Documentary 101

Two in a Row for Rock Docs in Oscar Category

In the end, it may have been that much-lauded “The Act of Killing” was just a wee bit too radical for the Academy voters (see previous post), so for the second year in a row the statuette for best feature documentary went to a music film. The vivacious and lovable “20 Feet from Stardom” was probably as deserving a winner in what is by its very nature an apples-and-oranges competition. And thanks to the unstoppable Darlene Love, the acceptance “speech” turned into one of the night’s most memorable moments:

Ms. Love was a subject of the film and not one of the actual award winners, but when director Morgan Neville and the producers let her do her thing it could only help the already raised profile of a feelgood film that has connected with over 500,000 people in its theatrical release, great numbers for a documentary.

Exactly one year ago today, I began this blog by mentioning the recent Oscar win of “Searching for Sugar Man”, the second rock doc to win the award, the other being “Woodstock” way back in 1970. Now there are two in a row and there may be more to follow. The redemptive or belated-recognition pop music documentary has really taken off in recent years and will probably only get more popular as rock and roll’s golden age recedes ever into the past.

Sixto “Sugar Man” Rodriguez, whose luckless career as a singer-songwriter was salvaged by the unlikely admiration bestowed upon him decades later by countless South Africans or Darlene Love, whose ace lead vocals went uncredited on a #1 single in 1963 and who (along with many other studio vocalists) had to fight against forced anonymity and industry ill treatment, are just two of the better known examples of this mini-genre. “New York Doll” was when it first came to me as a distinct subset (in 2005) and there’s been many since then, with “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me” and “Gene Clark: The Byrd Who Flew Alone” next up in my docket.


“Now it’s time to leave the capsule, if you dare”

I’ll leave the discussion of Hollywood’s big night to the 173 million other media outlets that hash it over. However, I was a tad disappointed that the science fiction genre was once again passed up as a legit contender for Best Picture. It was nice to see the visionary Alfonso Cuaron win for Best Director and in my mind was due one about seven years ago for the masterful “Children of Men.” But in the end “12 Years as a Slave” had more gravitas than “Gravity” (sorry) and already tedious idiomatic arguments about whether his nominated film was even science fiction or just a disaster film shot in outer space have sworn me off the subject for some time to come. Meanwhile, we have in Steve McQueen the first African-American director of a winning picture and how cool is that?

Another good outcome was that “Wolf of Wall Street” came away empty-handed and so depraved felon Jordan Belfort, who somehow got his claws into Martin Scorcese, does not for the moment have any further reason to laugh in the faces of the American citizenry that he ripped off so unrepentantly. Here’s hoping that Marty can re-connect aesthetically with the human race in 2014 while documentarians the world over continue their quest for truth, justice and discovery.

(I found out my choice for best feature documentary Oscar–Jehane Noujaim’s “The Square”–did win that prize at the recent awards show of the International Documentary Association, so congrats. At the same event the great Alex Gibney, who made “Taxi to the Dark Side” and “The Armstrong Lie” among his over two dozen directorial eforts, won the IDA’s annual Lifetime Acheivement award).

Here’s a list of Academy Award-winning feature documentaries starting with Michael Wadleigh’s great Woodstock film 43 years ago:

1971—The Hellstrom Chronicle
1973—The Great American Cowboy
1974—Hearts and Minds
1975—The Man Who Skied Down Everest
1976—Harlan County, USA
1977—Who Are the DeBolts?
1978—Scared Straight
1979—Best Boy
1980—From Mao to Mozart
1982—Just Another Missing Kid
1983—He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’
1984—The Times of Harvey Milk
1985—Broken Rainbow
1986—Artie Shaw: Time is All I Got and Down and Out in America (tie)
1987—The Ten Year Lunch
1988—Hotel Terminus
1989—Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt
1990—American Dream
1991—In the Shadow of the Stars
1992—The Panama Deception
1993—I Am a Promise
1994—Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision
1995—Anne Frank Rembered
1996—When We Were Kings
1997—The Long Way Home
1998—The Last Days
1999—One Day in September
2000—Into the Arms of Strangers
2001—Murder on a Sunday Morning
2002—Bowling for Columbine
2003—The Fog of War
2004—Born into Brothels
2005—March of the Penguins
2006—An Inconvenient Truth
2007—Taxi to the Dark Side
2008—Man on Wire
2009—The Cove
2010—Inside Job
2012—Searching for Sugar Man

“Documentary 101” Sampler, Part Four


Now on sale as both a paperback and e-book: Also available from Amazon and other online book sellers.

