You know how the game serves us. It has a definite social purpose. Nations are bankrupt, gone. No poverty, no sickness. Man has accomplished what he’d always craved. Corporate society was an inevitable destiny. The good life. A centuries’ old dream.
You’d better do as you’re told, Jonathan. That’s all I have to say.
In 1975 I went on a date to the cinema in the town in which I went to school. I went with a pretty Irish girl called Moira, taller than me and intent on getting as much kissing and petting in as possible during the time allowed. She chose the film we were to see, and she chose wrong.
Rollerball captured my attention from the opening sequence. Don’t watch the remake, which has been stuffed with now-obligatory minorities and favoured gender roles, but do see the original. There are black men in the original, yet it somehow doesn’t make the film reek of contemporary Hollywood identity politics.
The movie is an adaptation of a short story, Rollerball Murder, with the screenplay by the author William Harrison. James Caan plays the central character, Jonathan E, and I had forgotten that there is also a cameo for Sir Ralph Richardson, one of England’s finest actors.
The premise is simple. In the future – 2018, amusingly enough – there is no more war. There is only Rollerball. The game is violent and, for the era, high-tech. An oval, bevelled pitch, much like a truncated cycling velodrome, is used to propel a cannonball-like steel sphere which must be thrust into a magnetic goal. Motorcycles are used to give the roller-bladed offensive players momentum. Death is a regular occurrence. Jonathan E’s best friend, Moonpie, ends up in a coma.
In the opening game sequence, Jonathan E’s mighty Houston take on Madrid. Rollerball is a full-contact sport. Studded leather gloves are crunched into faces. Motorcycles are driven over prone bodies. Full drop-kicks to the face are deployed. A three-minute penalty might result from a particular act of savagery. Jonathan E is Houston captain, top-scorer and all-round Christiano Ronaldo without the full body waxing.
The impetus to the plot is that Jonathan E becomes bigger than the game itself, and thus writes himself out of the corporate script of the game’s overlords. They gradually alter the rules before arranging a final game in which there are no rules and no time limits, the obvious aim being to kill Jonathan. I won’t write a spoiler in case you haven’t see the movie, but there is no dialogue in the final few minutes, and the final scene, with the crowd chanting – complete with Truffautesque freeze-frame – is quite wonderful. The remake has got all the crappy rap-metal and racket you would expect. The Norman Jewison original begins with Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and was the first time I had heard Albinoni’s haunting Adagio in G Minor. Classical music in a film always speaks of low budget because classical music is free to use, and many movies have benefited from not having the latest crap ringing in the viewer’s ears but, instead, real, white music.
There is a brilliant scene in Rollerball in which Jonathan E and his girlfriend discuss comfort versus freedom, and she says that ‘comfort is freedom’. Incidentally, the film was shot in England and Munich, and the scene looks to me very much as though it was shot in England’s beautiful New Forest.
Comfort is freedom. That could be the equation that dooms the West. Comfort actually breeds laziness and genetic retardation. Read The Bell Curve, and you will understand how a lack of comfort, the challenge of trying to bring ease to existence in cold climes, for example, is exactly what leads to cortical development, at least when extended over the universal time frame in which Darwinian evolution is played out. This is why the colder parts of the planet have seen the most technological innovation. The higher brain was forced to do more work, and thus developed at a greater rate and to a greater level.
Now, I’m always wary of symbolism. Just as Eastern philosophy was always too easy for hippies to like, so too symbolism gives Critical Studies students a big play-pen and toy-box with which to say this means that and that means this. That said, it is tempting to look at who today is becoming bigger than the game, who is our Jonathan E. There is a small genre of films whose protagonists outgrow the system which sustains them, and that growth becomes their hubris. Citizen Kane, Network, Apocalypse Now, Scarface; all these films feature figures hunted down by the system they tried to over-reach.
So if we were to look for our latter-day Jonathan E, we could do worse than look at Time magazine’s person of the year, Donald Trump. Certainly, the establishment has created a great game but, unlike Rollerball, it is malevolent while seeming benevolent.
Trump has already shown that he is bigger than the rigged game which was supposed to see Jeb Bush lose with dignity to Hillary Clinton. For this, the establishment is unlikely to forgive him. As Ann Coulter writes;
“On immigration, Trump will be furiously opposed by: Democrats, Republicans, the permanent bureaucracy, the Chamber of Commerce, George Soros, The Wall Street Journal — in fact, the entire media, except four webpages, six bloggers and five talk-radio hosts — and hundreds of taxpayer-funded immigrant grievance groups. And that’s just off the top of my head.”
Jonathan E begins to incur the wrath of the corporations when he tries ordering books only to find there aren’t really any left. A university in the USA – Virginia Tech, I think - just banned Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird over racist concerns. I know. To Kill A Mockingbird. The great anti-racism book. Is. Now. Racist. They will ban Uncle Tom’s Cabin soon because Harriet Beecher Stowe was white.
Then Jonathan starts asking questions about how corporate decisions are made. I see a lot of similarities with Trump, and I’m looking forward to his smashing his leather, studded glove into the heart of the Washington establishment before ramming home the steel ball into the goal represented by the hideous hit-mob Coulter has outlined above.
Rollerball is something of a modern parable. Don’t get bigger than the game, it says. Don’t ask questions, just play to the audience. It is the audience, in fact, that scares the corporations in the movie, their love of Jonathan. And, in what I promise is my last act of symbolism today, Jonathan E’s trusted right-hand man, Moonpie, is known as the old swooper, barrelling down the slope to kung-fu kick some hapless opponent. Trump’s help from the Alt-Right, perchance? From Breitbart? As mentioned, Moonpie ends up in a vegetative state. Watch out. Alt-Right outlets will be every bit as persecuted as Donald Trump. One of Trump's biggest challenges will be stopping Obama and Merkel's plan to take away the internet from those who don't use it in the approved way, people like me and you.
2017 will be an interesting year. The referee is now ready for the firing of the test ball…