Ken Burns’ Prohibition

Where Prohibition benefits is in its use of film. I have no idea where Burns found all this footage, but it’s amazing in its portrayal of American life in the 1910s.

I am sitting down to watch Part II of Ken Burns PBS series, Prohibition. I watched Part I last night.

Like all of Burns work it is thorough, fact packed and very slowly paced. Really slow.

I know. I’m supposed to love Ken Burns unconditionally as if he were my child or anything bought at the Apple Store. He needs less time!

The documentary is the story of the 18th Amendment, prohibition in America. As told by Burns (through the voice of Peter Coyote) it was an unpopular movement that lucked out while no one was looking. As soon as America came to its senses it was repealed.

It’s a fascinating story full of fascinating characters. It is extremely well researched.

Where Prohibition benefits is in its use of film. I have no idea where Burns found all this footage, but it’s amazing because there’s so much real American life from the 1910s and 20s. I’m seeing nearly all of it for the first time. This alone would be worth watching for.

If it were only faster, or shorter.

Lewis & Clark

What an amazing story! This was the America of Thomas Jefferson. Two thirds of all Americans lived within 50 miles of the Atlantic.

lewis-clark-dvd.jpgLast night, after Helaine had gone to bed and with Stef upstairs watching some form of modern day reality, I sat on the couch looking for something to do. Netflix was fresh on my mind because earlier Helaine and I had blown through a Garry Shandling DVD. I loaded a browser and began to check its online listings.

Old topic, but Netflix ability to stream video to my PC is great. I’m even willing to look beyond the incompatibility with Firefox and terrible search interface. It’s marketed (when it’s marketed) as an adjunct to the DVD service, but it’s really no different that buying a premium channel like HBO or Showtime, except the selection sucks. For that reason alone, no one in their right mind would buy this as a standalone package.

After searching for a few minutes, I came upon a PBS documentary on Lewis & Clark. It looked interesting, so I fired it up. What began to stream was a two part doc, narrated by Hal Holbrook and produced by Ken Burns.

What an amazing story! This was the America of Thomas Jefferson. Two thirds of all Americans lived within 50 miles of the Atlantic.

keelboat_s.jpgOnce Lewis & Clark headed west on the Missouri River, they were fading into an unknown void. Simple things, like the stark magnitude of the Great Plains must have been as overwhelming as they were unanticipated. The year round snow caps of the Rockies were unlike anything any of the expedition’s members had ever seen before. How could they not be frightened or discouraged or both.

For a large part of the trip food was plentiful. By and large, the Native American tribes were friendly and helpful, trading for and sometimes freely providing, provisions. But, the expedition was heading upstream, fighting the current with nothing more than their muscle and sporadic wind.

Are there still trips of exploration to be taken? With every passing day I am more enticed by the prospect of exploring. But this is different than anything I could do today. Lewis & Clark were heading beyond the knowledge of white men. The astronauts on the Moon knew more of what to expect than Lewis, Clark and their expeditionary force.

I was puzzled by the use of photographs to illustrate people and places. The first photographs weren’t taken for a few decades after Lewis & Clark. Even then, cameras weren’t easily transportable. Did these shots represent what was in the narration, or were they just reasonably close analogs? What are the specifics of the shots Burns used and why those particular photos?

I wanted to ask but his production company, Florentine Films, claims they don’t have an email address. OK, they don’t have an email address for me – I get it.

That Lewis & Clark traveled all the way to the Pacific while keeping detailed drawings, charts and journals and then returned to tell their story, was an incredible achievement. Actually, it was the least likely outcome of their journey, which presented them with more peril and challenge than they could have anticipated.

Just one man died along the way. It is likely his death was from appendicitis and unrelated to the challenge. He wouldn’t have fared any better had he been near an early 19th Century hospital.

The full documentary ran 3:30. That’s quite a commitment. In retrospect it was well worth while.


We are enjoying Netflix. It’s cool to always have a movie we want to see hanging around the house, waiting for us.

Helaine has been nice enough to indulge me a few documentaries. Tonight it was Wordplay, the story of the 28th Annual Crossword Puzzle Championship held at the Marriott in Stamford&#185.

Wordplay itself refers to the practice of styling the answers in themed crossword puzzles.

I’ll get to the competition in a second.

To legitimize the whole process, a few celebrity crossword addicts were interviewed, including Bill Clinton, Mike Mussina, Ken Burns, the Indigo Girls and Jon Stewart. Interestingly, Stewart is the only one who seemed consciously affected by the camera.

They all do their puzzles in pen.

The movie followed a handful of favorites through the contest. If you’re looking to fill your quota of stereotypes, they’re there! Everyone was a nerd. No one could be thought of as physically attractive. And yet, it was fascinating to watch.

To see these contestants breeze through puzzles, solving clues in 10 or 15 seconds was mind boggling. Sure, they know the obscure puzzle words, those chestnuts which are used and reused because they alone solve certain problems of puzzle design, but it’s more than that.

The contestants are analytical. They are organized… anal if you wish. It’s almost as if they have to do puzzles. In fact, maybe they are driven by an unseen force to do just that.

SPOILER ALERT – In the end, a rookie error from an established contestant allows a 20 year old college student (from Hartford, as it turns out) to win. I like him and was pleased he won. – AS YOU WERE

I finished the movie and immediately headed to a website where you can attempt to solve crosswords online. I bailed before the halfway point, though I was doing fine on a reasonably easy puzzle.

I like the movie and really cared about the folks involved. How often do you get to say that?

&#185 – The 30th Annual Championship takes place next weekend in Stamford.