I remember when I first discovered the joy of the B-movie — that You can’t take it away from me no matter how hard you pan it stubbornness that fills and expands your insides like a marshmallow wind whenever you unearth something kindred in a curious little corner movie. Back when VHS tapes still crowded my shelves (I was born a few years too late to get on the Beta bandwagon, and I was too poor for laserdiscs), loyalty to my choices, raw defensiveness, and critical training guided me through awkward moments when guests spotted the low-budget nuggets in my collection. To save face and spread the joy, I learned how to whip up a fancy soufflé of bullshit (topped with a pearl of chutzpah) and to lace my justifications with allusion, theme, intertext, cultural criticism and any and all manner of silk-pursing. I even managed to gain a few converts in my enthusiasm about enjoying the pretty colors, or the production design, or the simple atmosphere of a film that might otherwise have fumbled more traditional values, like dialogue or acting. Thankfully, during the last two decades, the B-movie found its cultural legs; it’s out of the closet and accessorized by those desperately seeking style (but this doesn’t detract from its worth — to say otherwise is only to adopt a new form of so-hip-it-hurts contrariness).
One of the first-ever quantifiable B-movies I sang was the original 1975 Rollerball, so considered for the cheesiness of the fictive sport itself — an obvious attempt to harness the popularity of roller-skating and roller-derbies in the 1970s, which didn’t age all that well for ’80s and ’90s viewers. (The less said about the 2002 remake the better, McTiernan’s valiant attempt to fight studio interference notwithstanding.) But the depiction of the sport itself onscreen remains, in many opinions, one of the most visceral competitive sequences ever put to film. Action rarely looks this taut elsewhere (with no disrespect to Norman Jewison, the original Rollerball, ironically, looks, feels and tastes like a better McTiernan flick than McTiernan’s version). Bound to the astonishingly choreographed action sequences is a good old-fashioned re-imagining of the classic dystopia, which a director with Jewison’s weight weaves into the mix impeccably. The 1975 Rollerball acts like a quintessential lesson on dystopic fiction, providing us with all the cautionary-tale elements, but with added tumult for your pleasure. Utile dulci, no question.
Dystopias have a way of seeping into our art forms: 1984, Blade Runner, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale and Robocop portray futures as more extreme versions of our present. Individualism is forsaken, emotion staunched, and oligarchies are out of control. Human beings take on mechanical functionality: a cog, a breeding apparatus, a bionic halfling, or even (crank that symbolism) an outright android. Their worth is measured by how much they contribute to the Good of the Whole. In Rollerball, athletes are chew-toys for the pitbull whims of a repressed collective. Without the catharsis of spectating a fierce round of rollerball, the ruling few might have a problem keeping the masses in check. It’s an idea that’s been hacked around plenty in recent years, and Rollerball focuses on it hard (to be fair, it wasn’t such an over-discussed idea among the pundits back in the early ’70s).
Jonathan E. (James Caan) has been a rollerball champ for nearly a decade, propelling his Houston team to victories so chronic, the fans have come to expect nothing less. Because of this, he risks becoming a folk hero — the celebration of a plebe being the nemesis of any Big Brother government, of course. With references to Christ and Spartacus (pesky individualists who had to be rubbed out), Jonathan learns the hard way that there is no “I” in the word “team.” He’s asked to retire by the same Executive Directorate that media-lauds him. He’s reminded that his achievements are not his own, and that despite the illusion cast by fan ardor, he’s never really been his own man. The story springs out of Jonathan’s attempt to buck the system that tries to buck him back by making his chances of surviving a game more and more tenuous.
As in many visions of a future ruled by corporations, the populace is pliable, the air is clean, censorship and thought-control are in full swing, mood-altering pills are free for the asking, and (because it’s apparently still a man’s world) women are beautiful or bust. Rollerball is a visual smorgasbord of ’60s and ’70s projections of the 21st century — that particular aesthetic depicted in the original Star Trek series and Kubrick’s 2001. Set designs may, in fact, have been partially riffed from its precursors, but that doesn’t make Rollerball any less mouthwatering to look at (should you be into that kind of thing). Walls glow, lines are precisely captured on film, and green eyeshadow melds beautifully with stainless-steel chesterfields.
