Tuesday, August 19, 2008


“It’s love on wheels!”
Terry Barkley is young, pretty, rich, and a prodigy on the flute, so of course, she’s completely miserable. All she really wants to do is roller skate. Bobby James is young, pretty, impoverished, and a prodigy on roller skates, so of course, he’s blissfully happy. All he really wants to do is roller skate… in the Olympics... if they ever get around to adding it as a sport. As fate would have it, when the pair meet at a Venice Beach roller disco, Bobby is seeking a partner for the big roller boogie contest and Terry is looking for a skating teacher. After a few false starts, the pair agree to put aside their differences in order to help each other fulfill their dreams. But it’s not going to be easy. Not only do Terry’s parents want her to quit neglecting her flute for the evils of roller skating, but the local gangsters want to shut down the roller rink so they can develop the land. The tension mounts as the night of the roller boogie draws near. Will Terry and Bobby’s burgeoning romance transcend the class boundaries which separate them? Will Terry learn to skate like a pro in time for the big roller boogie event? Will there even be a contest if Terry, Bobby and the roller tribe can’t find a way to stop the mob from carrying out their sinister plans? All the answers will be revealed neath the fractured light of the spinning disco ball.
The August 1979 issue of Roller Skating Magazine had this to say about Jim Bray. “[He] is one of the most talented young freestyle skaters in the USA… Jim has skated competitively for 12 years, having won every Artistic Singles event from Primary Boys to Senior Men's in his Regional competitions. In National meets, he has won in all divisions with the exception of Senior Mens (in which he placed second in 1977 and third in 1978). Altogether, this young freestylist has about 275 trophies to show for his skating efforts.” With all that raw skating talent, it was obvious what Jim Bray should do in the year 1979. He should act in a movie.
Now hold on, it’s not quite as crazy as it sounds. Although roller skating has been around since 1760 when John Joseph Merlin strapped wheels on his 13 year old grandson and shoved him down the street, it wasn’t until the late 1970s that roller skating made the jump from leisure time activity to pop culture phenomenon. And there was no bigger year for roller skating than 1979. That’s the year you couldn’t switch on a TV without seeing Scooby-Doo running from the Neon Phantom of the Roller Disco or Ponch and Jon holding the first annual CHIPS roller disco charity event or even Laverne & Shirley going on a roller skating date with two midgets. With all that hype It was only natural that movie makers would want to capitalize on the craze as well. To this end the Olivia Newton John/ELO extravaganza Xanadu was given the green light and went into production. But such a massive project takes time to complete so Xanadu didn’t actually see release until 1980 when (arguably) roller disco was already on its way out. (A tough break for Roller Skating Barbie who also made her debut that year.) As usual, it was the low budget B-Movie producers who managed to churn out the flicks while the fad was still in high swing. And they gave us not just one, but two roller disco movies before year’s end.
Now, if you wanted to see people act (sort of), you bought a ticket to Skatetown USA, yet another Romeo and Juliet knockoff boasting such star power as Scott Baio, Melissa Sue Anderson, Ruth Buzzi, Flip Wilson, and some new guy named Patrick Swayze. But if you preferred to see people actually skate, you chose instead to plop down your money for Roller Boogie featuring Linda Blair and… a bunch of people you’ve never heard of who knew how to skate, including roller skating champion Jim Bray. And you know what, he’s really not THAT bad in the film. Oh, Bray’s no Patrick Swayze; he’d never go on to star in higher quality movies like Red Dawn or Roadhouse. In fact, he’d never go on to star in any movie whatsoever. But for an athlete tossed in front of a movie camera for the first time, his acting is okay, nowhere near as bad as it could have been. (One day, if I’m feeling masochistic, we’ll discuss Kurt Thomas in Gymkata and you will KNOW how bad it could have been.) But more important than his acting, maybe even more important than his skating, is the fact that Bray looks authentic and at home in his late 70s clothes while doing his late 70s things down at the local late 70s hang outs in late 70s Venice Beach.
Because in the end, that’s really the main draw to Roller Boogie, isn’t it? It’s a time capsule, a ride down memory lane. So, if for some crazed reason you’re feeling nostalgic for a trip back to the days of velour jumpsuits, blue eyeshadow, and body glitter, but you don’t want the over-stylized Hollywood version of the disco night life you get in films like Saturday Night Fever, then Roller Boogie is just the movie for you. Forget Travolta’s Tony Manero, it’s Jim Bray and the cast of Roller Boogie who truly look like the people you bumped into on every corner in the late 70s. Seriously, except for perhaps Linda Blair, on whom the producers seemed to have blown their entire $25 wardrobe budget, everyone in this movie looks like they rolled out of bed, picked something to wear out of their own closet, and showed up for work. For those who were around during that time period, Roller Boogie is the kind of movie you watch and exclaim (perhaps with jubilant remembrance, perhaps with abject shame), “Hey, I used to have a shirt just like that!” (And God help me, I did.)
And it’s not just the clothes. For the cost of your rental, you also get the obligatory kid with an afro and suitcase-sized boom box. You get Hari Krishnas banging on tambourines. You get Boogie Wonderland and 14 other beat-heavy disco tracks. You get more feathered hair than a full season of Charlie’s Angels (who, by the way, just happened to go to Venice Beach to track down a kidnapped skater during the 1979 episode “Angels On Wheels”). You even get moms on Valium! How authentic is that? Almost everything you remember about pop culture in the late 70s is right here in Roller Boogie, completely unburdened by distractions like acting, writing, or direction. Who needs I Love The 70s with its gaggle of out of work celebrities cluttering up the works with their unfunny commentary? If you’re overcome with nostalgia for 1979, this movie is the fix you’re looking for.
