“If I’ve had a rotten day at work, or am in a bad mood, that’s the best time for me to play a video.” –Geoff Harvey, “The Pinball Wizard”
The year was 1982 when a documentary –or so the clever avant garde director, Mike Wallington, wanted you to think– was released in England. The short film, Arcade Attack: Silverball Heroes vs. Video Invaders depicted two arcaders and a rockabilly pinball fanatic talking about the games they played and collected, and their theories as to what drives their interest.
As the film is interspersed with glorious vintage scenes of the opulent arcade palaces that once existed in the United Kingdom in the early 80s, it’s a real nice bit of eye candy for anyone nostalgic for the long, lost neon caverns we can only dream of now. I can’t begin to thank Wallington enough for capturing these images, and only wish an American filmmaker had thought enough to do the same.
However, as the documentary progresses one starts to get the feeling that everything is not as it seems but sort of a little bit askew in a surreal almost sort of dangerous way.
For instance, the rockabilly pinster is shown in his home, complete with a shrine to Elvis Presley, a Confederate flag and a lineup of pinball machines. As he plays shirtless, we see he has a tattoo of the very same pinball he is playing, Edwardian Dreams, tattooed across his back, a pinball I’ve never seen nor heard of before. Is it real or a mock-up? The pinster, now known as Edwardian Dreams, is hardcore representing with the tattoo and the pompadour…which is cool and sort of punk rock but the whole scene is intimately awkward and weird. The scent of obsession is everywhere.
At this point, if you think you’re watching your average documentary, you’re in for a big surprise. This isn’t a documentary at all. It’s a trip…and a wild one at that. So I’ll try not to spoil it.
As a side note, there’s a quick bit about Space Invaders that shows exactly why VHS was an impossible choice for trying to film/record your console game performance back in the day. I hope it provides some much needed insight today as to why so few performances from The 80s were not videotaped for proof of high scores. Those demanding “video proof” for historical scores achieved in The 80s –take note: Look at the screenshot from Arcade Attack of a game being recorded on a video cam at home.
See anything clear? Case closed.
Moving on with the film, one of the absolute highlights of Arcade Attack: Silverball Heroes vs. Video Invaders is the commentary with Stephen Highfield, who goes by “Defender”, confessing anthropomorphic emotions about the game and its illusive enemies which is a perfectly accurate description of what early players of Williams’ Defender thought of the game themselves.
“Defender thinks,” he says. “Quite frankly, that thing thinks…I mean, you move with the ship. You don’t just move your hands: You are the ship.”
After the Defender segment, it becomes quite clear to the viewer that they’ve been taken on a fantastical voyage about to reach crescendo. In a showdown between The Silverball Heroes and The Video Invaders, characters from the games rampage in cartoon animation as a Flash pinball (Williams, 1979) sends out a signal to all the other pinballs to come to life and strike down the Space Invaders who have risen from a console machine after being referred to by the narrator as “an idiot box” that “should all be put into a rocket and shot up and left up there (in space)for all the moon-men to play.” The Invaders walk out of the television and across the carpet, and fly out into the English night to disintegrate the rockabilly pinster, Edwardian Dreams, as he stands on his balcony, reducing him to a pair of smoking shoes. Even The King couldn’t save him.
But there’s more. A lot more.
This is a brilliantly crafted experimental film that I wish would have been broadened into a feature length film, and not have had its concept pilfered by the likes of Sony Pictures as Pixels did 33 years later. The characters, especially Edwardian Dream, are superb as is Defender in his own right, showcasing an obsession for games and the arcade that, three decades later, still manages to capture the wonder of players and collectors alike.
Arcade Attack: Silverball Heroes vs. Video Invaders delivers in 24 minutes, 21 seconds everything Pixels (2015) couldn’t: Originality.