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Norman Jewison’s Original Rollerball. “Gladiator” – only better.

July 7, 2015


This was on the other night.  1970s dystopian science fiction at its best.  It even has that strange gloopy font that the 1970s used to paint numbers.

James Caan is superb as Jonathan the Rollerball star.  A pro athlete who hasn’t done a great deal of thinking in his life, but who, once he starts, can’t seem to stop.  His scenes with John Houseman’s icy Mr Bartholomew are delicious.  He lives a privileged but ignorant and powerless existence in a world with no nations and no politics dominated by corporate monopolies.

As for the action sequences – well, they are seared into my long-term memory.  In fact, I can’t even see a velodrome, can’t even watch velodramatic cycling at the Olympics without thinking “you know what would really liven this up….?”  The concept of a sport whose rules are slowly dismantled to the point where the naked telos of “all but one of the players will die” stands more and more exposed is hypnotic in its nasty logic.

Twenty five years after its release, Rollerball (1975) was remade by Ridley Scott in the form of a film called Gladiator.  Gladiator was Hollywood doing what Hollywood does best – i.e. – making a vastly more expensive yet duller version of something that already exists.  Both films dealt with bloated empires that try to distract the population with violent sports.  In both films, “panem et circenses” is subverted by one supreme sports star who turns the power of the arena into revolutionary political capital.  Of the two films, Rollerball is more economical, better constructed, better acted and more creatively disturbing.   The ludicrous conclusion to Gladiator leaves the audience entertaining the notion that on the death of Commodus, Rome became a benign republic again (instead of suffering another three centuries of increasingly crap emperors).  Ridley Scott of course, has far too much contempt for the public to fear that many of them will pick up a book to refute this conclusion.  Rollerball on the other hand is set in the early twenty-first century.  It involves a world that involves from our (1970s) own.  It is an extrapolation of tendencies that are already (in the 1970s) in motion.  It is intended to threaten us.

A far more distant echo, not even a remake of Rollerball – is a film called Rollerball that came out a few years ago.  This Rollerball is set in some kind of Madeupistan –  far far to the east of Where You Live and where things are just assumed to be savage and wrong.  It’s a film about making the audience feel safe and smug.  Because making people feel safe and smug is what mainstream film-making is all about.

Do I despise Holllywood?  I don’t know – in the context of a murderous global austeriarchy and the injustices of an offshored oligarchy, Hollywood has to take a number and join the back of the queue when it comes to competing for my contempt.  I’m not sure I have the energy.

But I’m very sure that Hollywood despises me.


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