I meant to put this review up months ago when DERBY was new on DVD, but I lost it or something. I bet you didn’t know it came out or that it existed anyway so let’s pretend it’s real timely.
DERBY is a 1971 documentary that you think is gonna be about roller derby. In the locker room team captain Charlie O’Connell talks to a young guy who wants to join the derby and keeps bragging that he can do a handspring on skates. The young guy is Mike Snell, 23 year-old of Dayton, Ohio, father of one, wearer of sunglasses, seems to think he’s James Dean. The cameras follow Mike to his wife, who is very supportive of his plan to quit his job at the tire factory and head to San Francisco for 6 weeks of training that he has to take before he can even try out. Obviously this is gonna be like THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS, he’s gonna pull himself up by the rollerskate straps or whatever. Or at least it’ll follow him as he learns the ropes and at the end he’ll try out and we’ll see if he achieves his dream or not.
Well, that’s what you’d expect. Instead director Robert Kaylor follows Mike before leaving for training, and he turns out to be a symbol for all the problems we had going on at that time, and an amazing look into domestic craziness decades before reality television made it boring. Mike, it turns out, is cheating on his poor wife, and doesn’t mind bragging about it. His friend Ray (whose room is covered in Playboy centerfolds and swastikas) laughs about the time Mike juggled five mistresses. Mike also lies to his boss and to a loan officer, trying to get $300 to buy a motorcycle for his trip, which I guess answers the question of whether or not he’s bringing his family with him.
The cameras also follow some of the skaters, mainly two nice but full of themselves white girls with afros who call black people “soul people.” When you watch this see if you agree with me that the one lady’s grocery store joke is the worst ever. Not only does she give away the punchline right at the beginning by telling the joke wrong, the whole story just doesn’t make sense. What grocery store won’t allow you to buy dog food without a dog present? It’s just a flawed premise, built on faulty logic. That joke needed work. I hope she’s cracked it in the years since.
Charlie seems like a good guy, he talks to the cameras, introduces his parents, shares his American dream home. He seems like better company than the gangly, creepy looking skater who shows off his tiny gun.
But the best character is Butch, Mike’s brother or brother-in-law who lives with them. He’s lazy and fat, and in his first scene poor Christine tries to convince him to help out around the house. He sneers while laying on his mattress with no shirt on, looking at centerfolds, and smiles proudly as she scolds him for hiding her box of raisins so she can’t put them in the spaghetti. (Sounds nasty to me too – and I happen to know that people in Ohio put chili on spaghetti also. I don’t get it but that’s why you should get off the mattress and make your own damn dinner.)
Christine is the tragic center of the movie. She’s pretty beneath her gap-toothed plainness, and never really whines despite her put-upon life. You want to tell her not to be so supportive of this asshole. In one unbelievable scene Christine and her friend (wearing matching dresses!?) go confront a woman named Donna about picking up their husbands late at night and waking up their babies by honking the horn. So poor Christine knows what’s going on, but for some reason still talks idealistically about Mike following his dreams. She believes in that enough that she doesn’t seem to worry about being left behind with a baby and no rent money.
So here’s this dude abandoning his adult responsibilities to roller skate and knock people over. I guess he’s living a pretty typical 23 year old life, but harsh realities loom. In the movie’s best scene Mike and Butch talk to their friend (brother?) Paul, recently returned from Vietnam and explaining what it’s like to kill “gooks.” Butch picks at his fingernails and acts disinterested, but is obviously terrified of being drafted. Mike lounges and smiles behind his glasses, content in his roller derby plan and thinking the war stories are cool. Paul tries to convince Butch he should join the service because of patriotic duty and what not. Only Butch asks, “Don’t you feel bad about killing people?”
When I first saw this on VHS those type of scenes blew me away, because they were the last thing I expected in a roller derby movie. Watching it again on DVD it finally occurred to me that not once does it show Mike skating, or even wearing skates. It’s not about his skating but his dream to skate and what he’s willing to throw away to follow that dream.
The weird construction of the movie makes it more fascinating to me. It doesn’t explain who anybody is or even follow up on storylines – we don’t find out what happened with Donna honking outside at night or if Mike makes the team. We just get these glimpses of things and have to piece them together. It ends with Mike alone on his motorcycle shortly after a roller derby bout where the national anthem had to be cancelled due to technical difficulties. So there are things to read into that, in my opinion.
I couldn’t believe this actually came to DVD, it’s a favorite of mine but I’m pretty sure nobody else ever heard of it. The director went on to do CARNY (not on DVD yet) and that’s about it. It’s not remastered – the print is scratched and faded, which somehow seems appropriate. But it has some extras including a director’s commentary, so it answered some questions I never thought I’d see addressed anywhere. The movie is done Maysles direct cinema style (no narration, no interviews, no music) but some of the shots made me wonder. How is there already a camera in the loan officer’s office when he walks in? Why does the camera hold so long on the centerfolds taped to the guy’s front door before he comes out to sell Mike the motorcycle?
