3/25/12

Those about to die


The Hunger Games is a book or something. I don't need to know what it is because I've seen it before. Death sport on the big screen is at least as old as Ben Hur. My favourite examples are from the 1970s. Punishment Park (1971), a cinema verité showdown between military and the counter-culture that looks disturbingly real from the next century; Roger Corman's Death Race 2000 (1975), as unwatchable and unforgettable as the best Corman fare; and Rollerball (1975), the sine qua non in any discussion of sci-fi futures.

Set in a dull grey Euro-America, Rollerball follows a professional deathsport player as he goes round and round, spiralling upward instead of down. The game is a substitute for war and no man can be greater than the game: the premise is simple. But the resonance of the images and performances is a feast. I love this film for its jump cuts, its soundtrack looping and dropouts, the grainy Medium Cool camera style, and its lack of finish. It's a ballsy, six-cylinder blat, violent and empty, the screenplay relying almost entirely on the mise en scène. For instance, this decadent party in which stoned footballers' wives laser a pine forest at dawn:


That's everything you need to know about this world, right there.

Rollerball began -- as is so often the case with good movies -- as prose fiction. William Harrison's short story 'Roller Ball Murder' was published in Esquire magazine in 1973. Harrison adapted it for the screen (those were the days) for director Norman Jewison.


Jewison talked about the movie at The Hollywood Interview:
Rollerball was my first, and only, film about the future, the not too distant future. I tried not to get caught up in the technology too much. I wanted to isolate the areas in which I would work. I found the BMW building in Munich, which was perfect, as our main location. Its design was very ahead of its time. We were the first ones to use identity cards to get into places and all that sort of thing which is quite commonplace today. It was an interesting film to do from a political aspect, because it was a film about a world where political systems had failed and multinational corporations had taken over. It deals with violence used as entertainment for the masses, which goes back to the Circus Maximus. I think when you use violence for entertainment, you're getting pretty low on the human scale. (laughs) I think it turned out to be a pretty interesting film, very stylized, packed a wallop. In Europe it became a cult film, whereas in America a lot of the critics went after it as being exploitative, of just being about a violent game.
Rollerball is contrastingly enigmatic and action-packed. Philip Strick observed that it loses steam when its protagonist, Jonathan, is not playing, but that was part of the point: life without the death sport is boring. The players are prisoners of an existential world. There is no THX 1138 sunscape to run off to and no Logan's Run leafy wilderness. And there is no Soylent Green twist that explains it all, either. When James Caan finally gets to question the computer that runs the city the machine blows bubbles at him and remains silent. Even the Alpha 60 in Alphaville rasped back.

Young viewers should also be warned that the movie contains scenes with John Houseman.

In 1978 Jewison said of the film:
Rollerball looked into the future in which all-powerful corporations provide a murderous sport to let people work off their aggressions. I worry about how much direction we have over our own lives.
This week New York magazine's culture column Vulture ran the numbers on The Hunger Games publicity machine:
Size of production budget: $80 million
Size of marketing budget: $45 million
Soon newspapers and blogs will be trumpeting the box office take, and how the studio income is trending, and thus people like me who know nothing about the movie shall be entertained. Thumbs up or thumbs down? Will the franchise survive or be killed off? Today the death sport is money.

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