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Within the billiards movie genre, one of the best and least-known is Carambola, a 2005 low-budget, highly stylized film that took more than two years to reach the big screen after its premier at the Guadalajara Film Festival, and then, sadly, disappeared almost as quickly. Directed and written by Kurt Hollander, an accomplished writer and photographer, who unfortunately for us, did not continue to make movies, Carambola is the story of El Vago (Daniel Martinez), an aging three-cushion billiards hustler, who has the chance for reinvention when he wins a billiards hall in a bet.
The billiards hall is not only the sole setting of the movie, but it is a central character in this tale of reinvention. Foremost, there is the tension between El Vago's wish to preserve the "real tradition in this pool hall," which means keeping the billiards tables intact, and that of his more business-minded ambitious assistant, El Perro (the wonderful Diego Luna), who believes that only old geezers plays billiards, and that to turn the hall into a successful business requires pool tables, discos, and strobe lights. Even El Vago must concede that "pool is the flavor of the new generation."
(For those that may already be confused, "pool" is not synonymous with "billiards." Pool is akin to pocket billiards, shot with a cue ball and 15 balls on a table between seven and nine feet long. In Carambola, "billiards" refers to three-cushion billiards, also called carombole, which is generally played on a pocketless five-by-ten foot table with just three balls. The object is to score points by caroming the cue ball off both object balls, but making sure the cue ball hits the rail cushion at least three times before hitting the second object ball. Fortunately, if you were watching the movie, you would not be confused, as the rules of three-cushion billiards are explained by El Vago in the opening scene as part of an instructional video he's shooting to earn some extra cash. Not only does he explain the objective, but he gives pointers such as, "knives longer than five inches and guns carried in one's belt interfere with a clean shot," or "gold chains, shiny rings, and flashy tattoos on one's hands disrupt concentration.")
El Vago ultimately acquiesces to El Perro, thereby ushering in dramatic and costly changes that pack the pool hall with young bodies, but leave the elders disgusted and El Vago with a permanent ulcer that is exacerbated when all the "little sh*ts put their feet on his tables."
In great and uncomfortable juxtaposition, El Vago even kills the music in one early scene to stage a billiards demonstration by El Campeon, aka "The Champ," who shows off some wonderfully gorgeous masse and rail shots to a rather apathetic and benumbed audience.
Trouble mounts as quickly as the bills. El Perro is determined to take control of the billiards hall, or at least rob El Vago blind while doing lines of cocaine in the bathroom. The sexy La Pajara (Laura Hildalgo) is a constant distraction, particularly once El Vago peeps her straddling his table to make a risqué video with a cue stick. El Mexicano (Jesus Ochoa), a businessman with a bad temper who sells "cues made from rare woods with exotic and erotic images," always appears to be one step away from reclaiming the bar he lost or using his "death cue" on the the kneecaps of anyone ogling his daughter, La Pajara. And none of this bodes well for a billiards tournament he is trying to organize to raise funds to keep the billiards hall solvent.
Amidst this offbeat soap opera, there is, as I suggested in the beginning, a battle not only to define the future of the billiards hall, but to re-examine the very purpose of billiards, for every character has his own dogmatic definition. For "Gums," billiards is all about "style, flair winning is not so important." For El Judas, billiards is a distraction: "who gives a f*ck about billiards if you want to do something in this world, you got to play with bigger balls." For La Medusa, "billiards is a mirror of the heavens when someone stands in front of table and shoots, they're playing on three levels: universe, earth and inner world." El Chiquilin is less philosophical in his world view of billiards: It is a "game of kings unfortunately it's been adopted by a group of lowlifes, murderers, rapists, prostitutes and pimps." And all of this contrasts with the beliefs of El Vago, who not only is set on teaching his audience to play the game through his video, but to cementing his conviction that "and second rate player can make a shot, but to miss believably, only the best."
It's that philosophy that ultimately cues the audience that maybe the down-and-out El Vago, with the ghastly ulcer and pitiful business sense, is, in fact, "missing believably." I won't spoil the movie, but let's just say, to use another El Vago quote, "to win, you have to know how to lose."
This review first appeared on my blog "8 Ball on the Silver Screen."
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