To go along with the (hopefully) imminent release of my indie book “Documentary 101: A Viewer’s Guide to Non-Fiction Film”, here’s my new weekly post that will spotlight a work of particular interest. This feature will mostly be titles that have come out in recent months since the book’s completion, along with some obscurities that deserve wider recognition or older non-fiction films that are being re-released. Documentary film is one of the most vital of all art forms and has arrived at a sort of golden age in the last couple of decades, with quality and variety of subject matter increasing exponentially, along with viewer interest. So there’s a lot to choose from. A doc a week? Well, with a mid-summer hiatus and maybe a break for the Christmas holidays, I think I can pull it off. Please check in on the weekend for the latest. Cheers, Rick Ouellette
Ever enter a contest and have someone hit you with the old line, “nobody ever wins those things”? The same could be said to those buying tickets for one of the high-stakes lottery games that have become hugely popular in the U.S. in recent decades. Except, of course, we know that people win them all the time—you see them on TV holding up an oversized check for some astronomical sum (often in the tens of millions) then rarely hear about them again. The odds of knowing someone who has hit the Powerball jackpot must be about the same as actually buying a winning ticket yourself—about one in 180 million. So it’s up to documentary filmmaker Jeffrey Blitz, who also directed 2002’s crowd-pleasing Spellbound, to make this fascinating case study of several winners and look at the first year results once the mega-bucks start rolling in. It’s all here, the good, the bad and the ugly and rest assured there is a bit of all three.
Blitz approaches this rather delicate subject with careful steps. Each of his subjects is first introduced with a five-minute segment. We get a feel for their personal backgrounds and the initial euphoria of their sudden fortune, making it more resonant when Blitz circles back and their stories deepen. First up is Quang, a Vietnamese immigrant working in a ConAgra meatpacking plant when he won $22 million as his share of a prize with several others in a company pool. This is a man who had been severely injured fighting alongside Americans in the war and barely escaped with his wife and his life after the Communist victory, luckily getting picked up by a French rescue craft instead of a Soviet warship. These kinds of hard experiences lead to the type of philosophical outlook and rational decision-making that bodes well, where sudden good fortune is seen as an opportunity to build on and not a magical escape hatch from drudgery.
Those less well-centered have more difficulty with their “good fortune.” James was a middle-aged bachelor who had lived with his parents. His employment situation and living condition nose-dived after their deaths and he was down to his last three dollars when he plunked it down on a ticket that replenished his supply to the tune of $5.5 million. But he still seems adrift, buying a needlessly huge house to keep his money away from perceived exploiters and missing the several dozen cats that used to live with him. Buddy, hailed by the local media a year before for saving a baby from a burning building, is said to have been rewarded by a $16 million gift from above. After his bad-news brother from hell re-enters his life, Buddy wonders if the devil didn’t have a hand in it as well.
The conundrum facing mathematician Robert is more subtle but no less important. He’s told by his university employer to “wrap up your work and we’ll find somebody else” almost immediately after breaking the news of his lottery win. The reaction is telling in a country that instinctively worships wealth, while the idea of one’s work being equal to one’s worth is slower to gain traction. The huge disconnect between “something you do” and “something you won” is something he never counted on while buying tickets on a lark. Most relatable of all may be the experience of Kristine and Steve, a solid middle-stream suburban couple with two teenage kids, who win a mind-boggling $110 million. “You work your whole life to be part of the crowd,” they tell Blitz. Becoming estranged to longtime friends who can’t help but be resentful is jarring—-telling your kids that they’ll have to have a pre-nup when they get married is just as disconcerting. No longer on the same wavelength as those still living from paycheck to paycheck (one even tells them she can no longer stand the sight of them) they decamp to an affluent Florida community, enjoying the lifestyle, doing charity work, managing their treasure and suspecting all the while they may never totally fit in there either (“we are our own species”).
Blitz presents all this in an attractive package, familiar though it may be in its modish, non-narrated way. The subjects are comfortable and candid at the hands of an unobtrusive director, who fills in the history-of-the-lottery backstory during appealing animated interludes. These subjects can end up being misguided—-throwing away in a few short years more money than the average person would make in a lifetime—-or canny enough to use the winnings as seed money to build businesses for future family generations to run, avoiding the brain-deadening results of trust fund indulgence (the Kardashian Effect, if you will). They are all treated with equal deference by Blitz and that’s as it should be. One informational sequence early on lets viewers know that lotteries have been around in America since Colonial times but were banned for several decades due to administrative corruption. When it started again in 1964, the top prize was $100,000. After watching Lucky, it’s not hard to feel it would have been just as well if it stayed at that but, say, adjusted for inflation to about $750,00 in today’s dollars. Three-quarters of a million will take the edge off most anyone’s financial pressures without catapulting winners into the warp-speed unrealities depicted here. But in today’s empathy-deficient global economy, where genuine economic security seems to be the domain only of top corporations and those already wealthy, everyday stresses and wishful thinking will lead people to the local convenience store time and again in hopes of riches beyond their wildest dreams—-even if most never realize just how much that will entail.