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Burnaby's Pinball Wizard Scores at DOXA

Robert Gagno plays a mean game while living with autism in 'Wizard Mode.'

By Frederick Blichert 30 Apr 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Frederick Blichert is a Vancouver-based writer completing a practicum at The Tyee. He is a student at UBC's Graduate School of Journalism and writes for various film publications

Starring in a movie about yourself might be exciting. An extra win for the subject of Wizard Mode was coming in first place at the Professional & Amateur Pinball Association World Championships after production wrapped up.

Robert Gagno, 27, is the first Canadian to ever hold the title and the trophy that comes with it, adorned with a huge, four-armed alien.

The action in Wizard Mode opens on Robert's birthday party, where we immediately see what a large role pinball plays in his life. As the Gagno family waits for Robert's guests to arrive, we meet his mother Kathy, who has prepared pinball themed treats, and his father Maurizio, who makes sure that the family's 13 pinball machines are in working order.

Gagno spends about 30 weekends a year on the road, competing in tournaments. The film's directors, Jeff Petry and Nathan Drillot, tag along, filming at every stop along the way, exploring the pinball community and Gagno's place in it.

We learn about pinball culture, meet other international competitors, and discover the subtle differences between machines. Each one is unique, with different quirks, flipper spacing, and "tilt thresholds" -- the amount of tilt that causes a machine to shut down. Each one also has its own unique set of rules.

This detail of the game floored me. No matter how much Gagno trains on his own machines, in competition he'll meet mechanical competitors as uniquely individual as humans. Older machines don't behave like new ones. He'll need to get to know what makes each one tick.

What makes a pinball wizard?

When I spoke to Gagno, he described one of the most important features of a machine as its "flow details" -- the ways in which a particular machine can allow a player to set off chain reactions, when one action flows into another. But he cares about the basic layouts, targets, lights, and game music too.

What makes a great machine is subjective. Gagno's favourite is still the first one he remembers playing on: a Twilight Zone machine at the now-closed Wally's Burger in East Vancouver. The voice actors and the musical theme from the original series always stood out for him.

In person, Gagno is even more impressive to watch than on screen. At one point, he balanced three balls on a single flipper before gently launching them one at a time with perfect precision. I heard a stunned "whoah!" from a man standing behind us.

The most important skill for pinball, says Gagno, is determination. He works incredibly hard at his game, and he sees that in other top players too. "I realize I'm really good at it, so I only want to get better," he tells me.

He's a visual learner which also helps. Multi-ball plays are important, he says, and so is aiming and timing accuracy with every shot. But even with all these skills, Gagno still maintains that "you have to know the rules inside out."

Gagno often wears headphones while he plays at tournaments. Music has a calming effect and helps him focus. When I asked him what he listens to, he smiled and refused to tell me: "That's one I'm never going to want people to know, because I want to have a bit of mystery."

More than a label

Between his on-screen games in Petry and Drillot's doc, we hear that Gagno was diagnosed with autism at age three and didn't speak until age eight. More than anything though, the effects of living on the autism spectrum seem to manifest most for him in other people's preconceived notions. Gagno tells us he wants to be treated as an individual person, not reduced to his autism.

Pinball seems to offer him this chance. He is a true master of the game, ranked first in Canada and seventh internationally by the International Flipper Pinball Association. Fellow players, he finds, look up to him and give him the freedom to be himself without judgement.

"I was excited to get my story out there," Gagno says, "I wanted to show what people on the spectrum are doing. It's cool to see people can live normal lives as adults on the spectrum, and I think that's one of the whole purposes of this film."

His life outside of pinball is hardly empty. Gagno was heading to trapeze class after we spoke, and he practices trampoline vaulting. He shows off his physical skills in the film.

The film also transits a pivotal period in Gagno's life, as he takes his first steps to increasing independence in daily life, going to tournaments without his parents, learning to drive and cook, and finding his first job.

It's a testament to the directors' skill and Gagno's charisma that we walk out of the theatre feeling like we've really gotten to know him. He's charming, likeable, and instantly captivating, as are his parents, whose affection and support are palpable and warm the movie.

Wizard Mode is both an engaging portrait of Gagno and a look into the fascinating world of competitive pinball. I asked its star what he hopes people will take away from it.

He flashed a signature smile with his quick answer: "I hope they'll think it's pretty cool I can do a backflip."

Wizard Mode plays at the Cinematheque on Wednesday, May 11 at 8:45 p.m., and again at Vancity Theatre on Thursday, May 12 at 12:30 p.m., followed by a Q&A with the filmmakers. For more information, visit the DOXA website.  [Tyee]

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