“Documentary 101: A Viewer’s Guide to Non-Fiction Film” is a first-of-its-kind anthology, covering the entire spectrum of non-fiction film from 1895 to the present day. There are 101 full-length reviews of documentaries chosen for their aesthetic prominence and/or historical significance, followed by briefer entries on related titles. There are 325 total reviews and an informational appendix in its 418 pages.

Below are four new excerpts from the book, accompanied by film stills only seen here. Click on images for a larger view.

year of pig

“In the Year of the Pig” was the first major documentary in protest of American involvement in Vietnam and it’s admirable that director Emile de Antonio rejected the era’s fashionable agitprop to instead carefully delineate the war’s trajectory from a post-war French colonial issue, to a regional political struggle to a suddenly important outpost in the international fight against communism. A thought-provoking stew of vital interviews and ground-level footage, this is perhaps the first film of the radical left to ever receive an Oscar nomination in the documentary category.
(In the Year of the Pig, 1968)

gimme shelter

The Rolling Stones hired the Maysles brothers, along with their frequent collaborator Charlotte Zwerin, to document their 1969 American tour, the first where they were introduced as “the Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World.” Right from the film’s first musical number, a turbo-charged version of “Satisfaction” from a Madison Square Garden show, the Stones do their best to live up to that hype. Times have changed since the Beatles invented the modern rock concert a half-decade earlier. Witness the communal hero-worship, the sophisticated sound system, the druggy ambience. Certainly, the sexually-charged appeal of singer Mick Jagger is a far cry from the schoolgirl crushes inspired by the Fab Four in the mid-6os. But the Stones had missed out on Woodstock, which had happened a few months before their arrival. They were already looking ahead to staging a one-day free festival in California at the end of the tour, hoping to create their own “microcosmic society,” a memorable decade-ending event. That it certainly was…
(Gimme Shelter, 1970)



The film begins in Chelmno, Poland, where some of the earliest exterminations of prisoners first took place (starting in December 1941), and where hundreds of thousand were eventually put to death in its infamous gassing vans. By the end of the war, with Soviet forces closing in, the German guards set out to kill all those still alive. Fifteen-year-old Simon Srebnik was one of the less than five people to survive this desperate massacre. After recovering from his wounds (a bullet had grazed his head) he moved to Israel, but he is persuaded by Lanzmann to return to Chelmno thirty-four years later. After walking down a country road with a haunted look on his face—-as if he’s half-expecting to be apprehended—-Srebnik identifies the sight of the concentration camp where the foundation of the vast crematorium is still visible. “No one can re-create what happened here,” he says. “Impossible! And no one can understand it.”
(Shoah, 1985. Pictured is Simon Srebnik with residents of Chelmno, likely in the late 1970s)



The subject of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s first film are the “Ward boys,” four elderly bachelor brothers who run a small dairy farm in upstate New York. They lead a hermitlike existence centered around their squalid farmhouse; aside from daily trips to the market, they have very little to do with the outside world, and vice versa. Their quiet lives change drastically when one of the brothers dies in bed and another, Delbert, is charged with his murder. Soon after the arrest, the Wards learn they have a lot to both fear and appreciate from the society they have closed themselves off from. The state police and the district attorney show about as much concern for common decency as the brothers do for personal hygiene. The police manage to wrangle a confession out of an unrepresented Delbert Ward, a man of low IQ—-a “triumph” they and the DA’s office follow up with a series of ever-more-questionable tactics that culminate in a desperate attempt to turn the whole thing into an incestuous sex crime when their case seems to be faltering. The townspeople of Munnsville, on the other hand, rally around the Wards with a surprising show of support and affection.
(Brother’s Keeper, 1992)

“Documentary 101” Sampler, Part Three


Now on sale as both a paperback and e-book: Also available from Amazon and other online book sellers.

“Documentary 101: A Viewer’s Guide to Non-Fiction Film” is a first-of-its-kind anthology, covering the entire spectrum of non-fiction film from 1895 to the present day. There are 101 full-length reviews of documentaries chosen for their aesthetic prominence and/or historical significance, followed by briefer entries on related titles. There are 325 total reviews and an informational appendix in its 418 pages.

Below are five more snippets from the book, accompanied by film stills only seen here.


