For this week’s post, I’m returning to FilmStruck. They had a really interesting series listed there about what the future looked like in the 1970’s. I saw one film that I knew and wanted to get back into, then I just had to select a different film. So this week’s films are:
L.Q. Jones – A Boy and His Dog (1975)
Norman Jewison – Rollerball (1975)
Rollerball is a film I saw more than a decade ago, while I had no knowledge of previous to this week. I’m not 100% sure, but I believe that this is the first time I’ve done films from the same year. Should be an interesting set.
Let’s get into it.
A Boy and His Dog (1975)
A Boy and His Dog is a film about a post-apocalyptic wasteland. A young man named Vic travels the wasteland with his dog, Blood. But Blood isn’t just an animal companion. He has a telepathic link with Vic, and they have conversations. Blood can also sniff out other people nearby and tell Vic about them. Although the only people Vic is really interested in hearing about are women who he can rape. But in this world, Vic faces stiff competition from roving gangs of men who have their own dogs. Vic and Blood work their way through the world, trying to survive, until Vic finds Quilla, a woman unlike any other he’s met. When she suggests he come back to the ‘Down Under’, a bunker that houses an entire society, will he give up his companion? And is it safe in the first place?
Ok, let’s get one thing out of the way. Yes, Vic’s main motivation in this film is rape. And the film makes no apologies for it. We watch Vic complain to Blood that the dog hasn’t found him enough women lately, and mope that a gang of men murdered a woman before he could have his chance to assault her. So how do we deal with something so incredibly offensive?
Well I think we have to make a distinction about whether the film is glorifying this kind of behavior, or commenting on it. Is the film saying “Look at this world, isn’t it great?” Or is it saying “A world where someone can have an opinion like this is awful.” I think this film is the second one. We see Vic complain and don’t think he’s justified, we see him as a whiny child. When we see the horror scene he walks in on in the first scene and his only thought is that he didn’t get a chance to join in, we must assume that this is a normal sight for him, and adjust our understanding accordingly. None of this makes what is happening ok, but we can watch the film, and still retain our own values. A film like this lets us look at the world created and imagine ourselves there. What would we do differently? How would we react if we were put into this world, if it was all we knew?
The world we see is fairly dire. The film is set in 2024 after both World War 3 and World War 4 have occurred. There are no buildings that we see on the surface, everything is buried. There are a few hatches that lead down to mostly intact buildings, but we don’t see any permanent structures on the surface. Everything is dirt and a few things set up to make walls, or basic shelters. If you’ve ever play a Fallout game, it’s clear they took a lot of inspiration from films with this aesthetic.
The film takes it’s time to build it’s world, hinting at things beyond our reach. Blood talks about a place called “Over the Hill” where they can actually grow their own food. And we see mysterious figures scouting Vic, deciding to ‘put out the bait’. We later learn that the bait is Quilla, a young woman from an underground bunker society called “Down Under”. Blood scouts her out at a small settlement they visit. Vic tracks her down and attempts to rape her, but is interrupted by another gang that has found them. The three of them manage to fend them off, but Blood is badly injured. They hide in an unused boiler for the night, and Quilla begins to make her move. Vic has never been with a woman who actually wanted to have sex, so being with Quilla is exciting and unique to him.
Quilla entices him with the thought of the Down Under, telling him all he has to do is leave Blood behind. Vic isn’t sure he wants to do this, but is overcome with curiosity when she disappears while he and Blood are arguing and leaves behind an ID. They know where the bunker is located, and he goes there telling Blood he’ll come back soon.
But the movie really gets going once Vic goes into the bunker. He initially finds machinery and ladders, but eventually happens into a grassy area under permanent night. Speakers play happy music with instructions for a happy life. Vic is tackled by an unseen assailant and we begin to see this strange new world.
It’s a stark contrast to the world above. While the world above is covered in dirt and sun, this world is in constant night, with artificial light, but grass. Everyone in this world is dressed in their Sunday best, and strangely, they all have white face paint on with rosy cheeks. A marching band plays through the park while people feast on a wide variety of foods. Unlike above, where there are hardly any women, this world has many women, most of them young and beautiful, like Quilla.
We can talk about the cast for a moment. Vic is played by a young Don Johnson, long before he was famous, and Jason Robards plays Lou Craddock, the leader of this underground society. Don Johnson is great in the petulant child role, and Jason Robards is quietly brilliant as the cold and calculating leader. We see him holding court, making judgments of people who come before them. The usual punishment is being sent to “The Farm”, which is certainly a euphemism for being killed. It’s unknown why it’s called the farm, but we might speculate. We also learn here that Quilla was promised a position on the Council of their society for bringing Vic in. But Lou reneges on his promise, leading Quilla to start her own mini-revolution.
We learn that Vic’s role here is not to become a member of the society, but just there as a way to bring fresh genetic material to their women. Vic thinks this means that he will get to have sex with all the women, but instead, we are met with a bizarre ritual, where Vic is hooked up to a machine that extracts his semen, while women are dressed in wedding gowns and “married” to him.
The movie only ramps up from there as Quilla begins her small revolution with Vic’s help I won’t spoil the ending, but it definitely is in line with the various themes of the film.
This is a fairly intense film. We’re dropped into an intense world, with values very different from our own, and expected to catch up. The film does a great job of world-building, and we never question why something is happening, even understanding the rules of Blood and Vic’s bizarre communcation style.
There’s a lot more to talk about, but I want to make the same points about the next film, so let’s go to that one before talking about both together.
