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A Nation of Drunkards: Q&A with Ken Burns




Ken Burns' new film tells the story of a single-issue political movement, the demonization of a particular ethnic group and people who felt they had lost control of the country and wanted to take it back.

No, it’s not about the tea party. The film is called Prohibition, and it runs on WFYI (Channel 20) at 8 p.m. Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, with repeats immediately following the initial airing.

For about five and a half hours over three nights, the film documents how the United States came to outlaw alcohol from 1920-1933.

The film is filled with fascinating facts — like how in 1830, the average American older than 15 drank 88 bottles of whiskey a year. And how in the 1800s and early 1900s, alcohol taxes funded one-third to around one-half of the federal budget. And how the income tax was created to eliminate the government’s dependence on tax revenues from alcohol sales.

I’ve enjoyed some of Burns’ other films more, but I felt like I learned an extraordinary amount from this one.

“I think that’s the best review,” Burns said when I told him that.

Here’s the rest of our conversation:

NUVO: The amount people drank was just staggering.

Burns: We’ve got a nearly six-hour series divided into three parts. The first is called "A Nation of Drunkards," and that was really no lie. John Adams began his day with an alcoholic beverage. People drank way, way more than they drink now. Drunkenness — it wasn’t called alcoholism — was a severe social problem, and it prompted a very legitimate attempt by what we felt was a new utopian society to try to come to terms with it. The idea of temperance — drinking less, which was an incredibly smart thing to do — just metastasized into this single-issue campaign.

NUVO: Then there’s the amount of money the taxes on alcohol brought in. That’s what really funded the government.

Burns: More than half of all the internal revenues — remember, we had a lot of import-export, on which there were excise taxes — generated for the federal government came from taxing beer, wine and distilled spirits. So one of the comfortable feelings those industries had was, “We’re the fifth-largest industry. Nothing’s going to interrupt this. There may be local laws that could interfere, but that’s all right, we can get around them.”

But what happened was, this single-issue lobbying campaign — the organization the Anti-Saloon League — led by the shrewdest of them all, a man who could have senators shake in their boots, Wayne B. Wheeler, rather cynically — that’s my opinion — allied himself with the progressives, who were looking for the redistribution of wealth. This was in the Gilded Age, where there was such disparity of wealth, and they hoped to pass an income tax. When they supported it, when the conservatives supported it, then you had a real movement toward Prohibition. Coupled with World War I, where the Germans were suddenly the enemies, beer equals treasons, it was ripe for the dominos to fall and we ended up with an amendment to the constitution and then a draconian law on top of that that even the supporters were shocked at. They thought they might have Near Beer or 3.2 (percent alcohol) beer or something.

NUVO: Going in, did you know that’s why the income tax passed?

Burns: Not at all. To us, we know what it’s like to be taught a lesson. And quite often, it’s homework. What we like to do with you is share a process of discovery. So we realized that we were in possession of the conventional wisdoms about Prohibition — the images of a Model-T careening around rain-slicked Chicago streets , Tommy guns ablaze, mini-skirted flappers with their hair bobbed and braless, part of a new sexual revolution, the wonderfully propulsive jazz that seemed to fuel the orgy, the speakeasy culture. And we’ve got all that. And it is sexy, it is exciting, it is violent.

But we have a much deeper dive into what happened, and we find that stunningly unfamiliar to us. So we just hope to share our process of discovery rather than assign it as homework.

NUVO: This film is really a confluence of a lot of other films you’ve made.

Burns: I’m in the middle of three films that are dealing significantly with the Depression: this; the Dust Bowl, which is finished and we’re now sound editing (for release in 2012); and a major series on the Roosevelts. And we’ve already dealt with the Depression in Jazz and in Baseball and in other films we’ve done. The cross-meshing of these things gives you infinitely more perspective to see them and understand American history. And the biggest thing is that people are so much like today. We always try to impose this arrogance that we in the present have over the past. It just isn’t there. Human nature has never changed.

NUVO: You’re going to hear the comparisons to HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, so …

Burns: I think it’s terrific. Once again, we’re part of the Zeitgeist. We always feel like we’ve chosen something and then all of a sudden, everyone else seems to be. They started that long after we began ours, but because of our PBS construction, it took a little longer. But how wonderful that there’s a drama out that speaks directly, in a dramatic way, to the things we’re doing in documentary.

NUVO: Have you watched it?

Burns: I think I’ve missed one episode. They did great casting — Capone, Rothstein, everybody’s really great. And once again, I think they’ve struck gold in The Sopranos model. Everybody wishes they could kill the people who piss them off, and gangsters get to do that. And the women — and they’re always attractive women — take their clothes off a lot. This is a winning formula.

NUVO: An interesting part of “Prohibition” is that you don’t have star commentators like you do in so many of your films. You have good ones, but no one emerges.

Burns: I think Danny Okrent does. He’s so wonderfully smart, and has written this book (Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition). It’s not a companion; it’s a parallel effort and we just drew on his expertise and some of his research and went in our own directions. I think a real surprise sleeper is Pete Hamill, who has a gravitas.

NUVO: You have that great Pete Hamill quote, “If you want to get people to brush their teeth, make toothpaste illegal.”

Burns: Mark Twain once said the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. That opening phrase, “Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits,” we could have almost quit there. Mark Twain. Prohibition. Boom. Done.


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