During the Sixties, Berkeley, California became a boiling cauldron of activism and left-wing causes, the ingredients added one after the other (civil rights, free speech, Vietnam, feminism, the ecology) until it threatened to spill out of control. As to how this widespread culture of protest developed, director Mark Kitchell touches on the curious phenomenon that is the “oppression” of upper-middle-class white youth. It starts with parents who came of age in the Depression trying to give their children “everything” as they raised families in the expanding postwar economy. When this edged over into the materialism and conformity of the 1950s, it sowed the seeds of rebellion. Kitchell infers that these kids could only break through the status quo if they considered themselves not to be privileged in the conventional sense, but instead to have been raised in spiritual and intellectual poverty.
(Berkeley in the Sixties, 1990)



Michael Moore financed much of the film’s $160,000 budget himself and centered it on his own fumbling attempts to meet GM chairman Roger Smith and convince him to personally meet a few of the Flint area’s 30,000 newly unemployed… Toward the end of the film the camera is behind Moore’s shoulder as he finally tracks down Roger Smith at the GM Christmas party. The chairman has just given a speech where he somehow saw it fitting to quote Dickens’s famous monologue from “A Christmas Carol” (“I always thought of Christmas as a good time . . .”). Many viewers by this time would likely see Scrooge’s callous comments about the “surplus population” as the more fitting passage. At least Moore gets to speak to Smith amid a milling crowd; he’s just come from Flint “where we filmed a family [of a former GM worker] being evicted from their home on the day before Christmas Eve. Would you be willing to come with us to see?”
(Roger & Me, 1989)


ereol morris

With “The Thin Blue Line”, director Errol Morris would ultimately achieve what most documentaries can only strive for: affecting tangible change on the issue raised by the film. The publicity surrounding the film in 1988 helped to overturn the murder conviction of former death row inmate Randall Adams, who was released from prison the following year. Originally sentenced to be executed in the 1976 killing of a Dallas, Texas, police officer, the dubious case against Adams had already caused a reduction to life in prison when Morris caught wind of the case while researching in the Lone Star State for a possible documentary on a related subject. Morris helps to correct a travesty of justice without ever coming within a mile of a soapbox, building a case against the legal system despite his seeming impartiality. Even more impressive is that he does this while having the stylistic daring to hone a detail-obsessed, overtly cinematic form of nonfiction filmmaking that would greatly influence the genre through the 1990s and beyond.
(The Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris pictured in 1988)


american dream

Set against an economic paradigm shift and the anti-union bias of the Reagan presidency, director Barbara Kopple investigates the nationally publicized 1985 strike at a Hormel meatpacking plant in Austin, Minnesota. She contrasts an old company film touting founder Jay Hormel’s enlightened employee-friendly policies with the compulsive bottom-line mentality of modern management and shareholders. The union splits into two in over strategic differences, sometimes ripping apart families in the process. The protracted strike leaves Koppel with plenty of time to portray a beleaguered American working class, with millions hung out to dry as the once-proud industrial sector becomes inexorably replaced with an anemic retail and service sector economy.
(American Dream, 1990)


paradise lost

Modern-day America comes off looking more like a spruced-up version of the Dark Ages when three teenagers in Arkansas are arrested for the murder of three young boys and the only “evidence” against them seems to be that they dress in black, listen to heavy metal music, and have a high school-level interest in the black arts. This literal witch hunt forms the basic premise of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s masterful but distressing documentary. The fate of the accused seems as preordained as that of the Negro defendant in “To Kill a Mockingbird” in an earlier film treatment of the American South.
(Paradise Lost:The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,1996)

“Documentary 101” Sampler (Part 2)


Now on sale as both a paperback and e-book: Also available from Amazon and other online book sellers.

“Documentary 101” is a first-of-its-kind anthology, covering the entire spectrum of non-fiction film with entries on over three hundred titles from the years 1895 to 2012. There are 101 full-length reviews of documentaries chosen for their aesthetic prominence and/or historical significance, followed by briefer entries on related titles. There are 325 total reviews and an informational appendix in its 418 pages.

Below are five more snippets from the book, accompanied by film stills only seen here. Click on images for a larger view.

hearts minds

Lieutenant George Coker, was a POW for seven years who returns home with a worldview that remains as black-and-white as one of those old Westerns. No one nowadays would begrudge Coker his status as a homecoming hero in his hometown of Linden, New Jersey. He takes the stage in front of a group of local housewives, literally extolling the virtues of motherhood and apple pie, calling the enemies “gooks” and telling a cafeteria full of schoolchildren that the people of Vietnam are “backward and primitive.” The film seems to imply that Coker is the perfect surrogate for a shortsighted national policy, someone who bought into the system early on and can be relied on to help carry out any military agenda no matter how shaky its justification.
(“Hearts and Minds” 1974)

