Movies We Like
Tilt is a quirky, surprisingly endearing movie about growing up. The examples being made show the fumbling of a young man keen on trying to con his way into obtaining respect and a fourteen-year-old girl who doesn’t know what respect is. This morality tale is somehow sweetly wrapped up in the act of pinball hustling. That’s right, pinball.
There are few films that handle the cult fascination with pinball parlors or even arcades for that matter. Joysticks and The Wizard come to mind almost instantly. Surely the 2007 documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters shows that the craze is still very much alive. Those old enough to be adolescents or young adults during the '70s and '80s can even likely attest to there being a lack of nerd-association with the sport.
Our main protagonist is Neil Gallagher, first seen with his pal Henry in Corpus Christi, TX rigging a pinball game against his archnemesis and boss, Harold 'The Whale' Remmens. We don’t have much of a backstory provided at first but you get the understanding that he’s long been an adversary of The Whale -- a nickname given due to his Orson Wellesian girth. The film then jumps forward a year to Neil in Hollywood with his scheming buddy in tow. Their goal is to get a record deal for Neil’s solo country act. As is the case with every young hopeful, the two find that LA can be a tough mistress and manual labor is far from glamorous.
In comes Brenda, aka “Tilt,” a fourteen-year-old pinball hustler who skips school to rack up savings in her piggy bank at a local bar. She takes grown men for all their cash in a single game and runs the racket with the barkeep, Mickey (John Crawford, The Enforcer, The Poseidon Adventure). She desperately wants to run away from home and she’s smitten with Neil who feigns interest to get a handle on how corruptible she is -- or whether she’s already surpassed him. No, not sexual corruption, but scheming. He quickly realizes that Tilt could be a goldmine, perhaps even allowing him an opportunity to finance his music career if they went on a hustling tour. He manipulates Tilt into thinking that her help is desperately needed and, after a big fight with her parents, the two take off on a grand tour.
While some of the acting in the film leaves much to be desired, road movies can usually fill in the gaps based on scenery alone. The fact that these two are going across the US and through Mexico to stop at the most happening pinball joints is kind of perfect for a road movie. Wim Wenders was fascinated with pinball parlors and road movies and yet there was never a work of his -- or anyone else's -- that captures the adventurous spirit of players (or gamblers) like Tilt does. And like a ‘70s flick ought to, this is accomplished mostly through montage and theme songs. In less than thirty minutes, director Rudy Durand got at least that element right. The characters are excited and you’re excited for them -- not to mention just intrigued by the complexities of each machine. I’ve read on forums for the film that these shots of the machine mechanisms (there are even some interior shots) were very tough to pull off and that entire machines and a fake manufacturing company were crafted just for the film.
Embarrassingly, Tilt is the only directorial feat for Durand so there’s not much I can comment on there. I will say that it’s a bit of a shame because it’s obvious that the director is a cinephile and that the film was meant to be a nod to his favorites. There’s even a direct reference to The Hustler.
The true star of the movie is surprisingly not Shields or Marshall, but Durning. His character is the man you’re supposed to hate but who is revealed to be the most vulnerable -- and therefore the most tangible in terms of dramatic pathos. Think Orson Welles in Touch of Evil. Oddly enough, Welles was sought after for the role of The Whale and Jodie Foster for the role of Brenda. Perhaps the movie would have seen a theatrical release if that would have been the case. But alas, it lived a life as a TV movie and has still only been released on VHS. Durning, who is known for his gangster and authoritarian roles in films Dog Day Afternoon, The Confessions, and The Sting does that brave thing that some actors can pull off where they mock their own existence on camera and shove a bit of realism down your throat in the eleventh hour. Durning does so for the characters and audience, rounding out the film’s ultimate message to perfection.
Tilt is no masterpiece and perhaps deserves its obscurity but it’s a fine effort on part of everyone involved and showcased a lot of talent and random cameos. Arcade fans won’t be let down and neither will anyone who’s a fan of offbeat road movies.