I visited the quite amazing Museum of Pinball in Paris last weekend. It was a revelation.
The pinball machine (‘Flipper’ in France) represents some kind of high point in pre-digital coffee bar thrills. The genius of cramming so much potential ecstasy/kinetic joy into a case the size of a kitchen table. A crazy-noisy-beautiful thing. A cafe owner could buy or make a calculation and rent by the month and that would bring a joint to life. The pinball business model created a short-lived crucible of electro-mechanical innovation and creativity. Pinball was where it was at for the decades before Space Invaders, and those machines were intense: each one was a kind of unhinged son-et-lumiere right there in the corner of your favourite bar. Listen to this:
The appeal of a pinball table is direct and unarguable. You stand connected at the pelvis to a machine that’s shimmying and rocking with trapped energy. A table-top atom smasher. Multiple mechanisms hidden in there, all making their presence felt – tipping, tightening, tripping, spinning, colliding – in rattling, ringing release. And it is all about tension and release – the physical, finger-tip appeal of the spring and the stressed steel strip and the ready-to-trip (will it trip? Will it?) analogue trip-switch. The whole thing is tightly-wound, like a Loony Toons watch about to explode. The anticipation is unbelievably intense.
And there’s the intoxicating, stammering clanging of all those too-loud-too-loud bells – the racket that couldn’t help but dominate your bar or youth club’s soundworld, like an anti-social, de-tuned one-man band or a broken, over-amplified harpsichord. For a bar owner, signing the rental contract for a Flipper was sure going to change the vibe, whatever kind of establishment you ran. Bring you up to date, stamp your place MODERN, jumping, alive.
Pinball machine artwork is bright, back-lit, screen-printed commercial art from unpretentious upstairs commercial art studios. It’s naive art. Frozen for essentially the whole life of the form (until its decline in the 80s) in a hazy inter-war no-place populated by boxers, gangsters, cowboys, strongmen, secretaries, lounge lizards, hostesses, airmen: figures of quotidian glamour – and not a licensed character among them.
Disney, Warners, the comics, the pulps, the big radio shows of the era – they had no presence here. The imagery is all bargain-basement, generic pop cult figuration. Probably because the attraction of pinball is really all physical. No Donald Duck or Rita Hayworth or The Green Hornet could possibly have made a teenager drool more over the new Gottlieb as it was wheeled in from the kerb.
See if you can get your head around this, though: before 1947 pinball was a pure game of chance, a spectator sport. You fired your steel ball into the arena with all the finesse you could muster and then you just stood there, watching as it bounced down the table to the drain (OK, you might palm the lip of the machine or even lift it up and drop it – if the owner wasn’t looking – but that was the extent of your control). Pinball machines until this time, you see, had no flippers. THEY HAD NO FLIPPERS.
Flippers arrived with the Gottlieb Humpty Dumpty in 1947 and, because they were simple and low-powered you needed eight flippers to provide enough oomph to send a heavy steel ball all the way back to the top of the table. And the arrival of these little mechanical bats must have been a shock to the system, must have changed the game forever. And what, exactly, could the attraction of a flipperless pinball table have been anyway? Like a Norton Commando with no wheels or a Gibson Les Paul with no strings. No idea!
The stinging inevitability of failure is the driving force, of course. You can’t beat a pinball table, you can only defer the end. Your score clangs to a new high but in the end your last ball arcs between the flippers like a guided weapon. It’s a lesson in acceptance. It descends. Nothing can save you now. And that’s when you realise, those flippers are ultimately ridiculous: not weapons, not even bats, just a lot of futile, flapping. Pinball’s like life.