One of the advantages of age is added hues of golden 20/20 hindsight when discussing retro-futurism in movies and for me age doesn't factor into any retrofuturist film more than ROLLERBALL (1975). Today I finally actually watched the whole damned thing (it came on TCM), and understood it, and was thrilled by it in that low-key adultly 70s thrilled way. Why did it take me so long? There are reasons. Roll with me...
ROLLERBALL was a film that seemed to come across the TV quite a lot when I was a child but frankly it seemed far too adult for me to understand and I didn't need a film to tell me football was a violent, icky business. Why bother criticizing our penchant for media violence with more violence? To know the answer you must understand the 70s, the last decade before cable TV and the VCR changed the fabric of American life. Prior to then there were only three major networks, plus PBS and a few local stations on the UHF antenna, and most of them signed off around four AM with the Star Spangled Banner. Football would dominate the ratings any night it was on. Everyone in the family almost had no other choice but to watch it--especially if the principal breadwinner (the dad) called the TV shots-- and because it was so universal it developed a dirty kind of bourgeois cache it doesn't have anymore. Once families had two TVs, VHS and cable, only the dads stuck around. The intelligentsia moved upstairs to the other TV. Suddenly ROLLERBALL had no choir left to preach to.
And anyway, it was hard to understand the appeal, of both football and ROLLERBALL on analog (square) TV, no matter how big the tube. Now they put a digital yellow line to mark first down and with the big HD widescreen I can finally at least figure out what's going on in a football game. But back in the day, sports movies and sports action was hard to keep track of, just a lot of 'half images,' and the 'editing for television' of the raucous sports movies of the day further abstracted the story into oblivion. TV was no place for ROLLERBALL. If you wanted the real flavor of caustic satire about the NFL and glorification of macho violence, you needed to get a babysitter for my brother and I and go out to the cinema.
But today I salute the sports movies of the 70s, they were wild untamed, sexual, manic, a bit thuggish but also warm-hearted, loyal, shaggy, and drunk off their asses. Nowadays guys get kicked off the team for so much as a single toke of weed. What the fuck is the point? In the 70s, they would have pissed on your shoes before they pissed in your cup.
Now I can re-examine these films from time's sweet retro distance and what I especially find healthy about NORTH DALLAS FORTY-driven sports satire popularity is the irreverent amount of sex and drugs involved vs. the sanctimonious, sober, overcoming-all-odds feel-good sober tedium in today's editions. Burt Reynolds' roster of characters may have been smarmy shitkickers at times but they were goddamned men. They weren't going to piss in a cup for you or anyone else. Even the kids got a version of this fuck you to niceness in our own sports satire, BAD NEWS BEARS (also 1976).
But for ROLLERBALL, director Norman Jewison is clearly aiming for something loftier. Jeff Kuykendall theorizes Jewison was trying to ape Stanley Kubrick and turn the film into a kind of Clockwork Football:
The problem here is that one could simply summarize the premise of the film, and the message would be inherent: society craves violence and leans toward corruption. The result is a film which is frequently pretentious: grasping at profundity and failing to glance it. Death Race 2000, directed by Paul Bartel and released the same year, ironically succeeds where Rollerball fails, tackling almost the exact same story but delivering it with such over-the-top violence and comedy that the whole achieves the sublime (and on a Roger Corman budget). Perhaps Jewison should have let go of the Kubrick approach; though it’s fascinating to see what happened when John Boorman took the exact same tack for the even-more-ridiculous Zardoz. (That will have to be the subject of another piece.) - Jeff Kuykendall - Midnight Only
So sports movies were the rage for a hot trimester: aside from SEMI-TOUGH and NORTH DALLAS FORTY there was the tangentially-related BLACK SUNDAY (1977 - terrorist blimp attack at the Super Bowl); TWO-MINUTE WARNING (1976- assassin at the super bowl); SLAP-SHOT (1977 - brawling bespectacled brothers in hockey, below); BAD NEWS BEARS (1976 -smoking, beer-drinking, cursing in little league); THE LONGEST YARD (1974- prison football team); hell, even M*A*S*H (1969, but popular in the 70s) ended with a football game.