Rollerball is a film about a future sport called Rollerball, and it’s greatest player Jonthan E. Jonathan plays for Houston, and they’re making their way to the finals. But Jonathan is shocked to discover the executives want him to retire immediately. Jonathan defies their orders and continues playing. The executives try to force his hand by changing the rules to punish him and his teammates. How far will Jonathan go to defy the executives and stay on the team?
The film stars James Caan and John Houseman and it’s shot like a sports movie. One of the most impressive things about the film is how easy it is to understand the sport itself. Rollerball is played on a circular track, tilted up around the edges. All of the players are on wheels. Some on rollerskates, and others on motorcycles. A heavy metal ball is fired onto the track and picked up by a player. The team that posesses the ball is on offense. The ball can be passed, but it can’t be held close to the body, it has to be held out visibly to the other players. The player with the ball attempts to score a goal in small opening in the wall of the arena.
The sport combines aspects of sports like ice hockey, rugby, and american rules football, but increases the brutality of the sport greatly. It’s not uncommon for players to die on the track with the only punishment a 3 minute penalty.
The game scenes are played out like sporting events. We hear snippets of the play by play announcer, and the lead up to the event gives us the color commentary and background story that we would need as an audience of a film, and the audience of the sport.
The world building is done fairly well too. We spend a lot of time in the sporting arena, but we also see Jonathan’s life in little snapshots. When he goes to see the executive Bartholomew, we learn that his wife was taken from him by an executive at some point. It’s also clear that Jonathan is near the top of society, but not quite as high as the executive class. He lives in a beautiful, spacious home secluded from others. He is taken there by helicopter. When he returns home, the woman he’s seeing tells him the corporation has asked her to leave him. He doesn’t seem surprised. But the next day, a new woman arrives, delivered to him like a package.
The corporation has set up a TV special for Jonathan to announce his retirement, but Jonathan doesn’t trust them. He asks a close friend and mentor, Cletus to ask around and find out what is happening, but Cletus can’t find anyone who will talk.
From our audience perspective, we eventually learn that the sport of Rollerball was set up as a way to devalue individual achievement to instill the idea that everyone must work together, thus keeping their hold on society secure. But Jonathan is such a great player, that he threatens to upend that. The executives decide that Jonathan must lose, at any cost.
But Jonathan is defiant, refusing to participate in the TV special, demanding concessions, including seeing his ex-wife. But even when he is allowed to spend a weekend with her, he realizes how much control the corporation has over his life, and remains defiant.
In the end, it becomes a battle of wills. What is Jonathan willing to give up to retain his individuality and purpose in life.
Rollerball is a visually striking and incredibly relevant film to today’s society. James Caan had just come off of The Godfather films and this was his opportunity to be the sole star of a big motion picture. He hits it out of the park. He can play the rough and tumble athlete, willing to do anything to win, but off the track, he’s soft spoken, but firm. We feel like he’s been playing this game with executives for a long time, and he knows the rules, and can keep up with them even when those rules change. We see this whole world through his eyes, and we can even feel sympathy for him, regardless of the wonderful life he might seem to lead. Unlike the previous film, we absolutely sympathize with our main character here. We have to. He’s faced real injustice as a cog in the machine.
The Double Feature
Both of these films asks the same essential question: How much comfort would it take for you to give up your freedom?
In A Boy and His Dog, Vic is initially shown a world with all the comforts that he’s never had: mountains of food, music, plant life, comfortable beds, women who want to have relationships, but he chafes against it. Quilla has lived in this society her whole life, but wants to take it over so she can have her own personal freedom.
In Rollerball, Jonathan E. has everything provided for him. He can have whatever, food, clothes, and land he wants. Even women. They’re rotated out for him as fresh stock. But what he really wants is his own freedom and the ability to make decisions for himself. Even though all his needs are taken care of, he knows that he’s just being cared for like an animal in a zoo. He could be discarded or put to sleep at any time.
In both films, they answer the question the same way: be suspicious of any comforts that are offered to you in exchange for your freedoms. You will regret it later. In Vic’s case, he is essentially kidnapped and forced to give up his genetic material for a breeding program. We learn from Quilla that he will be killed after a certain number of women are pregnant. In Jonathan’s case, he is a prop for the glory of the corporation, until he starts to gain enough glory for himself. Once that happens, he’s a liability, and has to be disposed of.
As a pairing, these two films give us a lot to think about. I think the questions they’re raising are incredibly important to think about in today’s society. I don’t have all the answers, but this is definitely a great pairing.
It was tough getting the post done this week. I’m working on a research project, and I’m bound to the patterns of other people, so I don’t get to make my own schedule. It makes me wonder if I’ll be able to keep up the weekly post this semester. It’s very possible I won’t. I might have to cut back to every other week. But for now, we’re going to keep on the 1 a week schedule. I just need to be more diligent about getting my films watched earlier. I was way late on getting them in this week. I didn’t watch until Sunday, and I didn’t even write until Monday. If I watch on Friday, then I should have plenty of time to write over the weekend, and edit on Monday and Tuesday. It’s just a matter of doing that.
So, let’s talk about next week’s films. We’re just on the tail end of summer, and a lot of films came out that I haven’t seen yet. So I think I’m going to do one of those, as for the other…well, let’s pair them up.
Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack – King Kong (1933)
Jordan Vogt Roberts – Kong Skull Island (2017)
That’s right! TWO Kong films. The 1933 version is one of the most impressive film accomplishments of all time. Can a film set in the same world stand up to it? My theory is that no it can’t, but we’ll still give it a shot.
See you next week.