28 up

Jackie, Lynn, and Sue are former East End school chums who for several episodes were interviewed together and even sitting in the same order. In earlier times, director Michael Apted used subtle tactics to get them to react to what is perceived to be their station in life. But they are now hip to the director they have known for so long, pointing out that the rich kids in the Up group must have found it hard living up to the greater expectations. Besides, they only think about class “every seven years, when you come around.”
(Pictured with Apted during the filming of “28 UP”, these three subjects are part of a group profiled every seven years since they were seven. “56 Up” was released in 2013.)

harlan county

The miners only receive medical benefits after they have been diagnosed with black-lung disease and they are generally treated as little more than another piece of equipment, easily replaced when broken. When the thirteen-month strike begins, you may already find yourself convinced that things haven’t changed much since the early mining days when picketers were openly attacked by police or troops. Director Barbara Kopple is right in the eye of the hurricane during the increasingly hostile confrontations at the gate and she’s not seen as a neutral presence when the company strongmen up the ante with impulsive violence.
(“Harlan County USA” 1976)


In one of the film’s more notorious scenes, President Bush is shown sitting at his Florida-classroom photo op, staring vacantly into space for seven full minutes after being informed the U.S. has just suffered the worst terrorist attack in history. Since Michael Moore can’t resist showing this sequence in nearly real time, he fills up the surreal normality of the moment with his own guess at the president’s train of thought as he continued to sit through the reading of “My Pet Goat.”
(“Fahrenheit 9/11” 2004)

les blank
Stalwart indie documentarian Les Blank was invited to Peru by his friend Werner Herzog to record the production of the German director’s wildy ambitious film “Fitzcaraldo.” This tumultuous project inspired Blank’s most sweeping work. It’s an exceptional insider’s look at the cinematic process at it’s most chaotic. The films center on directors whose grandiose vision of a masterpiece gets knocked off course by formidable obstacles of a political, financial, meteorological, and psychological nature, all in a far-off tropical location.
(“Burden of Dreams” 1982)

“Documentary 101” Sampler (Part One)


Now on sale as both a paperback and e-book: Also available from Amazon and other online book sellers.

Roger and Me. March of the Penguins. Man on Wire. Paradise Lost. Grizzly Man. Gates of Heaven. Taxi to the Dark Side. Super-Size Me. Spellbound.

In recent decades, titles like this have raised the profile of documentaries like never before. The appeal of films that rely on the testimony of real life have increased in the age of the “indie” and attracted a growing numbers of viewers looking for an alternative to a movie industry that too often seems fixated on the bottom line.

Documentary 101 is a first-of-its-kind anthology, covering the entire spectrum of non-fiction film with entries on over three hundred titles from the years 1895 to 2012. There are 101 full-length reviews of documentaries chosen for their aesthetic prominence and/or historical significance, followed by briefer entries on related titles. There are 325 total reviews and an informational appendix in its 418 pages.

Over the next several weeks I will be excerpting the book, using film stills I purchased that were not included for reasons of cost and the eternal differing opinions on what constitutes fair use.


The man director Robert Flaherty named Nanook (“The Bear”) was a prominent hunter for the Inuit tribes in the landmass to the east of uppermost Hudson Bay. He fashioned a “family” for Nanook and brought along on expeditions a handful of men known to him. They were all enthusiastic about the idea of the movie, which they called the “aggie” (big picture). From the start of film, Flaherty’s sympathies are clear: free of civilized neuroses, these are “the most cheerful people in all the world”, and the keen focus on daily survival skills affords them an inspirational aura. The affection Nanook and his screen wife show to the children and the children’s affection towards their puppy shrinks the vast distance between the subject and viewers. But the survival “lifestyle” is rugged stuff and the bulk of “Nanook of the North” is made up of a series of memorable hunting scenes. The 300 members of this tribe scrape out a living on a frozen range the size of England. The specter of starvation is always close at hand and Flaherty does not forget the crucial nature of this struggle—he hardly could have because he was part of the same knife’s edge existence during his sixteen months of filming. (“Nanook of the North” 1922)

fires started

Humphrey Jennings’ tribute to (Britain’s) Auxiliary Fire Service was called “Fires Were Started” and may have seemed passive in comparison (to the war’s more pugnacious bugle-call films), despite now being the most critically lauded of his works. It is set up as a dramatic film, largely re-created by real brigade members since large-scale bombings had ceased in London by 1943. There is no mention of the Germans until the twenty-eight-minute mark, when the banshee wail of an air-raid siren pierces the night. The brigade is sent to tackle an inferno at a dock warehouse and keep it from spreading to munitions-carrying ships due to sail for the Continent.
(“London Can Take It” and other films by Humphrey Jennings, 1940-1951)


