Sunday, July 22, 2012

"You rolled, you really rolled" - ROLLERBALL and a 70s Bloodsport Overview


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.


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 - viewers almost had no other choice--especially if the principal breadwinner 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 fans had to stick around. The intelligentsia moved on. ROLLERBALL had no choir left to preach to.

And anyway, it was hard to understand, part of the dramatic adult entertainment of its decade. It was low-key, and the inevitable cropping of the widescreen for TV made the sports action hard to keep track of, just a lot of 'half images,' the limitations of ariel TV (non-digital, often streaky) and the 'editing for television' effect further abstracted the story into oblivion. TV was no place for such a film. 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.

One of the big novels of the era was a savage insider tale of drugs, sex, and violence in the NFL called NORTH DALLAS FORTY, which in 1979 was made into a very popular movie with Nick Nolte-- then a young hunk who'd rose to fame via an early mini-series called RICH MAN POOR MAN (1976 - above right). Nolte wore a big 'stache in NORTH DALLS FORTY like Burt Reynolds, then the #1 box office star in the country thanks to the huge popularity of SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT (also 1976), which singlehandedly launched a craze for all things trucker-related: CB radios, diners, cowboy boots, biker bar brawls, convoys, sexy hitchhikers, jugs and speed. 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-goodism and urine tests 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).


From Top: North Dallas FortySemi-Tough

While these kind of off-the-cuff sports films weren't necessarily critically acclaimed they were beloved by many adults I knew: they had broad, causal performances, tough locker room bonding, drug-induced hotel smashing, and Jack Warden as a weary coach going up against shadowy team owners who would do anything necessary to pack the stadiums, including pumping so much cocaine into their star quarterback he can keep playing even on a broken leg.

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 - thugs 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, 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.... so, a lot has frickin' changed. Sports movies are still semi-big today, but less semi-tough. The big 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!


In between the violent sports games, John Houseman lurks and makes grim decisions on behalf of his shadowy corporation not unlike our own Dick Cheney. There's a decadent party where jet set kids blow up the last few surviving trees for sport. And everyone pops these things that come in little Sucrets-style boxes that makes people totally wasted. And like SOYLENT GREEN, women have been reduced to corporate chattel. James Caan is first given Maud Adams as a wife but then some high ladder salaryman whisks her away and he's pretty bent out of shape over it so won't retire when Houseman leans on him. Seems Caan's big warrior rep is conflicting with the corporation's idea of the game as showing the importance of a group effort (i.e. a North Korean-style halftime show). They keep upping the violence quotient of the game namely to get him killed so his impudence doesn't go unpunished.


As tough a warrior as he is you can tell Caan's not very bright, 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 in is in the end self-justifying, ample proof that the corporation had the right idea.

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. Because no way is that enough armor for a woman to be on a rollerball rink with. And I'll tell you something else -- no one cares, cuz this is about ratings.

So what does it all mean. Yes the film is still pretty boring, but I managed to get through the 1975 ROLLERBALL yesterday during a TCM screening by keeping myself busy with chores while watching, and recalling seeing it on TV while similarly bored as a kid with my dad. In honor of him 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 chicken killer 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 head of Tyrell.

The trouble is, nothing's ventured or gained in ROLLERBALL, just the half-baked aspirations 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 didn't mean just raunchy, but mature.

7 comments:

  1. Anonymous22 July, 2012

    I came away with a different interpretation of the ending of the original Rollerball. I thought Caan's character killed the game itself and effectively killed the corporation that had created the game, because no one would continue to watch it after that bloodbath (well, some would, of course). The arena was silent at the end, and it would have made sense that the entire world of viewers went silent with horror as well (and I wouldn't have minded a montage scene of that). The idea of his inability to get answers from the bubbling computer made it all the more clear -- he himself knew what had to be done to stop the killing without being told by anyone else. Instead of allowing the legal killing of the players by a thousand little cuts and increasingly less protection in the game, Caan jumped ahead of the corporation's schedule while the audience could still be horrified by something and he shoved it in their faces. I think the message he intended to send to the viewers was something like, "You want bloodshed? Here's some real bloodshed. It ain't entertainment."

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  2. Hmm thanks for your comment, but they weren't completely silent at the end, they started a slow and rising chant of "Jon-a-than John-a-thon!" He may have proven some grim point, but he hardly trounced the corporation. I think what he proved was that no matter how bloody you wanted to make the game, he could go lower....from that game on, it would always be a last man standing kind of thing, with Jonathan as the perfect figure to usher in the age of gladiators. Unfortunately, as ancient Rome proved, it IS entertainment and we're a sick, sick race of beings.

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  3. When I saw it when it came out in the 70s, ROLLERBALL played to an audience unaware of reality TV and whose hardcore televised violence came in earlier news reports of Vietnam. I didn't think much of the film on its own, but my neighbors in the theatre provided a fascinating spectacle, some two hundred suburbanites acting in accord with the spectators in the film going batshit over bloodlust. Again, it's important to remember this was a culture far less aggressive than today's; back then, nobody pumped their fists into the air, and only the mentally handicapped would scream their grunts as they do now on prime-time TV. To be honest, this scared the hell out of myself and my friend as we left the theatre, realizing this rather mediocre picture had tapped into an accurate premonition of lily-white Camelot's slide into neanderthalism.

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  4. I remember seeing this on TV when I was a kid and being utterly horrified, not by the violence of the game, but by the callous rich fuckers blowing up the trees for kicks. I do like the film a lot, if only because it somehow validates my intense (and admittedly irrational) dislike of professional sports by exaggerating everything I find distasteful about it.

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  5. My interpretation of the ending is that Jonathan has become not only bigger than the game but than the Corporations. As a result of being the last man standing after the most vicious incarnation of Rollerball he's become damn near untouchable now because fans in the arena (and I'm sure all around the world) chant his name with near messianic zeal. He's shown Houseman and the other bigwigs that he can take anything they throw at him and survive and become even MORE popular. Of course, if he continues to play the game he could easily get killed in the next match so there's that possibility also.

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  6. Thanks RayRay, for sharing that disconcerting tale. The innocence of the 70s came part and parcel with pre-PC insensitivity for sure. Who knew our 'slide into neanderthalism' would have a side effect of making us squirmy about things like racism, sexism, and unconscious aggression, both more aware of the consequences and more prone to engaging in them anyway, just then feeling guilty maybe.

    Grover! I agree about the trees. They didn't have to blow them all up and clearly they lit real trees on fire for those scenes, which is a crime or should be (then again I think cutting down a giant tree every year for Lincoln Center is an abomination against all Christ stood for).

    JD I agree 100%.... then again, the more messianic a sports player becomes, the quicker the public loses interest. Rollerball would have been a better movie if it mentioned at least one or two other things the future public watched on TV. Or in the sequel there'd be an up and coming young turk who'd take out the now aging Jonathan in shower of blood and torch passing

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