Rolling Thunder
Andrew Tracy on The Unholy Rollers

The problem with transgression is that it so often transgresses the frames we seek to place around it. As valorized by cultural theory, where it is usually identified with blurring gender roles and the cognitive use of bodily pleasures, the term has become synonymous with progressiveness and liberation, however vaguely defined. Once we attempt to apply that kind of affective politics to a medium that made its fortune on manipulating our affections, however, things start getting knottier. Particularly in that branch which brings sensation most nakedly to the surface—namely, trash, under whose proud banner I loosely group grotty horror flicks, cheapie sci-fi, scabrous revenge thrillers, soft-core sleazefests, and points in between.

The power and appeal of these films is the openness with which they incite those feelings from which transgression springs: shock, disgust, arousal, sadistic glee, righteous wrath. What complicates that power is that, while there are infinite gradations and combinations to be had from that mix, as categories they’re decidedly finite. And in a medium for which categorization is a modus vivendi, trash, no less than the standard Hollywood fare which it promises to outperform, must incorporate its frissons into the most broadly appealing package. The result, in most cases, is a reduction, coarsening, and cheapening of those powerful sensations it evokes—leading naturally to the same kind of cynical calculation which produces detestable romantic comedies, impossibly vulgarized “action” movies, and simpering conscience-porn.

It’s a well-worn story, but one worth remembering, especially when we try to reclaim trash for political ends. Too often, we conveniently forget that the very raison d’être of these films has nothing to with right or left and everything to do with lucre, filthy or otherwise. And as such, it has a vested interest in making itself comfortable in both camps, outside of those few commendable efforts that have a genuine political slant: Romero’s zombie flicks of course, Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000 (1975), Stephanie Rothman’s Terminal Island (1973), Jonathan Demme’s Caged Heat (1974).

Trying to stake out a position from the cynically muddled meanings and clogged sensation of the genre as a whole is like planting flags in a bog. But as we still have to operate under the pretense of specificity—that is, that what we are saying about these films has some basis in fact—we appropriate the parts we need and fill in the rest, building a simulacrum of a film to go along with the films’ simulacrum of sensation. Producing, naturally, a simulacrum of politics, useful perhaps for some pitched polemical battles but precious little beyond that. So shock becomes “shock,” transgression becomes “transgression,” and we jockey for position in a race going precisely nowhere, the only “liberation” that of insight flying free of any object to sight into.

For despite its inherently slippery nature, transgression is a definite presence within a film, but a presence that cannot be confined to the narrative mechanics of the film or the narrative mechanics of the pseudofilm made by the critic. Transgression is fundamentally inassimilable, irreconcilable, and unnamable, and this is its power. Does this then mean that it functions free of context, in some primal depths of our being? Hardly. Rather, it knits together all those contexts (the primal among them) by its very inability to be assimilated, reconciled, or named; it ruptures the skin to show the fibrous joints linking each conventional trope and conditioned response to the pulsating whole. Speaking of which, I know no better definition of transgression in the cinema than Stanley Kauffmann’s assessment of the legendary Mr. Creosote scene in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983):

If the sicking-up has any humour at all, it’s soon over. . . Clearly [Python] wants to burn through the joke and look back at it. Satire on grossness, on the need of a rich man to cram his money down his gullet in food form, on the thin servilities of a headwaiter pretending affection for a guest—these patent targets are left behind as the scene tears past the possibility of laughter into disgust and anger. . . The Monty Python people are telling us that, in the Great Contest of Life, neatness does not count. They have set foot on Blake’s road of excess, hoping that the old man was right, that it will lead to the palace of wisdom.

This may seem a rather portentous build-up to an appraisal of Vernon Zimmerman’s genially sleazy The Unholy Rollers (1972), but it’s no more out of proportion than Kauffmann’s finding echoes of Blake in Python’s oceans of vomit. For at the dead center of this clever, energetic, and well-made exploitation flick is one of the most truly transgressive, truly shocking, and wholly extraordinary figures in cinema history: one “Karen Walker,” as portrayed by Playboy Playmate Claudia Jennings with a ferocity that rips through the feeble tissue of character, actor, plot, ideology, audience response and critical interpretation.

Especially the last one. For it’s something of an unspoken assumption in trash excavation that the films’ meanings lie largely dormant, unknown to and unacknowledged by their makers. But Rollers is so audacious, and so clearly conscious of its audacity, that the critic can no longer play the role of surgeon, extracting meaning from an uncomprehending corpus. What does open up space for comment, however, is that Rollers’ cyclonic center doesn’t truly belong to anyone else, either. Trying to understand Karen through any one contributor— Jennings’s fierce performance, Zimmerman’s deft direction, Howard Cohen’s amusing script—or any one lens of interpretation—balls-out exploitation, disguised avant-gardism, reappropriated feminism, hazy political satire—will never yield the remarkable whole. Rollers is all of these things and none, and that is the only way it can be. It’s brilliant filmmaking and the most disposable of trash, slashing satire and shallow spoof. It features possibly the strongest female character in American film history and makes her gender both ultimately irrelevant and her strength wholly apolitical. To call it a masterpiece is to simultaneously overreach, condescend, and negate its power—but hell, what else can one do?