The popular legend that took hold in France after World War II, of a widespread resistance that fought Nazi occupation tooth-and-nail, comes under intense scrutiny in Marcel Ophuls’s epic work, one of the most critically acclaimed of all documentary films. Using the city of Clermont-Ferrand as a microcosm of the whole nation, Ophuls bravely makes the case that the forces of collaboration were much stronger and reduced France to a long-term accommodation with one of the most deplored regimes in history. “The Sorrow and the Pity” certainly struck a raw nerve with officialdom at the time of its release. It was banned from French TV for ten years.
(“The Sorrow and the Pity” 1971)


In the early minutes of the film there are some readymade Michael Moore moments like the well-known scene where he opens a savings account at a Midwest bank in order to receive the free shotgun that apparently has replaced the complimentary toaster of days gone by. But “Bowling for Columbine” works best when Moore is seen on camera talking matter-of-factly to a wide variety of Americans and trying to come to terms with the country’s high level of gun violence. This is not the easiest issue to suss out, especially when the murder rates of other industrialized countries barely rate as a fraction when compared to the United States. During a side trip into Canada, Moore finds that there are seven million guns in about ten million households nationwide, yet the folks there would barely know what a homicide looks like.
(“Bowling for Columbine” 2002)


In 1983 Life magazine hired acclaimed photojournalist Mary Ellen Mark to do a story on the growing problem of teenage runaways. Her central subject was Seattle’s skid row and within a year Mark returned there with her filmmaker husband, Martin Bell, to make this equally sympathetic and non-judgmental film. These kids, most in their early teens, eke out a living via panhandling, prostitution and dumpster diving, forming a makeshift society on the fringes of the “respectable” world.
(“Streetwise” 1985)

Chronicle of a Summer (Doc of the Week #8)

Chronicle of a Summer
Directed by Jean Rouch & Edgar Morin—1961—90 minutes

At the dawn of the 1960s, the development of more lightweight movie cameras with sync sound allowed for the intimate feeling of real life subjects with minimal intrusion. This would lead to the personalized and spontaneous documentary style that is more the norm nowadays. In America, a resulting style called Direct Cinema launched the careers of DA Pennebaker, Richard Leacock, the Maysle brothers and Robert Drew, whose 1960 film “Primary” was an unprecedented you-are-there look at a Wisconsin primary campaign between Senators Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy. In France in the middle of that same year, ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch and sociologist Edgar Morin made the influential “Chronicle of a Summer”, recently restored and given the grand Criterion Collection treatment, with a booklet and a bevy of extras, including a 73-minute look-back piece that includes recent interviews with people involved in the original film, now a half-century older.

Unlike the practitioners of Direct Cinema, who were more strictly observational, Rouch and Morin’s style newly coined “cinema verite” used proactive strategies to get closer to the kind of “film-truth” they were striving for. Rouch, who previously made films on African subjects, developed this new form (dubbed by one scholar as “hometown anthropology”) by starting with the novel but now-familiar technique of ask-the-man-in-the-street. Using a shoulder-mounted 16mm camera and handheld microphone, he and Morin employ two personable female collaborators (Marceline and Nadine) to accost Parisian pedestrians with the simple (but loaded) question “are you happy?” Comical brush-offs soon yield to some touching responses from aged or struggling citizens, pointing up the fertile ground the filmmakers have broken. Soon, Rouch and Morin settle on a group of people for a more in-depth investigation into the human condition at that precise point in time.

Francophiles and film history buffs will certainly have a head start in appreciating the charms of a film like “Chronicle of a Summer.” The monochromatic allure of mid-century Paris, viewed through a persistent screen of Gitanes smoke, is the background for these earnest interviews, informal roundtable debates and day-in-the life vignettes. Issues like the ongoing Algerian War, which caused a divisive debate akin to what Americans would soon be experiencing over Vietnam, sharpen the edges of what at its core is an inward-looking concept.

So we get a thoughtful discussion between a Renault factory worker and an African exchange student, the earnest musings of an activist couple easing (perhaps uneasily) towards a middle-class lifestyle and the artsy, garret-dwelling couple who scoff at the nebulous idea of happiness (an “empty word”) or that gross material gain would bring it about (memorably noting that their rich friends “don’t have the books and records we do”). The on-camera near meltdown of a young Italian woman hints at the more voyeuristic bent that such film and TV techniques could slip towards in the future. The general self-consciousness of “Chronicle of a Summer” may not always agree with all viewers all the time. But the general impression, that you can pick someone off the street and, giving them a space in which to express themselves, use that testimony to illuminate our life and times better than any talking-head expert, comes through loud and clear.

Lucky (Doc of the Week #1)

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

(Directed by Jeffrey Blitz—2010—82 minutes—Docurama Films)

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.