"Video games are kind of like checkers; pinball is chess."
- John Kosmal, competitive pinball player
After TILT and Special When Lit whet my appetite for pinball documentaries, I went looking for more and found The Pinball Passion. This one came out in 2008, when pinball was being kept alive by the home enthusiasts, expos, big public collections like the pinball museum in Las Vegas, and of course Stern (who became the last manufacturer standing in 1999 when Williams shut down).
The Pinball Passion is a 2-disc set with some great bonus material including a behind the scenes tour at Stern Pinball. It's a comprehensive film that covers several interesting aspects of pinball. It provides some nice highlights on the evolution of pinball as told by reknowned members of the industry such as Alvin Gottlieb, Roger Sharpe, Gary Stern, Pat Lawlor, and Steve Ritchie.
They talk about the depth and modes of pinball machines, something that would probably be very illuminating to many people (myself included, prior to falling in love with the hobby). The often told legend of Roger Sharpe vs. the New York City Council is related; this story pops up in almost every pinball documentary, but I do enjoy hearing it, it's pinball canon and a dramatic pivotal moment in pinball history.
There is also some good discussion about the challenges of public play pinball. Arcade machines simply don't have the same magnitude of maintenance requirements that pinball does. A well-maintained machine is a joy to experience, but, as the documentary points out, if a player walks up to a machine with a broken flipper, it creates a distasteful experience that will probably turn them off to pinball in general. It's hard to get the mainstream public excited about pinball when so many on-location machines are not kept in good working order.
One of my favorite parts is the discussion on Stern, and how they have adapted to survive. Some people hate Stern; they hate that machines have gotten cheaper (production-wise) and more standardized, that Stern is said to "literally buy toys from Wal-Mart and put them in the machines" as opposed to some of the amazing and unique machines that came out of the golden age of pinball. It's a legitimate point of contention, but bottom line, in my opinion, they have done what they had to do to keep making pinball, and I salute them for that, I really do.
One of the only things I didn't like about this documentary concerns the DVD menu. The options are to play the movie, or "Mode Select" and "Wizard Mode". That may be a clever way to label these sections in line with the subject matter, but I have NO IDEA what is in them. They probably should have stuck with "Settings" and "Bonus Material". It's a minor objection, though. The film has been dedicated to the two new pinball machines they could have bought, but instead made this documentary. Truth. Thanks, guys, your efforts are greatly appreciated.
A Pinball Story Told by Pinball People
Bracken J. Batson and Beau B. Bellgraph, 2008