Tuesday, 14 April 2009

The culture and politics of roller-skating. (Part 2)

Following on from part one on the culture and politics of roller-skating in the 1970s, Gary Needham examines the short-lived roller disco movie.

The Roller-Skating Movie

Like all pop culture fads it was not long before cinema responded to the culture of roller-skating in an effort to quickly cash in and so the roller disco movie was unveiled and three films were quickly produced - Skatetown USA (1979), Roller Boogie (1979), and Xanadu (1980). There had already been films with roller skating sequences such as Shall We Dance (1937) and a few films about roller derby like Kansas City Bomber (1972) starring Raquel Welch but nothing until these three films were about roller-skating as culture. However, the experience of pleasure and speed through roller-skating explored in the first part is really quite difficult for cinema to convey since it’s an embodied feeling rather than something tangible that can be represented in the image like say the thrill of a car chase; in filmic terms we would say that speed is non-indexical. Therefore, the feeling of being liberated through the experience of movement is not something that can be properly signified but the roller-skating films do try to produce for us a feeling of transcendence that equates to the feeling we might imagine the onscreen skaters are experiencing. Cinema thus has to try and create ways in which the speed and pleasure associated with roller-skating can be conveyed to the spectator as transcendent and utopian.

One of the key influences on thinking through this aspect of the topic is Richard Dyer’ s ‘Entertainment and Utopia’ from 1977 (in the collection Only Entertainment). For Dyer, forms of entertainment such as musicals help us escape from the everyday, to quote ‘alternatives, hopes, wishes – these are the stuff of utopia, the sense that things could be better, that something other that what is can be imaged and maybe realized’. While Dyer suggests that entertainment does not really present us with models of a utopian world, rather a text’s utopianism is contained in the feelings it creates for us – the function of certain forms of entertainment like the roller skating movie is to present how a utopia on skates might feel rather than how it might be organised and brought about. Furthermore, in Dyer’s argument utopian qualities (also like that of speed) are often beyond the realm of representation in things such as colour, sound, movement, rhythm, and camerawork all of which are integral components of the roller movie.

While Skatetown USA and Roller Boogie attempt to capture a skaters’ paradise they ultimately fail to suggests what one might do with that utopia now that its reached, and so what begins as an experience of social and gender liberation through speed, is ultimately ground to a halt through the conventions of romantic plotting and an attempt to shoehorn the roller skating picture into the then out-dated romantic conventions of the Hollywood musical. Both films begin with a representation of skater’s utopia but end with the formation of a couple and the loss of the utopian community and symbolically the loss of the female skater’s independence. Her freeform skating style that began as unique bodily expression is soon quashed in favour of a traditional romantic pairing in which she follows the man’s lead in what is effectively a ballroom dance version of roller-skating as she no longer harnesses her own speed but has to willingly depend on the momentum and energy generated by her male partner.

Yet, the opening of Skatetown USA comes as close as possible in capturing the look and the feel of a utopian space; it’s one of the most exciting first five minutes of any movie. Importantly, intensity is created through not just what is onscreen but also what is heard (Patrick Hernandez’s amazing disco stomper Born to be Alive) and how that seeing is in effect organised through highly unusual editing patterns. The film’s opening sequence also draws upon the iconography of science fiction and fantasy in order to render roller-skating and Skatetown as literally out of this world. The editing is unconventional involving at first match cuts and jump cuts on the skater’s body (accompanied by a synthesized popping noise) but also another kind of editing eschewed in Hollywood and mostly used in experimental and avant-garde cinema called strobe cutting. Strobe cutting, in which portions of movement are missing, actually make it appear as if the skating is faster than what the camera can actually capture thus expressing through film those non-indexical sensations of speed.

Like Roller Boogie the film draws on oppositions between the earthly and the otherworldly, transcendent speed and grounded immanence, which, when we think about these films as forms of the musical, is the narrative/numbers tension. This other world, not the utopia but not a dystopia either, is that of the narrative defined as the everyday of work, domesticity and family and where young people are confronted by reality, rules and restrictions. The narrative aspects of these films really slow down the energy and speed associated with skating with deadening immanence; the plot literally grinds skating to a halt since skates are never worn indoors. The romantic scenes, key to the narrative and the formation of the couple (what in the musical is called the dual focus structure), are also off-skate sequences with down tempo music; often removing all other skaters from the scene. Romance becomes exclusive and intimate and seems to be oppositional to the all-inclusive skating utopia suggested at the start of the film. The finale to Roller Boogie also reveals how this dilemma plays out in a conventional manner since the narrative/numbers tension is really something the film cannot work out because of the way the skating numbers are difficult to integrate and progress the narrative component. Therefore, the film ends with recourse to conventional structures of dancing (on skates of course) in which the heterosexual pairing produces movement based on a powerful visual and physical difference in gender that’s more strictly come dancing than skater’s paradise.

I’ll finish here with one critique open for debate that goes something like this - when the woman allows the man to lead in dancing (emulated here on skates) this lays the foundations for an eventual and ongoing gender disparity – letting the man lead and depending on the man for physical support during dancing and skating is a way of establishing a first instance of dependency through movement and the body that may pave the way for other forms of support, i.e. economic. Certain forms of dancing (mimicked in the roller skating pair-off finale) can also be used to regulate gender and sexuality in normative ways and when one gender has to assume the lead and the other gender follows we see in its very logic how inequality is fashioned through pleasure. Its no surprise that these film offer the perfect bridge between the 1970s and the 1980s (a tension they perhaps try to work through) as liberation dissipates in pleasures experienced in wholly solipsistic and apolitical terms.

(photo credits susan miller: permissions)

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