At the movies

Robert Bresson, films on video, and pinball in the movies

Last week I wrote about home videos and time spent making digital copies of cherished recordings using our last working video player. While the VCR was set up I also took a look at some of the other old tapes that I’ve kept.

In recent years I have recycled or thrown away thousands of videos. For a while our local recycling centre had a separate collection point for them but now tapes are sent to landfill. There aren’t enough facilities to recycle them. For at least 20 years, after I first acquired a VCR in 1985, I recorded thousands of movies and TV shows (comedy, sport, sit-coms, quiz shows, kids’ shows, documentaries) onto video. I still record plenty of these things but they’re stored digitally. Even the several hundred DVDs that I have burnt take up a tiny amount of space compared to all the videos that I have thrown away.

I have thrown away thousands of videos and kept a few hundred, mostly containing music (like every Christmas edition of “Top of the Pops” between 1985 and 2006), sport (including many of the Leeds United games broadcast during the League-winning season of 1991-92) or movies. Most of the movies I have kept are either rare (many of them never available to rent or buy) or copies of favourite films such as “The Wizard of Oz”, “The Warriors” and “The Godfather”, all of which I own on DVD as well. Part of me (the “just in case” part of me) still believes that these might be useful when DVD players no longer work, so I haven’t been able to throw them away yet.

Among the rare films that I still have on tape are “The Dawn” (1936), the first full length feature made in Ireland, and a number of foreign language titles, including nearly everything directed by Robert Bresson. Back in the 1980s I saw most of Bresson’s films (not movies) at various repertory cinemas around central London. I mentioned one such trip in this piece, about Conversation Recall. There were a few that I didn’t see on the big screen (“Mouchette”, “Au hasard Balthasar and “A man escaped”) but I recorded them at some point in the 1980s or 1990s. Having waited many years to see these films I was very unlikely to record over any of them (which is why, up to 30 years later, I still have them on tape). I did, however, tape over my recording of “Mouchette”. This was a rare example of me behaving like most other people. I had seen the film, so why keep it? In 30 years of recording things from TV I can think of only one other significant instance of recording over something and then regretting it, a documentary about “Sgt Pepper”, mentioned in this piece from a year ago.

If you spent any time in the 1980s in repertory cinemas, or attending Film Festivals, as I did, you will know about Robert Bresson. Most people did not, and it’s unlikely that they, or you, will stumble across any of his films accidentally. His work is usually described as “austere”, “minimalist” and “ascetic”. His best-known film, to people of my generation, was “Pickpocket” (1959). Its themes and ending were re-worked in Paul Schrader’s “American Gigolo” (1980), Richard Gere’s break-through movie, with the score supplied by Blondie and Giorgio Moroder. (The song “Call Me” is featured throughout.) Schrader had been a film critic and wrote “Transcendental Style in Film: Bresson, Ozu, Dreyer”, an academic book comparing the works of Bresson, Yasujiro Ozu and Carl Theodor Dreyer (two other film-makers you are unlikely to stumble across these days). I borrowed the book many times over the years from the Cambridge University Library and never owned a copy. According to this Amazon page it will set me back over £88 in hardback (and the paperback is a penny short of £50). The description on that Amazon page tails off with these words: “Unlike the style of psychological realism, which dominates film, the transcendental style expresses a spiritual state with austere …”

Austere, spiritual, transcendental: these are hardly the kind of films where you’d expect to see someone playing pinball, but that’s exactly what I saw while watching “Pickpocket” last month. I have noted more than once on these pages my fondness for pinball and whenever I see a machine on screen, whether or not it’s being played, my eyes are drawn to it. In “Pickpocket”, while the lead character is developing his ability to pick pockets unnoticed, he works on keeping his fingers supple. Playing pinball is an ideal way to do this and there are shots of him and others in a café shooting the silver ball.

It got me thinking of other times when pinball machines have appeared on screen. Last year, watching a “Top of the Pops” repeat from 1981 on BBC4, I noticed one in a Cliff Richard video. It’s in “Daddy’s Home”, and you can see it for yourself here. (There are two pinball machines, both untouched, in the background for much of the song.) There’s also an unused machine visible in “The Warriors”, in the background at Union Square station just before the big fight against “The Punks”, the dungaree-clad gang who patrol the station.

In one of my “1000 Memories” I recalled seeing David Essex in “Stardust”, his character playing pinball in his own house. That made a big impression on me. You can read it about it here. I’m pretty sure that there’s a table in an episode of “Hustle”, the one where the late Mel Smith runs a pub and the grifters’ scam is to set up Smith’s son as a recording artist. IMDB tells me that this episode is called “Price for Fame”, Season 3 episode 1. “Tommy”, of course, features pinball prominently, and you can see Elton John’s version of “Pinball Wizard” from the 1975 movie here, with Roger Daltrey as the “deaf, dumb and blind kid”.

Pinball tables also feature prominently in the film for which Jodie Foster won her first Oscar, “The Accused”. It was on Film4 recently and I have recorded it onto our multi-channel box in case I can bring myself to watch it again. As you’ll know if you’ve seen it (and even if you haven’t it surely doesn’t need a Spoiler Alert, nearly 30 years after its original release) Foster’s character is raped repeatedly on one of the pinball tables. I don’t need to see that again. And I have no intention of seeing Ray Winstone’s performance as a wife-beater in “Nil by mouth” either, however good his acting is. It’s another rare example of a recording that I’ve got rid of without watching it. Unlike my deleted recordings of “Mouchette” and that “Sgt Pepper” documentary this one does not prompt any feelings of regret. Even if I find out that pinball tables feature heavily in this movie I doubt if I’ll ever watch it. Abhorrence of domestic violence outweighs my interest in seeing pinball on screen. If I find any further examples of machines in the movies I’ll add them as a postscript to this piece.

Postscript, Autumn 2016

As this rather long piece about “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” notes, the character Pinky plays pinball 22 minutes into the movie, and one of David Niven’s gang is played by Brian Protheroe, whose 1974 single “Pinball” reached #22 in the UK charts.



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