The Underside of Dracula

Alexandra Hidalgo
Michigan State University

When Geof Carter contacted me about making a video about pinball, I had no concrete memory of having ever played pinball. I had certainly watched others play as a child and I do have a vague recollection of feeling frustration when balls disappeared way too soon, their stay so brief that you wondered if they had actually been there at all. Was this frustration my own or that of empathizing with players I was watching? I am still not sure, but it was the only connection I had to the game.

How do you make a film about something you know nothing about? Luckily for me, I’m a documentary filmmaker, a genre about exploration and discovery, about trying to piece together an ever-elusive essence through sequences of images and sound. My work until that point had been about topics that were of interest to me and about which I felt I needed to know more. With pinball, I started with something I had no interest in and no previous knowledge to guide my instincts as a filmmaker. For the first time my participants would be leading the way as my camera and I followed blindly behind..

Being a feminist filmmaker, I wanted to make a documentary about women pinball players, but I quickly learned that they are rare and far between and there were no women players at the local pinball league I was going to be filming as I tried to make sense of this new universe. I ended up working with three male players—Ben, Phil, and Keith—and trying, as I learned about pinball’s role in their lives, to also figure out why it is such a male-dominated game. Besides coming up with answers as to why women are absent from this world, Ben, Phil, Keith, and I also examined the role that gender plays in the game itself and in the culture that has been built around it, as well as how being part of a pinball community—and they define this in various ways—profoundly deepens the game’s allure for them.

There is no good exploratory journey that doesn’t at some point cause the traveler’s eyes to widen while their breath quickens. In this traveler’s case, it happened when Ben, the first participant I interviewed, asked if I wanted to film the inside of his machine, Time Zone. Seconds later I felt like I was peeking inside my camera and learning how it made its image-capturing magic happen. Under the glass, the colors, the ramps, and the lights there is a complex world of cables, circuits, and bells. A beautiful tangled factory that crafts the dream worlds that players obsess over, get frustrated by, and fall in love with. By the time I interviewed Phil, who owns Dracula, I was ready to visit a new underworld, and this one, even more complex and bewildering to my uninitiated self, was just as magical and surprising as the first. As you watch The Underside of Dracula, I hope you’ll get to experience some of that same sense of discovery as Ben, Phil, and Keith try to elucidate something as delightful and confounding as a game of sound, light, and chance.