Special When Lit
Title: Special When Lit
Run Time: 88 Minutes
Available From: Amazon Prime (Included in Prime)
Price: Included with Amazon Prime or SD £3.99
After my review of Tilt: The Battle To Save Pinball – I decided that next would be the more recent Special When Lit documentary. Created in 2009, directed by Brett Sullivan – Special When Lit takes a helicopter view of Pinball through the ages, its decline before spending time looking at those involved with the hobby, culminating in a discussion around the PAPA facility and the PAPA 9 Finals.
The film starts off with some lovely visuals and the introduction video starting with Dan Rather of 60 Minutes from 1977 and feels incredibly nostalgic, making you sit up and think, Hey! This could be a really great documentary. It doesn’t feel cheap, and with it’s reported $150,000 budget – which to me sounds reasonable, although, what do I know about film-making, nor should it. The opening scenes spend time running through some interesting facts on the inherent cultural status of Pinball in America and how it proliferated through the country. This is predominantly a view of Pinball from and in America, although it is nice to see an interview with Raphael Lankar of the Pinball Museum in France. Raphael describes how Pinball “Is Finished” and you cannot find any pinball in most major European countries (the U.K. didn’t get a mention) and even Belgium, which was once a Pinball Paradise, no longer had any Pinball. It’s great to see that this has changed, but seems strange to have at this point in the documentary.
The introduction creates a nice montage brimming with classic clips of Pinball in it’s prime cut against some almost depressing views of maintenance being conducted in a lonely arcade, before cutting back to how people are keeping the hobby alive and their love of the game. I could understand this tone and pace change if the story was saying in the depressive parts that people thought pinball was dead and how there was a resurgence, but this documentary just told us a few minutes earlier that pinball is dead, only then to continue to tell us – wait actually, no it’s not. That’s great from a movie perspective, because at this point it is just 9 minutes into the film, but this editing just feels jarring to watch, as a viewer I know how pinball turned out, I know about its troubles and resurgence, but newcomers may not. This introduction just seemed to be trying to tell a simple story and some of the editing worked well creating a feeling of an all is lost moment before coming back to save the day, but the content just feels incorrect. Unfortunately, in my eyes the documentary continued to slide from here.
Next up comes a whole segment of the film which I personally just want to scream at the screen for. It takes a look over some of the most colourful characters in the hobby there is, just to take a look at them. It really is like watching Jeremy Kyle of Pinball, in fact I am positive it is done to make you feel just that little bit better about yourself as a pinball fan. What annoys me about it though is if this documentary is to raise the profile of pinball, it does it in the most awkward of ways and what’s worse, makes the community look like it is full of a special type of fanatic. I am sure there is something to be said about pinball enthusiasts, but this stereotyping of nerds, social rejects and underachievers just isn’t correct. Now am I saying that the UK Pinball scene has none of these people within it? No, every walk of life and hobby which can lead slightly into the obsessive will have this type of character. What I am saying is it feels that this documentary portrays the hobby in such a way it suggests that almost all of the community is like this, and it just isn’t true.
There are some positive points, Gary Stern of Stern Pinball’s interview along with Game Designer Pat Lawlor (Addams Family, Willy Wonka) and Programmer Dwight Sullivan (T2, Munsters) gives some good insight into their roles and the methodology of designing and releasing a pinball machine, which is especially interesting against the backdrop of watching Tilt, as this is all in the early Stern days where there wasn’t any competition from the likes of Jersey Jack Pinball, Spookey, Homepin, Chicago Gaming Company and American Pinball. There is also a great interview from Steve Ritchie (Getaway, Black Knight Series) in this segment too. I am particularly fond of the manufacturing line and how the T-Nuts are hammered into the playfields.
Unfortunately, it then descends back into what makes this documentary terrible, a focus on the quirky, the Pingeek segment. More of the same really… with the absolute classic line of “96% of my ideas turn into money…” Whilst i am sure that 96% of his ideas have – and a shoutout to the pingeek right here if you want to see what he is up to right now – to spend such a long amount of time focussing on this one character within a plethora of characters in a community is just wrong. I have said my piece on this above, but seriously?
The documentary then heads to PAPA 9 alongside Koi Morris – and The Storm. Who’s track ‘Storm Warning’ (Composed and performed by The Storm) is included in the documentary… PAPA 9 incidentally was won by Lyman Sheats, I am not sure why Lyman wasn’t free to do this documentary, but we get Koi and The Storm. As a little where are they now? The Storm is currently ranked number 16 in the world and still going by the alias The Storm. Koi is also still competing, finishing 1st in two of his tournaments this year, but sitting at a world ranking of 296 (both coincidentally far better than my current rank of 8,010th). I am hoping that somewhere, there is a game ROM with Koi doing the shoutouts for“Six Million” and “FIFTH TEE MILLION” , but that is besides the point.
This is a more modern look at pinball than Tilt, but without a strong start middle and end and with such focus on the strange characters feels like a Jeremy Kyle episode mixed in with a semi-respectable programme like Megastructures. You know the shows, the ones you happened to stumble across on a hungover Sunday morning whilst venturing up to the oddly informative channels you never normally make it to because you’re stuck in a daze of pressing up on the remote. I cannot say I loved this documentary, but I also didn’t hate it, and as it was free with a Prime account, that soften the blow after coming off of watching Tilt. Would I recommend you watch this documentary… well, I suppose yes, but only as an insider to the hobby. Given its focus on the colourful side of pinball, I would avoid at all costs showing this to someone asking – Hey – you like pinball, why don’t you let me know what it’s all about. Especially if you want them to speak to you again without fear of you asking them to go mole mapping with you. 3 out of 5.