And you can see the fundamental difference between today's and yesterday's sports movies with the remakes: The remake of BEARS loses the bulk of the profanity, smoking and drinking (so I hear), which mind you in the original was done by the kids. Boy-man Adam Sandler replaces macho man Burt Reynolds in the remake of YARD, the remake of ROLELRBALL is a co-ed affair set more or less in the modern era on a sleazy Eastern European underground circuit.... so, a lot has frickin' changed. Sports movies are still semi-big today, but less semi-tough. The heroes are less likely to be seen bedding numerous hotties and snorting coke and more likely to be seen crying at bedsides of little dying kids, or scraping themselves up from poor neighborhoods and being watched over by magical sober godparents. You know, like they did in the 40s, with the Catholic Legion of Decency breathing down their necks.
In the 70s, you had games like this:
ROLLERBALL came out before both BAD NEWS BEARS and SEMI-TOUGH, but then again it's 'futuristic' and so is both ahead of the times as well as, now, behind them. Set in 2018, a lot of 'BALL's tropes have come true -- Caan pops in something between a DVD and an old mini-disc to watch home movies.... right there on the TV! In 1975! How did they know? And there's something like a TIVO and at one point Ralph Richardson kicks a big console computer intelligence that talks like a male version of Siri. And all the books ever written have been loaded into the computer-- though instead of being released as Kindle files they're summarized, i.e. stripped of any offending content or ideas that might run counter to the edicts of the shadowy ruling corporation and everyone knows that, um, today shadowy corporations don't control um... us.
But Jewison's 2018 is still a land without cellular technology and digital circuits so it's not that ahead of itself. They're still using punch cards and reel-to-reels and everything's huge and clunky. So in the real future we get rid of all that heavy stuff, but keep the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Roll, baby!
As tough a warrior as he is, you can tell Caan's not very bright; he's like the kid who'd rather kill all his friends than let them play while he has to go into dinner. He mopes around at libraries and computer desks trying to get some books about the corporations but none are forthcoming. He really can't understand the motives of the corporation! He's OLD! Dude, why can't they just say it to his face. Caan's kind of grandiose behavior wouldn't fly in Hollywood no matter how many millions he was worth.
And there was a remake, with Rebecca Romjin (left), so apparently not only is the future much less macho at this juncture, it's also more hypocritical but the film itself seems hypocritical more than the game itself - which is interestingly tied in with the Twitter generation so that the bad guys can watch their stocks in the franchise rise in value with every kill that happens live on TV. Yeesh!
So what does it all mean. Yes, the original film is still pretty boring, but I managed to get through it yesterday, due to nostalgia (recalling seeing it on TV while similarly bored as a kid with my dad) and the new widescreen HD TV I got. In honor of my dad I constantly mentioned aloud the names of all the classical music dirges being played by Andre Previn's orchestra on the soundtrack, and my subsequent drug experience allowed me to understand the goofy chilled-out attitudes of the partiers, but most of all I liked the final ending, where we see Jonathan slowly skating around the corpse-strewn arena in a series of twisted freeze-frame close-ups, his face unrecognizably distorted, as if all the violence and death around him was something he'd been waiting for all this time, so he could devolve into a rabid dog. This is a man who will always be the last one standing, a veritable Horatio holding the Hamlet head of dystopia in his hands as it dies, but then morphing into Roy Batty crushing the skull of his maker.
Trouble is, nothing's ventured or gained in ROLLERBALL, just the half-baked aspirations of a dimwitted chicken killer to find out the obvious by a dimwitted killer, and a gentle corporation just trying to hang onto its ratings as an aged prima donna tries to keep playing a young man's game. Based on the level of drug-free helicopter parenting done by the nanny state over today's athletes, the corporate masters in ROLLERBALL seem now to be the good guys. As Houseman's shadowy corporate ruler notes of Caan's mustached sidekick after the opening game, "You rolled, you really rolled." He sure did. Anyone try to roll like that now, boom! Tested positive for MDMA and out of the game! I say a corporation that doles out drugs and applauds all the things they profess to loathe is A-OK with me. So roll on, Big Daddy, roll on! You may have been druggy and sinister but you were part of that last gasp of cinema--the era before STAR WARS changed the landscape forever--when adult science fiction knew that being raunchy and excessive was actually mature.