In his 1889 essay The Decay of Lying, Oscar Wilde posited that “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” That strikes us as a “which came first, the chicken or the egg” argument, suitable for loftier and more erudite thinkers than me.
Without getting into which imitates the other more, it is certainly obvious to us that life and art often imitate each other. Moreover, art often reflects, parallels and illuminates life in ways that are informative, insightful and sometimes downright shocking.
We’ve had a profound experience of that aspect of art this week, while catching up on episodes of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire.
Boardwalk Empire is set in the days immediately following the onset of alcohol prohibition. The first stunning reality is that the criminals couldn’t be happier. Their bootlegging activities have begun in earnest and their profits are sky high.
The dominant character, Nucky Thompson, is a thoroughly corrupt city official who uses the power of his elected position to build, manage and expand his criminal enterprise. Primarily through violence — with some graft, blackmail and extortion thrown in for good measure — Nucky owns the boardwalk.
Beyond his own empire, Nucky is instrumental in extending the reach and expanding the power of organized crime syndicates in other major cities. Although generally likable as a character — at least to us — there is no doubt that Nucky is a dangerous, destructive individual who has been empowered in his criminal enterprise by prohibition.
The G-man antagonist of the drama, Nelson Van Alden, is a seriously flawed individual who exhibits more psychoses than I’m qualified to identify. Using the power of his government position, he vigorously pursues a righteous path to rid the world of evil drink. Seriously, folks, he is one very sick dude.
Both characters benefit immensely from prohibition. One because the otherwise non-violent, victimless commerce in — and consumption of — a popular intoxicant is turned into a violent, insanely profitable criminal enterprise. The other because he now has the legal power to pursue his righteousness. That both of them are government officials is especially significant, and downright disturbing.
Series director Martin Scorsese is obviously an extremely intelligent — even visionary — man. There can be no doubt that he is well aware of the timing of his series in the media. Just when a majority of Americans have declared that cannabis prohibition does more harm than good — and that cannabis should be legalized — Scorsese puts Boardwalk Empire on the screen.
Beyond the rich sets and robust story lines, Scorsese gives us two deeply flawed characters with very complex personalities. The salient characteristic in each is a crazy, mixed-up conundrum of right and wrong. One is a bad guy who’s good, the other is a good guy who’s bad. Such are the unintended consequences that arise with prohibitions: Drug dealers providing employment, and cops on the take.
It seems to us that Boardwalk Empire is indeed art imitating life. The reflections of — and parallels to — a profound current issue are obvious and compelling. If the series was simply a fictional story, we would applaud its allegory and strive to help people gain insight from it about the perils of prohibition.
However, Boardwalk Empire is far more fact than fiction. The characters may be made up, and the story lines may be creative, but the underlying events are purely historical. Alcohol prohibition in America was a devastating, destructive disaster for the country. Ultimately, it was repealed. Let’s hope proponents of cannabis prohibition will be informed by art like Boardwalk Empire and stop the madness!
Posted: Monday, November 19, 2012