Luxuries, however, are privileges earned only by corporate execs and top athletes. The film never shows us the actual living conditions of the masses, which only appear as an audience in various velodromes. Those who do bear a Privilege Card have access to Luxury Centers, where they can pick up state versions of literature, bowdlerized to suit the party line. The gift of courtesans is also carefully monitored, with relationships punctuated at the end of sixth months so emotional attachments can’t evolve. Still, it’s better than the humdrum plebian alternative, because Jonathan’s less celebrated teammates rhapsodize about the day they’ll get their own tickets to privilege (you don’t have to look hard to spot cold-war anxiety about the development of Communist athletes.)
Jonathan himself is kept like a prized stallion on a ranch stocked with top-of-the-line gadgets and women. Much of the character is supposed to be drawn by wounds etched when Ella, his true love, was removed from his arms by a more powerful admirer (except I’m too preoccupied by the woman’s own, worse, situation as a sex slave to empathize much with Jonathan’s discontent). He wanders around his large home watching old videos of Ella, dissatisfied with his loneliness but on the whole rather attached to his profession, and as fulfilled as a human being can be in this time and place.
Naturally he’s paid a price for his comfort. Books and, we assume, other forms of art and free expression have been taken off the market, stored in a single place: a database in Geneva. The most heart-stopping moment in the film doesn’t occur in the velodrome but during Jonathan’s visit to the library, where an overworked Ralph Richardson manages, in that instant, to wipe out the 13th century — every trace of it. “Just Dante,” he sanguinely muses as he castigates the computer which banks our history and slowly boils it down to the lowest common denominator. The thing’s as ambiguous as an oracle, but it presciently represents the danger of the gross amalgamation of all media (viz. TimeWarner) and all knowledge (viz. Google).
“Corporate society is an inevitable destiny,” proselytizes John Houseman as Bartholomew, a VIP in Energy Corp; Rollerball saw Idiocracy coming from miles off. At one game, the audience stands to hear the Corporate Anthem. At another, it listens to an organist pump out the Corporate Hymn. The organization not only defines the people’s nation but its religion. It controls the masses by the entertainment it produces. As a story, film or general idea, this is not 1) in any way groundbreaking, especially today, or 2) very far from our current reality (as nearly every American political documentary made in the past ten years likes to sound the bells about).
Speaking of entertainment, there isn’t a single less-than-lovely, over-35 female in the movie. Swan-beautiful women mingle with men of all shapes, sizes and ages, and hold traditional “supporting” jobs like librarians and receptionists — and courtesans (and we never see any evidence that the sex trade is anything but heterosexual). These courtesans are assigned to male executives arbitrarily, one of the better bonuses in the luxury packages of a privileged few. Ella’s true status is announced when Jonathan discovers that he and the man who stole her away have “the same taste in furniture.” Scarring the face of one of these women is the worst you can do to her, in terms of her survival in a world designed around the perceptions and desires of straight men. It’s in no way one of the film’s least disturbing aspect of this vision of the future.
One of the more telling scenes, when it comes to depicting the peril of choosing comfort over freedom, is a post-party trek into a (trim, Palladian, featureless, controlled) outdoor landscape. In early dawn light, a group of inebriated revelers takes aim at fir trees with what amount to rocket-launchers. Each of the trees, out of place and presumptuously tall, is destroyed. What this says about the inhabitants’ premium on entertainment is one thing. What the audience is perhaps supposed to recognize is the danger of standing out in a crowd. There’s an old Roman story about a general scything off the blossoms of the tallest sunflowers in a field with his sword, and realizing the benefit through this action of keeping his head low. The analogue scene in Rollerball is a smart reference to Jonathan’s situation and the hazard of showing your “I” to your rulers.
This is a film for admirers of James Caan (he mumbles his lines with Caan-esque quaintness), and for John Houseman. It’s also a film for sports enthusiasts: the rollerball scenes alone are worth it. Observing a really interesting (and mysteriously believable) fictional ball game in play is a great way to spend a couple of hours, whether or not the film’s overall subtext is substantial enough to grab you. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on Pajiba.com on October 18, 2007.)