Well, Kaylor does not believe in the same documentarian’s code of honor that I do. He explains how he would tell them to stop and walk around to the other side, or tell them to repeat something they just said that he didn’t get, and that thing with the National Anthem really happened but the recording was garbled so he re-enacted the announcement. I think he’s being honest that he didn’t otherwise manipulate what was going on, but still. I think we all agree that you don’t do that kind of shit in a documentary, you just do that in some Soderbergh improvisational experiment or that type of thing. Or a Sacha Baron Cohen movie.
He also talks about how Charlie hated the movie after watching it with an audience that laughed at him. Too bad, I think he comes out the best of anybody except maybe poor Christine.
Still, I love this movie, and I think you should see it whether you’re interested in roller derby or not. When I first saw it I really didn’t know anything about the topic, and I loved the movie. Now I’ve watched some of the modern roller derby (which is alot different) and it’s still very interesting, so I can vouch for it from both sides.
word of warning though: you will have no idea how roller derby works, since they don’t explain it at all. Something to do with rollerskates I believe.
I accidentally discovered that I already reviewed this one ten years ago on my geocities sight. So here as an added bonus is an earlier review making the same points probaly.
If you manage to find a video of this obscure 1971 documentary, you might think it’s gonna be a behind-the-scenes look at roller derby. Which is a phoney sport they used to have, kind of like pro wrestling, Harlem Globetrotters, American Gladiators or Olympic ice skating. What the sport was, I think, was people rolling around in a rink with rounded walls, then they knock each other over and start getting mad at each other and that type of shit.
What you really get though is a little slice o’ american culture, focusing on this one particular dude who decides to quit his job at the factory to pursue roller derby. He goes back stage to talk to one of the pros (you’re not sure if the filmatists set this meeting up or not) and then tells his wife he’s gonna do it, he’s gonna go to a school and train and give it a shot. And she says okay, if that’s what you want to do. She’s real supportive.
Which is why it’s kinda shocking about halfway through the movie when we go along with this dude and his buddy on a double date and the buddy brags about how this dude once had three mistresses without his wife or any of them knowing about each other. Turns out he’s a real scum bag, and the poor wife kinda realizes it, so there is a scene where she and a friend go to one of the mistress’s houses and they all bitch each other out. In 1971 this stuff was done in documentaries because there was no television programming to fill this gap.
There are scenes at the derby, and one scene in a car with a couple of female pros in a car on the way to a game, talking about how people look at them funny because they’re white girls with afros. But you never see this training school the dude is talking about, or find out if he makes it into the derby. It ends kind of abruptly but it’s real fascinating while it lasts, getting a peek into this guy’s life while he waits to get started.
This guy thinks he’s real fuckin cool. Even though he’s just some fuckin rollerskater. One scene I really liked was where he was at work at the factory, wearing sunglasses. His boss tries to get him to take off the glasses, saying he needs to wear safety goggles. He says he has to wear the sunglasses to see. The boss points out that if something flew at him, it could blow glass right into his eyeball. He says yeah, I sorta gotta wear em to see. And the boss says, yeah, okay, I’ll look into that, I’ll do some tests. So the guy smiles, he’s still wearin his sunglasses.
(I bet he wouldn’t be smiling after the glass went into his eyeball, but they don’t have that scene in here.)
There are other interesting characters too, like this fat teenager that lays around on a mattress in their house, with no shirt on, reading Playboy. I’m not sure if he’s their son or somebody’s brother or just some guy that they can’t get to leave. The wife tells him how he needs to bring his dog to the pound if he’s not gonna feed it and he just keeps lookin at his playboy and tells her she should get playgirl. People think these types of losers were invented by the young people in the ’90s, but here’s documentation to prove otherwise. This is one scene that could be straight out of gummo.
Later on there is, I think it’s the roller skater’s brother, fresh back from Vietnam. He brags about how brutal it was, but consoles himself by playing himself off as a great american, doing his duty, seeing the world realistically. He tries to denegrate his brother’s dream of rollerskating for a living. He criticizes everybody’s morals and tries to get everybody to join up.
And in this scene you actually side with the braindead gummo kid, when he grunts “Don’t you feel bad about killing all those people?” And the vet says, “What are you, one of these hippies they got goin around?” You can see how even the most pathetic waste of youth was able to get a little bit of perspective, trickling down from the counterculture. When are we gonna get that goin, kids? Get off your mattresses, put down your playboys and start makin a god damn difference. I will loan you some hustlers later.
Filmatically this is not on the level of, say, a Maysles brothers picture. Because those are all masterpieces. There are a couple of shots in here that are obviously set up. For example when this dude goes to look at a motorcycle he wants to buy, there is a really long shot of playboys glued onto a door, and then the door opens up and the guy selling the motorcycle comes out. But they obviously set up the shot and then told him to come out. I think it’s all real, but those type of phoney set ups make you wonder. Also it’s awkward that the whole thing is done Maysles style, fly on the wall, until one part 50 minutes in there is suddenly a guy talking to the camera.
But this is a good one, I’m real glad I found out about this one. The directionist did not seem to do any other documentaries but he did a drama called CARNY so I will check it out in case it’s good.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.