaries, and you'll recognize most of them as repeat contributors.

Another voice running through Prohibition, but one who also is onscreen, is that of author and journalist Pete Hamill, whose remarks and observations are so telling, so honest and so incisive, Novick calls him the documentary's "heart and the soul and the brain, all together."

Through it all, Burns and Novick rely on what could almost be considered, by now, members of their personal repertory company. Peter Coyote, for example, doesn't narrate every Burns project, but enough of them to make you warm to the sound of his voice when you hear it again here. (Even more so than when he lends his voice to, say, the iPad 2 ads.) And Wynton Marsalis, too, composes and records some terrific music for the soundtrack, complementing well-selected period recordings and contributions by others.

"it's always, for us, the very simple thing of what works," Burns said, referring to both the images and the music in Prohibition. "The music is a more interesting question, and we're excited about it.

"It's alive and vibrant, and very much contemporary with the period, but also alive and vibrant with new music that's composed by Wynton and a guy we've been working with, David Cieri. With Wynton, we have forged a kind of kinship with him since Jazz. And where appropriate, we don't want to leave home without him."


Finally, I asked about the parallels to today's society -- parallels that were obvious but, for the most part, intentionally unspoken.

"We wanted to let people make their own conclusions from the film," Novick explained. "Yes, there are parallels, and there also are differences, and we sort of wanted to leave that for the audience to figure out."

But on one particular issue, comparing Prohibition to today's war on drugs and the calls for decriminalization, Burns was happy to outline the distinctions as he sees them.

"If you think about it," he said, "human beings have been drinking alcohol, either fermented or distilled, for millennia. It's been an across-the-board, cultural phenomenon. Drug use is a sub-cultural phenomenon.

"With Prohibition, we're talking about an event in American history in which, because of a very serious social problem, we imposed the solution on 100 percent of the people.

Drug use is a very serious problem which we're now proposing to follow the model of Prohibition, and impose the access and the use for everybody. There's a huge, big difference. You can drive a truck through that difference."




Jeff said:

Great article and an interesting drama the same night as the premiere for Boardwalk Empire!

Comment posted on October 2, 2011 7:14 PM

jim said:

In an age when history is all to easily forgotten or being re-written to fit the political and religious convictions of the Texas Board of Education, it is heartening to have someone like Ken Burns producing documentaries illuminating areas of our nation's history that are all too often overlooked. Still, I am left to wonder when will he turn his attention to one of the most important and most neglected American stories and that is the story of labor in America. This is not just the story of labor unions, although that is a huge part of it, but the story of how people have lived and earned. No story has been more important in shaping us as a nation and yet virtually no one today knows anything about it. This is the story that Ken Burns should turn to next, but I fear it is just too controversial. I remember back in the late 70's or early 80's there was an attempt to do such a series, but PBS nixed it. Their excuse was that labor unions were among the funders and that was a conflict of interest. Of course, possible conflict of interest didn't stop them from running "Wall Street Week with Louis Rukeyser" which had considerable funding from Wall Street.

[A history of labor unions would, indeed, be a great and important series -- and no conflict at all, except in the minds of meek TV executives. Ken has plenty else on his plate for the next few years, but maybe later. Or, maybe, someone else can have a go... - DB]

Comment posted on October 2, 2011 7:35 PM
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