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TV Column
Posted at 10:19 AM ET, 08/01/2011

Summer TV Press Tour 2011: Ken Burns compares ‘Prohibition’ doc to present day


Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns (Matt Rourke - AP)
Ken Burns wants America to watch his new PBS documentary, “Prohibition,” and notice startling similarities to our current political maelstrom.

At Summer TV Press Tour 2011, Burns led TV critics to that trough and suggested in the strongest possible terms that they drink deeply:

“If I told you that I had been working with Lynn [Novick, his production partner] 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 un-funded 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,” Burns said before anyone could get in a word edgewise.

Yes, Burns tends to speak at great length. He has incredible breath control.

“But, but, of course, we are only dealing with a handful of the topics that are engaged throughout the three parts of our series on Prohibition, which will be aired this October 2nd, 3rd, and 4th on PBS.”

And, having carefully led critics to the trough, the Q&A was off and running. But, when one critic asked him for specifics on this theme, Burns demurred. Burns may be long-winded but he’s no dummy — he knows he works for an organization that regularly has to put on the red dress and ask for money from the feds, at a time some might say of single-issue political campaigns that metastasize with horrible unintended consequences, smear campaigns, and a whole group of people who feel they’ve lost control of their country and want to take it back.

“You know, we are not political filmmakers. We don’t have a political axe to grind or to make some politicial points,” he replied smoothly.

“All of those similarities that I pointed out to you have to be inferred in the course of this film.”

“We leave it up to our audiences to forge those connections.”

“But,” Burns couldn’t resist adding, “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.”

How about the Tea Party? — one critic asked.

At this point Burns went into third person-speak and assumed the glassy-eyed look of a taxidermied owl:

“One feels, in many ages of American history, a kind of anxiety that, as the inevitable change takes place, particularly in a country welcoming so many new and different people, that it will be inevitable that some of the people who feel that they were here before will be clinging to old traditions, and the battle over Prohibition was a battle between the city and the country.

“And the country, small town Protestant is feeling that the now increasingly Catholic and Jewish and immigrant cities are somehow not quite American. And the whole idea of who is and who is not an American, a birther movement of a very large sort, takes place. So there are many, many similarities.”

“But,” he quickly added, “we’re always imprisoned if we try to make it a one-to-one comparison.”

On the other hand, if you use his “Prohibition” documentary as an argument to legalize marijuana, you’re all wet. We know this because one TV critic gave it a shot.

There are similarities, Burns conceded. But alcohol’s been around in almost every culture for millennia, he noted, while “drugs seem to be sub-cultural or tribal events.”

Besides, he said, the alcohol abuse problem that was one of the inspirations of Prohibition, is “a problem that afflicted 10 percent of the people. We imposed the solution on 100 percent.”

Conversely, nowadays, with illegal drugs, “here we have something that is sometimes involved, at the maximum, about 10 percent, and we’re now saying, okay, 100 percent of you can have it because that will help the problems that we have and the hypocrisies that we have around that 10 percent. I’m not sure that we might not create yet a whole other passel of unintended consequences.”

By  |  10:19 AM ET, 08/01/2011

 
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