Of course, there are going to be those who believe anyone feeling nostalgic over this time period must actually BE crazed. And Dr. Johannes Hofer would agree. Hofer was the Swiss doctor who first coined the term “nostalgia” in 1688 to describe the crippling, sometimes deadly, homesickness being experienced by Swiss nationals stuck abroad. Over the next 200 years “nostalgia” caught on as a diagnosis and the term was used to describe any mental disorder in which an inflicted person felt pain because he was not in his native land, or feared never to see it again. During the U. S. Civil War literally thousands of cases of nostalgia were diagnosed. Observing prisoners of war, one soldier wrote home in a letter "They  became homesick and disheartened. They lost all interest in everything, and would sit in the same attitude hour after hour day after day, with their backs against the wall and their gaze fixed on the floor at my feet... they were dying of nostalgia." Things aren’t quite so dire these days. The psychiatric community has downgraded Nostalgia from a crippling mental disorder to a simple mental state. A good thing, too, as some of the original treatments for nostalgia included purging, opium injections, applying leeches, and in the case of one Russian soldier, being buried alive. (Well, in fairness, he WAS cured.) So, be at ease, if you sometimes find yourself overcome with nostalgia, you’re no longer considered to be a lunatic. But you just might be a sinner.
I suppose that needs further explanation, huh? Well, it starts with how we define nostalgia these days. A 1992 article from the Journal of Advertising (whose readership has a creepy, yet vested interest in knowing how your mind works) pieced together a nice definition of nostalgia from numerous psychoanalytic sources. Modern nostalgia “signifies a bittersweet longing for home [Holak and Havlena 1992]. It is considered an emotional state in which an individual yearns for an idealized or sanitized version of an earlier time period. This yearning for yesterday [Davis 1979] is expressed by the individual's attempts to recreate some aspect of the past in present life, either by reproduction of past activities or by the recollection of symbolic representations in memory. However, the past that is vivified is one that never existed, for it is so idealized that any negative traces are screened out [Hirsch 1992].” Obviously, this definition concentrates on the negative connotations of nostalgia while ignoring its lighter side. Popping in a DVD of Roller Boogie for a few self-depreciating laughs over the way things used to be isn’t the kind of nostalgia we're talking about here. Watching Roller Boogie and wishing everyone had Farrah-hair again because you imagine that 1979 was the most perfect time in recorded history IS.
But what exactly does that have to do with sin? Well, back in 1947, way before Vatican II, Pope Pius XII wrote an Encyclical dealing with reforms in liturgy entitled Mediator Dei. Among other things he condemned what he referred to as liturgical "antiquarianism". This is the obsessive desire to return certain aspects of the liturgy to the state they were in some time in the distant past, usually the first century, under the assumption that the old forms must be better simply because the early Christians did it that way. Pius XII's logic behind condemning antiquarianism was simple. "The Church is without question a living organism” he wrote, “and as an organism, in respect of the sacred liturgy also, she grows, matures, develops, adapts and accommodates herself to temporal needs and circumstances, provided only that the integrity of her doctrine be safeguarded." Denying the Church its ability to change and grow in the way it presents doctrine and worship is a denial of the power of God to address people where they are in history; it's saying the Holy Spirit can only move in a certain narrowly-defined environment. That’s dangerous thinking.
And that’s something someone like me should always keep mind. You see, I have to confess that, crazy or not, I do wax nostalgic over the year 1979 from time to time. But it’s not because of the hairstyles or the roller skates and certainly not because of the shirts (God help me, the shirts). It’s because at 6:00 am on Easter morning of 1979, amidst a crowd adorned in polyester flare pants and wide ties, I was baptized into the Church. That being the case, you would think the only Church period I should reasonably feel any nostalgia for is the post Vatican II Church, felt banners and all. But I was twelve years old at the time, and not having been raised a Christian, it was all new to me. Over the years I’ve slowly come to appreciate a lot of the older forms of worship used in the Church throughout its history and wouldn’t mind seeing them creep back into the liturgy in some form. I can even make what I believe are some strong arguments using art theory and the Catechism as to why I think the things I prefer should be in there. But in my zeal to recite a few sentences in Latin, hear a piece of music written before 1970, or see an elaborate altar setting, I must always be on guard not to campaign for such things out of some false sense of nostalgia, out of some hope that their usage will bring about the return of an idealized non-existent golden age of worship. That way lies antiquarianism. And most likely disillusionment, because the past isn’t always what you think you remember it was. Except for 1979, which as Roller Boogie proves, is EXACTLY what you remember it was,shirts and all. I’ll leave it to you whether that's good or bad.
One of the better examples of antiquarianism around these days is the Home Church movement. The folks at Housechurch.org, who ought to know, define Home Churches as "small groups of believers - even as few as 2 or 3 - who gather in the name of Jesus Christ. They are very similar to the earliest churches which were customarily designated in the Scriptures as household units.” They add later, “We earnestly pray for the Spirit of Knowledge to be poured out upon the whole Church and that the false doctrines and traditions which have crippled God's people will be exposed and forsaken." In short, we think organized religion sucks, so we’re going home, which is better anyway because that’s how the first Christians did it.
Home Churches represent nostalgia in its most negative sense as they try to recapture some idealized, sanitized past while ignoring all factual data about what was really going on with the first century Church. What the historical record indicates is that once the resources were available and the danger of persecution had passed, the early Christians quickly moved their worship out of their houses and into public structures. And this was not because the buildings themselves were important, but because they facilitated the gathering and organization of the ecclesial community, which absolutely was important. Take a look at the book of Titus if you need some Biblical proof, it consists almost entirely of St. Paul's instruction to the new Christians in Crete on how to quit winging it and start setting up an organized religion including (oh no) clergy. A person has to make a real effort to read the New Testament and completely miss the point that Christianity was meant to be organized from the beginning.


