Pin Gods

“There’s a lot of lonely hours out there. You’re away from our family,” says Carmen Salvino. “Do you get on the phone and talk to your family? Do you fly home? Do you have that kind of money? No, you don’t, as you usually start. What do you do?” these are the sorts of questions that shape a professional bowler’s life. A founding member of the Professional Bowlers Association, Salvino is at once pragmatic and philosophical. Once you’re on the road, he says, “Your bowling style now has got to be measured and geared, your reference points now are on the tour. Where you learned to bowl, as your reference point, you don’t have those lanes any more. So you have to practice on strange lanes.”

Salvino knows something about strange lanes, having spent decades on the tour and winning 17 tour titles. He’s an effective touchstone for Larry Locke’s terrific documentary, first released in 1996 and screening 4 May at Stranger Than Fiction in New York (when Locke will be on hand for a Q&A). As Salvino looks back, the film follows three young bowlers as they head out on the tour, not quite prepared for how hard it will be.

“Can you recalibrate yourself?” asks Salvino. It’s a question facing each of the bowlers in Pin Gods as they pursue the remarkable success of the PBA’s current star, Walter Ray Williams. Winner of multiple titles, Williams appears in the film as a model of cool composure: even when he’s behind during a tournament, he finds ways to come back, to make strikes when the pressure is on, to triumph again and again. He makes for an intimidating model: Bob Vespi, introduced as a sophomore on the tour (on the Verge of Greatness, or V.O..D.), tries to dial back expectations: “Everybody cannot be Ray Williams every year,”” he reasons.

Bob asserts he’s already well known in the community, at just 25. “I’m known for having something that no one else has and that’s the ability to hook the ball.” He’s also “known for dressing well,” he adds during a shopping trip on Rodeo Drive, “I mean, on our level.” His fame is already having an effect: in Toledo, he sits at a restaurant table, gulping milk and downing a saucy main course as the owner stands nearby, proud to have “one of his stature come in to my establishment, along with some of the other bowlers that patronate us during the week. Bowlers,” the restaurateur insists, “are really great athletes, contrary to some people’s beliefs.” Bob keeps eating.

Repeatedly, the bowlers note outsiders’ judgments. Bob’s wife Mendy remembers, “My parents didn’t agree with his profession at first, you know,” she smiles. “When they saw what he could do, they changed their mind.” Recent high school graduate Tony Rosamalia says his friends used to tell him, “That’s a sissy sport.” Now, he says, “I don’t even associate with those people anymore, you know what I’m saying? They don’t understand bowling.” Tony’s uncle is sponsoring his first year on the tour, a cost the family estimates at about $1000 a week. At his mother’s dinner table in Ledgwood, New Jersey, Tony’s uncle nods, “I don’t feel he’s gonna get blown out,” vowing to support his nephew’s ambition “as long as I can do it.” As his uncle “understands,” Tony feels encouraged when he leaves home for the first time.

Pin Gods offers glimpses of what it means to understand, images revealing bowling’s grace and odd poetic. At each new stop on the tour, the bowlers trying to make the cut to the TV Show (the last five competitors of each tournament) start in again. The shot is low and long, as 20 or so bowlers throw their first balls, their bodies in a sort of rolling sync. Sonny Pavelchak describes his son’s ups and downs during his rookie year. “There’s days you won’t do anything right and everything will fall down, and other days you won’t do anything wrong and everything will stand up. So that’s the nature of the beast,” he concludes.

Sonny the son (the 3rd, actually) feels sure of himself. “They say I’m cocky,” he muses, “because they’re afraid to be confident and speak about confidence.” His father encourages his confidence and thinks his son “will excel out there.” But, he adds, “I expect him to conduct himself properly and be an upstanding upright decent human being.”

Salvino also asserts the importance of self-confidence. “All my reflexes, my brain, all my knowledge, my inner body, my inner soul, my anxieties, and my temperament, go back to ‘I’m a winner. I’m a killer.'” Each tournament is an opportunity to out-think as well as out-perform your rivals. Details matter. Floors vary from place to place and day to day, he says. “I can’t tell you where the water pond or the sand trap is until I throw the ball,” in trying to keep track of the “frictional characteristics of the lane in different places.” Each bowler has to figure out oil patterns and surfaces. “You have to be a human computer to be a great bowler,” he insists.

Pin Gods is as attentive, in its way, to the details of each bowler’s experience. If Salvino’s pronouncements suggest the focus and determination needed to succeed on the tour, the film makes the case that greatness in bowling (and elsewhere) can be measured variously, in individual decisions and moments of generosity and appreciation. When Tony finds himself the object of fans’ compliments, he’s visibly moved. And when Bob spends time with his young son at home, he shows another side of himself, delighted to hear the boy laugh out loud. As different as each bowler’s experience may be, all come together in their understanding of the game. As Sonny says of his mother, so patient, supportive, and lovely, “I have to do what I have to do, and she understands that. I want my name, Sonny Pavelchak, to be worth something in the bowling world.”

RATING 8 / 10