Rollerball superstar, or
Jesus Christ on skates

by Richard Astle

from Jump Cut, no. 10-11, 1976, pp. 23-24
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1976, 2004

“Rollerball” is the name, both of a film by Norman Jewison, and of a kind of sports event within the film—an improbable combination of roller derby and motorcycle football that makes ice hockey seem as tame as cricket by comparison. Two records indicate its power and brutality: highest velocity ball fielded by a player—120 mph; most deaths in a single game—nine. Indeed, the gentle interludes between the games seem, like the romance between the scientist’s daughter and the young male hero in so many monster movies, almost mere fill, inserted to give the audience a chance to catch its breath and to make the game seem all the more exciting when it returns. For Rollerball, like THEM and all those other products of the unholy congress, of nature and (capitalist) technology, is also a monster and the real star of the film with which it shares a name.

ROLLERBALL takes place in a near future in which nations, bankrupt and defeated in the “corporate wars” no one quite remembers, have been replaced by the “majors,” multinational monopolies dividing control of the six sectors of the economy: Transport, Food, Communications, Housing, Luxury, and Energy. A superficially reasonable (in the sense that laissez-faire capitalism is also “reasonable”) premise here is that the abolition of nations, with their “tribal warfare,” and the establishment of sound business practices in the running of the world could and would lead to an economy of abundance, in which some are privileged, but in which all are provided for. “Corporate Society,” in the words of Energy executive Bartholemew, “was an inevitable destiny, a material dream world.” Most everyone we see agrees. Moonpie, a rollerball player, says, “We're livin’ good, you know we are,” and Ella, former wife of superstar Jonathan E. (James Caan), favorably presents the ruling, ideology: “They have control, economically and politically, but they also provide.”

And provide they do. No scene between the games reveals less than conspicuous luxury. But the ideological line is drawn late in the film. by Jonathan, answering Ella’s statement above: “People made a choice back then between having all them nice things, and freedom.” “But comfort is freedom,” Ella answers, and he adds, “Them privileges just buy us off.” As Bartholemew puts it, “All [Corporate Society] asks, all it has ever asked of anyone, is not to interfere with management decisions.”

There is still more in Corporate Society that indicates the price that has been paid for its static affluence. There is a small matter of anti-orientalism, visible in Moonpie’s attitude towards the diminutive (by Texas standards) Japanese rollerball players, whom he thus underestimates and who, as a result, catch him off guard and send him to the hospital in a coma that might as well be death—an anti-orientalism that we might see as a vestige of nationalism (maintaining regional chauvinism when nations have disappeared) as racism in our own culture might be seen as a vestige of tribalism. The relatively non-geographic black vs. white racism with which we are still familiar is conspicuously absent, even in Houston, the home town of Jonathan’s Energy team.

Perhaps a more symptomatic flaw in Corporate Society is the position of women in it. In a world of an abundance of consumer items—a world based, even more than our own, on things and on the accompanying permissive consumerism that controls through the mechanism that Herbert Marcuse calls “repressive desublimation”—it is not surprising that, of the three women we see enough to understand (they are important in the film if not in the society), two are successively “on assignment” to Jonathan’s bed, and the third, his former wife, was taken from him, Jonathan says, “because an executive wanted her.”

But it is not only women who are objects in this world: Corporate Society objectifies everyone, at least outside the executive class, and the stars among them are the rollerball players. A familiar sexual myth is built up around their virility, but their position in the social mythology is strategic on a more fundamental level. As Bartholemew tells Moonpie, after offering him a pill the way we might offer a beer: “You'll dream you're an executive, in a grey suit, making decisions. But do you know what executives dream about? They dream of being great roller ball players.” This dream is not only for the executives. What child would not rather be a glamorous sports star than wear a grey suit and make decisions—and children are precisely what the repressively desublimated masses resemble most closely. Rollerball, then, functions as an opiate for the people, a major apparatus of ideological control, diverting attention from the great (bourgeois) dream of upward mobility, in an advanced capitalist society that wants no longer to be dynamic.

But this is not all. The posters that advertise the film tell us: “In the very near future they will produce a war every week during prime time and broadcast it to the rest of the world. They will call it Rollerball,” and, “In the not too distant future, war will no longer exist, but there will be Rollerball.” Thus both war and not war, the game (and the parallel with Monday Night Football is too clear to miss) is a concrete metaphorical substitution, a social sublimation of whatever it is war’s violence signifies, whether an innate human drive or the frustration of existence under Corporate Society (and in our own). Thus the position of rollerball players is strategic in that it is they alone who are to exercise this violence for society. And it is no doubt in this connection that the game “serves us,” as Bartholemew reminds the Executive Directorate, “by demonstrating the futility of individual effort.” “It is not a game,” he tells Jonathan, “that one is supposed to grow strong in.”

Here, precisely, is the improbable crux of the film: Jonathan’s success in the game, in which he has been a star for an unprecedented ten years, threatens to upset the delicate balance of Corporate Society’s mass psychological control. This is the only way we can finally understand the first enigma of the film: that Bartholemew asks (he cannot, apparently, demand) Jonathan to retire at the height of his career and just before the championship games.

And this is why, when Jonathan, whose disobedience is apparently as unprecedented as his success in the game, refuses, the rules are changed in the direction of generating even more violence. For Houston’s game with Tokyo, penalties are not called, and when this is not enough, for the game with New York the time limit is removed. Jonathan observes, “The game will be over when we're all dead,” but plays anyway rejecting Bartholmew’s last attempt to buy him off. Ella is sent, but Jonathan, after her (previously quoted) defense of the system, finally says, “Did they tell you to stay if I quit? You're my big reward?” and runs off to erase a multivision (a kind of multiple screen TV) tape of her he has played in his loneliness.

