Doc of the Day: Special When Lit Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: Special When Lit

Posted in Days of Docs by - August 03, 2012

Everything you wanted to know about pinball (but were afraid to ask).

Dir. Brett Sullivan, 2009, 96 min, Viewed via Netflix Instant

Remember how Windows came with a pinball game on it? I played that game for hours as a child, I’ll tell ya. I’ve played virtual pinball way, way more than any real-life pinball. So it was ironic to me when this movie started off by talking about how pinball is a rare form of entertainment that hasn’t been able to transition to the digital age. But in spirit, the film is still correct; it just isn’t the same to play pinball on a computer. But no matter how you play, one thing is a constant: talking about pinball will make you nostalgic, and Special When Lit is almost as much about nostalgia as it is about this game.

All pinball playing seems to be in the past. I can’t remember the last time I had a go at the flippers. The various pinball enthusiasts interviewed in the doc can only refer to the past glories of the game. Computers killed the arcade star, and pinball’s popularity plummeted during the 90’s. For perspective, the game used to be really popular. As in, from the 50’s through the 70’s, pinball machines made more money than Hollywood. Seriously. Movies are past their heyday now, but they’re still quite successful. Heck, even theater, which has fallen so far from being the king of mass entertainment, still thrives to a degree. Pinball is pretty much dead.

I never thought a movie about an arcade game could induce such a sense of melancholy, but here we are. What makes it even more affecting is how much the characters have internalized pinball. You could mock them for taking this so seriously, but that would make you a mean person, and you aren’t mean, right? One man recounts having his first kiss at a pinball machine. Sure, the one guy who swears he wouldn’t give up pinball even for “the right woman” is taking things a bit far, but who can deny this thing that brought joy to so many people?

It’s interesting to see how much more complex the game is than it may appear to be on its surface. Most people (including myself) simply bang away at the buttons in an effort to keep that blasted ball from sinking down the drain, but there are actually rules to the game. There’s strategy that goes into knowing when to hit the ball to certain areas, in order to maximize the number of points you can earn. It’s not just random luck, which was how pinball advocates were able to have the ban on the game removed. Oh right – pinball was banned in many cities for decades, as it was considered a form of gambling. The things you learn watching documentaries.

I might be making Special When Lit sound more profound than it is. There’s a surprising depth of gravitas in the doc, but it’s not extraordinary. It simply has more of an emotional oomph than one might expect, considering the subject matter. I guess it shouldn’t have surprised me, since I always stress how a good documentarian can make any kind of topic affecting, but it did. At the very least, it makes what looks like an afternoon diversion into something a little bit more.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.
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