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    Playing Catchup

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    Forty-one years after its brutal, unsparing action spilled across movie screens that summer, Rollerball (1975) endures as a valuable, prescient clarion call wrapped in futuristic sci-fi trappings. The first screen adaptation of William Harrison’s 1973 short story Roller Ball Murder is full of echoes of today’s Geopolitical-with-a-capital-G world full of dominant corporate interests, mass-marketed, often numbing entertainments, resentment of the “one percent,” free-for-all pre-election discourse and dissent, and blood-spurting mixed martial-arts combat. It took time for audiences to catch up with Rollerball’s more thoughtful underpinnings, and that bothered producer/director Norman Jewison a wee bit through the years. He told interviewer Steve Ryfle: “Rollerball is all about the absurdity of conflict; it's obscene to have violence for the entertainment of the masses. That's an obscene idea that goes back to Circus Maximus, that goes back to Rome. Surely we've become more civilized. And yet when I look at some films out there, and I just see unmotivated violence...Violence for entertainment, it's a terrible idea. And so I made Rollerball, and that's what it's about. But you know, a lot of people said, ‘No, that's not what it's about. It's about, ‘How can we get the franchise to play this game?’’ It was amazing. But the Europeans knew what it was about. It became a cult film in Europe, and I think gradually people came around to that film. But when it was first released, I don't think Americans really understood what it was about.” In the summer of 1975 when a PG-rated great white shark-toothed phenomenon named Jaws dominated movie screens, the R-rated action and daredevil stunts of Rollerball captured a then-sizable audience to the tune of $30 million for a movie costing only $5 million. James Caan as the crowd-rousing, independent-minded athlete/hero Jonathan E and John Houseman as the sinister corporate titan Bartholomew were both marquee draws from their respective iconic roles in The Godfather and The Paper Chase. The chlling exteriors and stadium interior of modernistic locations in London, Berlin and Frankfurt (expertly shot by the great Douglas Slocombe) and the sonorous score of Albinoni/Bach/Shostakovich/ Tchaikovsky themes dynamically arranged by André Previn provided an effectively apt futureworld patina, the story’s setting being – pause – 2018. Five years ago this month at a Lincoln Center retrospective of his films, Jewison was a bit more mellow about audience response to the film – and very appreciative of the gamble United Artists took on the project. His thoughts in a conversation with Sony Pictures Classics president Michael Barker can be found in this probing career-spanning chat here – – as well as on his astute and comprehensive Audio Commentary track of Twilight Time’s hi-def Blu-ray, back in print after its initial sell-out run. Have Rollerball and our society caught up with each other? See for yourself when you catch up with the reissued Rollerball on June 14. Preorders open June 1.