For Jonathan, having all the things he needs, refuses to retire for reasons that can only be described as “romantic,” a nostalgia for a freedom he has never known, for basic “human values” (bourgeois individualism) he somehow finds within him. Thus we can see how, in this upside down, commodity rich society, it is precisely at the top of the underprivileged class that (so the movie says) “revolution” rears its pretty head. It is delivered as though it were a joke, but Bartholemew’s comment that the corporation is running out of ways to pay its superstar is a serious one.

Jonathan is left with only those “spiritual” needs Corporate Society does not know how to satisfy: viz., his love for Ella, his friendship with his teammate Moonpie, and his love (which he shares with Moonpie) of the game itself. Ella is taken from him, first by the executive who desires her (perhaps, it is suggested, because she has been the woman of a rollerball star), and then again when she comes as Bartholemew’s agent. Moonpie is made into a vegetable by the no-penalty rule in Tokyo. All he has left is his love for the game. Bartholemew says, “I don't understand your refusal (to retire). I don't think anyone else will either.” But to us, hanging on to our own vestigial freedom and our dream of authentic human relationships, Jonathan’s refusal is a recognizable gesture.

But the remedy announces defeat: the very necessity of changing the rules of the game so drastically signifies Corporate Society’s weakness. For Rollerball is war constrained by rules and a circular track. As the rules begin to vanish, the violence carefully confined within the game begins to reinfect society. First, a small matter, we might think, Jonathan hits Daphne, one of his bed assignments, drawing blood. Then comes his realization in the Japanese hospital that, even off the track, “There are no rules.” Then there is the careless violence in a scene reminiscent of Fellini, in which late night partygoers, executives and their women, after seeing and rerunning a multivision “special” on Jonathan’s career, gratuitously destroy a row of elm trees with a flame throwing handgun. And then there are the fights which break out in the stands during the New York game, when the rules have all but vanished. Of course all this violence is futile, undirected, self-indulgent. But it signifies the breakdown of the mechanism of control.

As in a teenage sports novel, everything comes to a head in the championship game. With no penalties and no time limit, death, and at least one refusal to go back on the track, leave Jonathan finally alone with two New Yorkers, a biker and a skater, one of whom has the ball. He kills the skater against the rail in front of Bartholomew’s seat, and though we know how he means this death, it is still hard to take from a “hero.” But these are the conventions of a gladiator movie. It is the game itself that kills the skater, as we see when, with the ball in his hand, Jonathan stops in midswing and does not smash the face of the last New York player, escaping, in this suspense of gesture, the ruleless anarchy the game has become. For a moment we think he is going to throw the ball at his real enemy, Bartholomew, behind his protective screen, but instead he skates around the track, playing what’s left of his beloved game, scoring the “winning” goal for Houston and for himself.

During this whole sequence the fans stop fighting among themselves and maintain an almost churchlike silence until, during Jonathan’s “victory laps” after the goal, a chant is begun by the team manager (an executive) and continued by the crowd: “JON-A-THAN, JON-A-THAN, JON-ATHAN.” We are clearly to believe this to be a significant historical event (or at least that the executives think so), providing the people with a hero, or at least a role model, who has liberated, focused, and transformed their random violence into a chant in his honor. How this is to change Corporate Society is left a mystery, but this much is clear: Jonathan’s choice of gesture, scoring the goal instead of throwing the ball at Bartholemew, is a gesture towards re-containing that briefly liberated violence and against the kind of popular revolt that might have been signaled if not started by the more impetuous gesture he rejects. And we remember, if we have not before, that Norman Jewison’s previous film was JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR.

We need not long wonder what this movie is trying to say to us, for Corporate Society is not so unlike an image of our own. On the one hand, Corporate Society resembles the American Consumer Society in which we—at least those of us who can afford three dollars to see the film—live, in which even factory workers hale two TV’s, and in which wars are something that happen elsewhere, in the eastern and southern hemispheres. Corporate Society’s “dream world” is a world we live, if not one that “really” exists beyond the boundaries of our middle class American lives. But the “real world” outside is like Corporate Society too—a world of multinationals, of bankrupt cities if not nations, of sexism, of class bias, of commodity fetishism, of Monday Night Football, and a recently televised Viet Nam. What is ROLLERBALL, then, but an assertion—in the face of our culture’s manifest failure to end wars and to provide universal satisfaction of what we might call “animal needs” (hunger, sexual desire), that certain “human” (i.e., bourgeois, Christian) values are the important ones. A hollow message for the hungry. “Whom,” we hardly need ask, “does ROLLERBALL serve?”

But perhaps it is not the particular ideological decoding of the film that is most interesting here, but rather a logical problem that arises in the decoding. For though, like ZARDOZ, for example, ROLLERBALL is a puzzle—the puzzle of constructing a set of presuppositions that will hold the various moments of the film in some kind of intelligible totality—it is unclear to what extent, and with what honesty, the puzzle constitutes the appeal. Certainly we respond to the game itself if we like the film at all (I heard more than one cry of “More Rollerball” during the quiet interludes), and this response makes us the manipulated masses for whom the game was invented. ROLLERBALL, then, has the curious effect of making us condemn ourselves for falling for its main attraction.

How are we to take this? It seems to me that one way is to see that the puzzle, and the absurdity of the plot, are there, as in ZARDOZ, to give us a way to excuse ourselves for enjoying (if we do) a movie that exploits violence, and exploits our fear of our alleged “innate” need for at least vicarious violence. But perhaps our violence has a more positive meaning, one that the film tries to defuse—perhaps it is a sign of our own rebellion against the nascent Corporate Society that is the monopoly capitalism in the belly of which we live—a rebellion with respect to which Jonathan’s example is as empty as Christ’s tomb.