The first sign comes early: the newly unemployed Jennings, having joined the Avengers roller derby team, is sent for a physical to the lecherous team “doctor,” who promptly asks her to disrobe. The familiar trash double game looks set in place: we’re invited to leer at Jennings’s gorgeous body along with the grubby medico, while knowing that Jennings—who we’ve just seen viciously pelt her on-the-make cannery foreman with cat food tins—will exact a proper revenge, putting us safely back on “her side.” (A scenario most despicably played out in Kill Bill, where Tarantino allows us to wallow in the grotesque language of a pair of rednecks, secure in the knowledge that the faux-comatose Uma Thurman will make them pay—while their accomplices in the audience get a free ride.) But a funny thing happens: the normally volatile Jennings, even though she sees right through the doctor’s lame excuses, simply dismisses him with a sneer as not worthy of her wrath.

A curious aversion of a formulaic payoff, but nothing revolutionary. But this deferral is only setting us up for the explosion to come. At a post-game victory party in a crowded bar, Jennings’s (female) teammates, jealous of her glory-hogging performance on the rink, pin her to a pool table and forcibly strip her to the skin. But the humiliation backfires: Jennings springs up, marches boldly up to her aggressors, and delivers a verbal barrage that has to be heard to be believed. Mae West with brass knuckles and a lead pipe:

(To the ringleader of the tormentors): I’ve heard of ugly dykes in my life, but I never thought I’d see one so ugly she’d have to do all this just to get a chick to strip for her! But I will remember this, lover. And whenever I want a pair of big strong arms around me. . . I’ll go find me a man!

(To another): How about you, bitch? You ever been this close to a decent-looking body before? Take a good look, all of you! ‘Cause that’s all you’re gonna get is a look!

(Strutting over to a male patron and his girlfriend): And you. You’d like to have me, wouldn’t you? (The girlfriend protests, but Jennings quickly slaps her in the face) Don’t push it, darling, you’re not pretty enough to fight for!

It’s a jaw-dropping sequence, and one whose force is only accentuated when the still-nude Jennings stalks out of the bar and quite understandably breaks down into embarrassment and helplessness once other eyes are off her. Jennings’s wholly convincing vulnerability, and her character’s generosity—she uses her earnings to help out her exotic dancer sister, who when not on stage is constantly engaged in bizarre bedroom acrobatics with her boyfriend—prevents Karen from becoming either a symbol (the unleashed id?) or an icon, as Pam Grier’s equally formidable women became standard-bearers for the Black Is Beautiful movement. Karen is too much herself to be the spearhead for any faction: she’s wild, anarchic, impulsive, and most importantly, contradictory. The same woman who will shoot out streetlights with a Magnum while riding on the back of a motorcycle, or make the show violence of the roller derby bone-crushingly real, will also become a TV pitchwoman for laughably shoddy local products. The woman who flips the bird to her own self on TV, easily seeing through the fakery and cynicism of it all, will also pursue her dreams of stardom on the shabby roller derby circuit, despite knowing how easily she can be replaced in the bloodthirsty audience’s “hearts.”

One might accuse Karen of possessing a “false consciousness,” but it’s the very fact that her aggression has no end that gives it real power, and makes The Unholy Rollers something more than just a prime piece of trash. In the All About Eve-meets-They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? narrative which Zimmerman and Cohen have concocted, there are numerous instances of those broadly satirical swipes which critics trolling for meaning love to misrepresent as scathing critique: the scratchy, needle-skipping playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” which opens the film, the duplicitous Nick’s (Jay Varela) Captain America get-up, those chintzy commercials, the mini-society of the spectacle which is the roller derby itself, where the violence is fake and the team owners make and break “stars” at their fiscally-directed will.

The satire is present, pointed, and genuine, but it’s also shallow, and critical attempts to extract these thin satirical sallies piecemeal—to start building the pseudofilm—only show up their shallowness the more. What gives these jokey asides their real unity is the hurtling force at the film’s center. Tearing right through the film’s generic fabric, Jennings ignites the scattered satiric tinder into a raging paper fire, quick, violent, and gone before we know it. Cheap and disposable material knowingly reveals the reasons for its cheapness and disposability as it makes its way to the trash heap. With a fast-buck brilliance born equally of real ingenuity and simple greed, this quickie knock-off of the Raquel Welch vehicle Kansas City Bomber (1972) hits at the corrupted nerve endings of American society by refusing to compromise the core premise, and promise, of its generic being.

As the plot steers her towards the fall and punishment for which her rebelliousness has ordained her, Karen simply refuses to play by the script. In the Big Final Game, Karen pummels the members and coaches of the opposing team, attacks her own bench, jumps into the crowd and shoves and kicks her way out onto the street, laughingly smacks passers-by on the head, and pounds on the hoods of cars, one of which knocks her down. A moment of hushed pause, as the generic gears seem to have claimed our heroine at last—but up she gets, wounded but undaunted, while the crowd inside cheers on the game that proceeds without her and the nattering announcers keep up their inane commentary. Having held it together with her unifying destructiveness, Karen transgresses the boundaries of the film itself. Earlier she gave her own appropriated, televised image the finger; now, with the aid of an iris-in, she brandishes the enormous Avengers tattoo on her forearm directly at us, her appropriators and exploiters, her hand clenched in defiance. Forget Eisenstein and his tractors—the kino-fist rides on roller skates.