A humble package
Rollerball. Director: Norman Jewison. Stars: James Caan, Maud Adams, John Beck, Moses Gunn, Ralph Richardson 'AA" Odeon, Leicester Square (125 minutes).
They don't trust me in the cinemas. I always ask for a seat as far back as possible. When I booked, by telephone, for Rollerball„ they put me well forward in row 'N'. There is obviously something suspect about a man wanting row 'X'. The usherettes keep pointing their torches at you. On one occasion I had a visit from the manager. Could I tell him, he said, if I had moved from my original seat? 1 told him who I was, but he didn't throw me out. So I explained that the only way to see today's enormous films was to be pressed against the door of the powder room, whatever that might be, at the rear of the circle.
Anyway, when the girl gave me a seat in row 'N', I toyed with the idea of making a reassuring little joke about the Rollerbal/ author, William Harrison. Mr Harrison, you see, is the man who writes short stories about people who eat their aunt's furniture. That sort of thing. He hates well-ordered writing and good characterisation. Instead he crams everyday emotions into unreal situations. He is, he says, a miniaturist. His original version of Rollerball was, indeed, a miniature — a mere 19 pages. And there it is now at the Odeon, bursting with blood and violence on an enormous screen; shattering Leicester Square with Andre Previn's presentation of Bach and Shostakovitch, and stunning audiences with a guest appearance by Ralph Richardson.
A miniature? That was the joke I was toying with. But what would the usherette think, as she settled me in a seat too near the screen, if I said that it didn't matter because I was seeing "a small hieroglphy set against the armour of the body politic — a humble package."
Humble package? As a matter of fact, even in the new large version, written by the author himself, I can see what he means: His story is a tiny parable of the future. Rollerball is a violent international game, played on world television from large arenas and utilising roller-skates, motorbikes and metal balls fired from cannons. It is said, by world leaders, to have a useful purpose in a society where there are no longer such things as war or poverty. People gather to watch this game of legalised slaughter because life gives them no other opportunities for stirring up aggression.
An idea of this kind certainly belongs more to a William Harrison short story. In a few lines of staccato narrative and dialogue we don't expect to have the background filled in. But the film makes us want additional information about life in the 1990s. We learn that the entire world waits excitedly for each televised rollerball game, but we have no idea what sort of human beings could be so engrossed in this sport.
The film does, in fact, sketch in more than the story. We are shown a sort of elite, including the world's Energy Boss and a group of Gatsby-like girls who are on loan to the rollerball players. We learn, too, that all information from books has been indexed and edited by computers. Most important of all, we find that in the new world of the 1990s, no man must become the champion of the crowd.
Some of this makes sense. If you look at each example as an exaggeration of life in the 1970s, you find the film has something — if not very much — to say. Top personality-sportsmen do, of course, have a following among beautiful women. And the need to suppress information is not unknown in today's governments. But the fear of a champion is something more difficult to understand.
This is, however, the whole point of the slender plot William Harrison has stuck on to his descriptive story. A rollerball player, named Jonathan E, and nicely played by James Caan, becomes so popular he is asked to resign. "No player," says the Energy Boss, "is greater than the game." At this point I wanted to get outside the story and find out if popularity was also forbidden in the arts. But the plot, which I shall not give away, is interesting enough to eep the mind from questioning too much. And so is the incredible design of the film. The producer-director, Norman Jewison, has manipulated people and places, creating the most extraordinarily vivid patterns. And at one point he tracks around a sophisticated party, allowing voices to move across the screen as though stereophonic sound was a brand-new toy to have fun with.
I was torn between thinking this a disgusting film, portraying brutality for the sake of brutality, or a good old purging tragedy. I'm not quite sure what I think. I hate looking at violence. I hate, even more, the thought that such violence can incite more violence. But without the simulated brtuality on the screen, Mr Harrison's humble package would not be effective.
And it really is effective. I liked the canned Strauss in the computer library and the brooding Bach organ nearly everywhere else. Though at times the Bach failed to work, veteran cinemagoers like me will always associate organs in the cinema with ice-cream intervals and jolly sing-songs with H. Robinson-Cleaver or Sydney Gustard.
The film contains some marvellous asides. Not humble but huge. Like the girl who takes a flame-throwing gun to a party and willfully destroys a row of fine trees. Or the superb performance by Richardson, as a computer chief who has mislaid the thirteenth century altogether. "Poor old thirteenth century," he says. "Nothing but Dante and a few corrupt Popes, but a pity to lose it."
In the two hours ot noise, carnage, technology and noble music Sir Ralph proves the only humanity. For a few minutes the audience laughs. And then we are back in the humble package of the jumbo-sized film. Though in several other places .1-larrison does strive for a good line of dialogue. When the rollerball hero takes his ex-wife for a walk in the woods, he remarks, against a clap or two of melodramatic thunder, "I've been thinking, you know, Ethel. Thinking a lot." And for collectors of bathos and best moment comes when the hero is shown into the sanctuary of the Energy Boss. Long red corridors lead to a cool white room, with modern paintings glimpsed through plastic screens. The whole thing is hung about with chunks of glass, like giant Chinese windchimes. In the middle, on a podium, is the Boss. "You know," he says, "a man must have a place to think things out. You, of course, have your ranch-house."
A humble film? Most certainly. And in more ways than it was meant to be.