Directed by Pat Sajak. Starring Pat Sajak.
Flash forward 100 years, 500 hundred years—hell, let’s turn it up to 1,000—to the archival system of our culture, viewable in the retinas of what pass for humans, the AI-infused beings that inhabit not earth exactly, but a kind of virtual landscape that contains elements of physical reality, dirt, the occasional tree, streets, structures—a “world” that, really, is more of a suspended post-digital, synaptical time-space field controlled by the programming of the creators.
What are the films of our era that will live on? There are only two options:
1. The most vapid of Hollywood superhero-explosion-terrorist-redemption films.
2. The personal documentary.
Though I have to psych myself up sometimes before engaging the sometimes/often self-regarding genre of personal documentary, this is where I’d put my longevity money. These are the only stories that our future relatives will scour, full of artificial curiosity, why, why are these poor hairless chimpanzees trying to piece together meaning out of what they called life?
As an unabashed gameshow fanatic in my fructose youth, the most repellent of all of the combed-over fiends was unquestionably THE SAJAK. Both smug and insipid, condescending without a shred of a reason to be, and fearless—utterly fearless—Sajak looked America straight in the eye jokes that (he knew) contained zero value of any perceptible kind. Sajak clearly possessed the coveted personality pieces to climb Olympus, and so his rise must have felt, to him, inevitable, determined, as if he’d pulled the sword from the stone.
Wheel of Truth debuted at the 4-H Branson Film Festival this year to an audience paralyzed by a combination of shock and instant transcendence. There were no walk-outs. There were no sounds. No sniffles, popcorn crunches, chair squeaks—there was only stillness and rapt attention. What emerges from the first frame is a New Poetry, a visual immediacy and intimacy, with Sajak’s voice (now heavily weathered by a lake of Scotch and quarry of Pall Malls) ringing out in ninety second bursts of a kind of melding between the profane and sacred that could only be wrought from a soul that had spun itself into oblivion, thinning with each turn of random commerce.
In the opening shot the camera moves achingly slowly, almost indiscernibly—closer and closer to the Wheel, as the clicky thing finally stops on “Jamaica.” Sajak takes us straight to the face of a seventy-five year old white woman, the winner, exultant, coming out of her skin. And then… he speaks:
That trip to Jamaica, the Dunn’s River Falls
all the souls squeezing into one another,
palm to palm (holy palmer’s kiss)
ascending against the stream of paradise–
the wheel found you, took you there
and you looked it in the eyes, haggling
for a piece of shit on the street,
a boat made of shells, five dollar! she demands
And you say, no, one dollar! Because it is your
money, your dollar, your world, your God.
The film references some of the visual language of Russ McElwee’s Sherman’s March and, more recently, Sarah Polley’s excellent Stories We Tell. While I believe both of those gems will live on indefinitely in the mostly horrible future, what Sajak has done here is to use these personal docs as a jumping-off point, the way Dylan began with Guthrie and Muddy Waters, only later to explode at Newport. This film is a detonator.
Imagine the beautiful Los Angeles morning, Sajak with an Americano in hand, striding in his loafers into the heart of Merv Griffin’s operation. I want to make a documentary, kind of a special really, about The Wheel. The big jackpots. The bankruptcies. The celebratory gyrating. Talk to the winners now. Vanna, of course. Rural Wisconsin. Michigan. Ohio. Kentucky. Alabama. They’d eat it up. Life on the Wheel, something like that.
Okay, Pat. Sounds like a real champ. How’s five million sound?
Sajak’s evolutionary artistic middle as a meaningful figure in right-wing punditry and fundraising must have given the bosses every reason to believe he’d churn out a piece of puffery so undeniable it could choke a child, as if filled with a load of taffy, M & M’s, and bleach. Pure gold. What I long to see, and never will, is the pivot Sajak must have made, like a ballerina, out the doors of Griffin’s office, knowing he’d just walked away clean, with their unwitting blessing to make a film about the great, unspeakable emptiness in our credit card hearts.