smiller03-9 said...

What you wrote about Jim Bray was probably the nicest anyone has been regarding his acting skills in RB.

And I should know! I run rollerboogie.net and have read all the reviews... lol! Great blog!

EegahInc said...

Hey, smiller03-9, thanks for dropping by.

Yeah, most of the stuff I found on RB was pretty down on Jim Bray's acting chops, but I don't see why? I mean, is he really a worse athlete-turned-actor than Rosie Grier was? I wish him well in whatever he went on to do.

Truthfully, I find RB impossible to dislike. When I first put it on to rewatch for this review, my jaded 17 year old daughter walked in, rolled her eyes, and made some 17 year old girl comment. Within two minutes she was planted under a blanket in front of the TV and didn't leave until the credits rolled. It's just fun.

Mr. Doob said...

Not enough raves can be made about the "throwaway" movies of the 70s. For every event fim like Jaws or Star Wars...ther were movies like The Private Eyes, C.H.O.M.P.S. and Rollerboogie. Award fims? No. Entertaining? Occasionally. Fun? Usually. I miss those days.

EegahInc said...

C.H.O.M.P.S.!!! Oh no, you didn't!

Arkanabar T'verrick Ilarsadin said...

Hey, I liked C.H.O.M.P.S. when I was a kid. I probably would today.

This column should be required reading for all those who simulate vomiting when discussing the Ordinary Form of Mass.

EegahInc said...

I know when I'm beat. C.H.O.M.P.S. has been moved to the top of the Netflix queue and will be reviewed soon.

Nick Alexander said...

Roller Boogie alert! Looks like TCM will be playing it late, late October 10 (that's October 11 for your DVRs) at 3:45 am.

It's playing after "The Apple" (1980)... hmm.... never heard of that one.

EegahInc said...

Holy...! The Apple! You have to record and watch The Apple. It's a weird hybrid of Xanadu, American Idol, Rocky Horror, and who knows what else... and God shows up at the end to save all the hippies! Just one more reason TCM is my favorite channel on TV.