Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Wit and Wisdom of Tilt

The Bad Movie Sundays just keep on coming! This week it's the long-awaited and never-before-seen (by me) 1979 Brooke Shields pinball epic, Tilt. Sandwiched in between the year she played a prostitute (Pretty Baby) and the year she had the nude body double (The Blue Lagoon), it's rather disconcerting that she barely looks 12 (although Shields and her character were both 14).

Tilt takes place in a strange world where country singers, in very tight pants and absurdly shiny shirts, make shady bets with grotesque bookies in sleazy saloons over ... pinball games. Middle-aged fertilizer salesmen have sidelines playing for cash in roadside bars, and when kids play (some of them pushed into it by hustling pinball parents), suave strangers in nice suits are lurking in the background, waiting to jump in with bets when things get interesting. I had no idea there was such a thriving pinball underworld in the '70s, so turns out, it's an educational film.

Rebellious self-described "pinball genius" Brenda, a.k.a. Tilt, falls in with unsuccessful (and, let's be honest, untalented) aspiring singer Neil, and they take to the highways of America to make money hustling pinball. She thinks it's to bankroll his demo tape, but he really just wants her to show up Charles Durning, pinball champion "the Whale," who caught him and his skinny friend Henry cheating with a magnet at the beginning of the film. Eventually, it takes an odd but belatedly likeable turn when Tilt goes to make a deal with the Whale, and they end up bonding over a private game.

Along the way, so many things make so little sense: one throw-away bit has a kid condemning Shield's parents as "crazy! They're all crazy in there!" because he took her sister to score quaaludes, and she had some kind of drug-induced freak-out. There are clearly editing problems that don't help: one minute the country singer (Neil) is whining in L.A. Then we see little Tilt walk through some farmlands and hitch a ride to the bar where she'll meet up with the singer. Then we learn she hustles pinball at this joint regularly. The school bus she dodged had "Hollister" on the side, so it seemed like she'd been hitchhiking the 200-some miles to downtown Los Angeles and back EVERY DAY.

Apparently, however, the quick shot of Neil on a bus was supposed to show his having travelled to another town for an audition with a rock music festival. When he leaves town, there's a bus in the background that says "Santa Cruz," which is only thirty-some miles from Hollister. Okay, that makes more sense, but it was way too much work to figure out what the heck was going on.

By the time "hero" Neil blames his life of lying and cheating on the sheer fact of growing up in Corpus Christi ("a poor man's country club"), I wasn't even surprised anymore. However, I was absolutely floored when Durning, who'd spent the movie to that point eating chicken and refusing to stir from his chair, suddenly busted out dancing at the pinball machine, even working the controls with his butt.

You'll definitely want to know if the soundtrack is available, with those memorable tunes "Long Road to Texas," "Rock 'n' Roll Rodeo," "Melody Man," and the "Pinball, That's All" song that the Whale loves to hear when he's playing. They'll be emblazoned in your brain after hearing them over and over and over in the film. Sadly, only on eBay -- also the only place to find this movie, since neither the record album nor the movie itself ever made the leap to digital formats.

Shields is actually more natural here, playing a smart-alec kid-next-door type, than she'd be in The Blue Lagoon or Endless Love, so maybe the woodenness in those movies wasn't her fault. Bland co-star Ken Marshall would surprisingly go on to star in Krull, and play Maquis defector Eddington on Star Trek: Deep Space 9. Rudy Durand, who served as writer, director, producer, musical director, and maker of "pinball machine musical effects," as well as co-writer for the "Long Road to Texas" song, sadly still has only one credit in all those categories.

That's a real loss to us bad movie fans, especially in the screenwriting, because the real highlight is the dialogue. Every character is devoted to the spouting of wisdom at every opportunity, and you won't want to miss a drop.

"First rule of business is always be on time when someone owes you money."

"You're like putting spats on a pig."

"Don't ever lose your head, boy. Because your ass always goes with it."

"Nobody says this town is ice cream and strawberries, darling." (Neil and Henry are improbably inseparable in the early part of the film, and they both call each other "darling" at different points, so it's hard not to envision them as a gay couple. Maybe that's why Tilt is so safe with him.)

"Us truck drivers were the first dopers in America, don't forget that."

"Analyzing is paralyzing, mister."

"Home? I live in a place called trouble."

"Life's like a seagull. The more you feed it, the more it dumps on you."

"You can swallow an elephant and choke on its tail."

And it goes on like that, in pretty much every scene.

The "blame it on Corpus Christi" scene -- Ken Marshall's big moment -- deserves a special mention. "Okay, I admit it. I'm all messed up. Don't you want to know why?" (Uhh, not really, but okay).

"You know what it's like growing up in a place like this, when you come from nothing? When people won't even talk to you? The damn rich people are cheaters, and the politicians work for 'em. And the rich think, if you owe money, or if you're poor, it means you're a thief." (Or if you cheat playing pinball for money, or talk a 14-year-old girl into quitting school and running away so you can leech off her gambling winnings, then people think you're a cheat and a conman! It's so unfair.) "And they keep you poor so they can use ya. Hell, we gotta steal. We steal just to survive, man, forget getting by."

Then all is revealed, that the Whale was actually a mentor to Neil, but, although we've seen the Whale as quite honorable in his dealings, and clearly didn't make his money by any foul means, the kid resented his success. Well, let's let him tell his sad tale in his own words:

"One guy I looked up to, respected...He always had a pocketful of cash. He never helped me. He's tighter than a tick. He's so stingy, he wouldn't pay ten cents to see the Statue of Liberty have twins. The Whale could -- he shoulda made me his partner. He didn't give me a choice. I had to rip him off."

As my bad-movie watching friend pointed out, the Statue of Liberty is, in fact, a statue. "What does that even MEAN?" I suspect that Neil once tried some "Brooklyn Bridge" scam, like, "Hey, for ten cents, you can see the Statue of Liberty have twins!" and Charles Durning barked, "Get outta my bar, boy!" like a sensible person.

At this point, with all revealed, it's hard to believe the movie is still going to try to redeem Neil, but alas, it does. "My name's mud around here, Tilt. You gotta clean it up for me." Yeah, like that's her job, grown man.

It's hard to top that, but my favorite line comes when Tilt's original pinball-hustling contact tries to warn her off Cowboy Neil, and she points out that he was using her, too. He replies with some warped words of wisdom, possibly the best line in the movie: "Well, it's okay to use people, if you throw in a little love."

I'll bet Brooke's mom used to say that every night when she tucked her in.

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