Where other personal docs might glorify the fleeting moments we spend with a very young Sajak, (DJ’ing his way to early fame, then to Vietnam, his time with Armed Forces Radio) Sajak slams the door on any such maudlin inclinations. The footage of Sajak accidentally pulling the plug on Nixon’s 1969 broadcast to the troops only serves the film’s greater purpose of exposing its own subject as a mindless noise in a sea of cacophony. Again, though, Sajak refuses to stop here, with simple irony. He pushes us further down the river, to the level of reality behind what beams into our homes. Try this voiceover on for size as the camera zeroes in on his own eyes, caught mid-laugh as he fumbles with the old Army radio equipment:
Napalm and the beast that laps it up
the milk of war
Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Bell, General Dynamics
only now can I hear the murder in the names,
now that there are no stakes, no meaning,
names that simply float on the billions becoming trillions
becoming meaningless sound
meaningless value, human life
the sound of my voice, what I mean (nothing)
what I say to you now, this instant
an agent of the dream that weakens us.
In what would have to qualify as further evidence that the Jungian model of the Collective Unconscious indeed makes itself manifest at the time of a great shared experience, I could hear in the theater 200 near-whispers, all forming the same letters: V-A-N-N-A W-H-I-T-E. After the initial plunge into Sajak’s agonizing world, after he exposes us (and himself) to his fatalist poetic commentary, we are left as viewers wondering at what point in his opus will he give us the face, the hands, the legs walking the horizontal plane, as if her only purpose, her only knowledge contained the twenty-six letters, that when flipped, turned beggars into kings.
One of the truths about human nature that Sajak exploits throughout Wheel is our need to visually orient ourselves each second. Against the spiral of dollar signs and traps, we hear the legendary announcer Charlie O’Donnell echo from beyond… Pat Sajak and Vanna White!
Sajak hard cuts to himself and Vanna, present day, their faces only inches apart. Our eyes scramble to make sense of them seated on two folding chairs in a women’s bathroom, a toilet in plain view. The following are snippets from the interview—or more accurately, their exchange of souls.
Vanna, remember when the fat man in suspenders fell onto the wheel, and I looked at you, and you ran over from the puzzle to get a closer look, and everyone thought you were trying to help him?
Oh yes. And I looked back at you, and I realized I’d been so blessed to have you there every day.
Those were the words I made you say before work, over coffee and ratings, in this bathroom.
What is waking up like for you these days, Vanna? Walk me through it.
I roll right out of bed and beat a punching bag for five minutes. I drink breakfast and work out for four hours. Then it’s time for my face.
I’d like to start having you over for tea, just you and me, every Sunday. How would you like that?
The audience was brought to whatever tears they had left in their stricken faces. How I ended up on the panel of the Branson Film Festival is, perhaps, a story for another time (R.I.P. Ned Beatty). The Christian Vegas, though, made for a perfectly unironic setting for the unveiling of art. For a tight seventy-eight minutes, Sajak takes us down the river, until we finally reach his own personal Kurtz, his ill-fated talk show, the absolute apex of vacancy beamed into American homes. But the journey to the bottom of this pit is worth every strained second—because, truly, how many times in life does one have the great fortune to bear witness to the birth of the pure artist? Especially the miraculous, rare December bloom, in the face of long odds, the Wheel lands squarely on Bankrupt, and never before now has that felt like such a jackpot.
Ryan Elliot Wilson shunned the suspicious hospitality of the Midwest and the bizarre mix of Hell on Earth meets Happiest Place on Earth of Florida for the great, continually unfolding spectacle of humanity that is Los Angeles. There he found his tribe of the botched in the form of East Side poets and musicians, Hollywood agents gone mad, and socially inept high school teachers. Wilson has found this mix to be ideal for his pH. His novel SPIRAL BOUND BROTHER (Perfect Edge Books) came out in 2013. Some of his other writing can be found in the anthology, IN SEARCH OF A CITY: Los Angeles in 1000 Words, Thunderdome, Drift, and The Painted Bride Quarterly. He teaches creative writing, works in high school counseling, and lives in Los Feliz with his family. He has never appeared on a gameshow.