This Is Not a Game: Alan J. Pakula's Rollover

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This piece will argue for Alan J. Pakula's 1981 film Rollover as an undervalued work, and I think the underlying premise--that no one places much value on the film--is fairly uncontroversial. I've been bringing it up in conversations here and there for the last few months and I've barely found anyone who's even heard of it. It's available on video (not on DVD) but isn't among the 9,000 titles at the Toronto Film Reference Library; an Internet search turns up nothing except bland movie-encyclopedia citations. Leonard Maltin's guide calls it "laughably pretentious, barely comprehensible." (1) Of a handful of comments on the Internet Movie Database, this one is not too untypical; "The short side of the story is that this has to be one of the worst movies I have ever seen. Rhythm-wise, the movie is dead. It makes you feel like you are attending a lecture on economy at the university. And to think that I watched the movie because it was described as a 'thriller!'"

It's About Money

Rollover, a fundamentally pessimistic film despite an overall accessible tone and a final note of hope, posits that the interdependency of the financial system is unsustainable, and that a ripple of eroded confidence might bring it down. I personally think the film is a masterpiece, but I can see how reasonable people might differ on this. It hasn't aged well in some respects, and even if you like its aesthetic strategy as I do, you might not think it amounts to such a big deal in the scheme of things. What's less disputable, I think, is the film's enterprise in seeking to depict the complexity of the global financial system, and the ongoing relevance of this treatment. In a more realistic (albeit heavier-hearted) world, Rollover could be a contemporary equivalent for The Wizard Of Oz or Rebel Without A Cause, a film that finds new resonance with each succeeding generation even as the advance of time anchors it more firmly and distantly in its period.

The film is about money, one of the very few non-documentary films (the only one I can really think of, but I won't claim perfect knowledge) that's about money in its macroeconomic rather than its direct, visceral manifestation. Of course we can all recall any number of movies containing scenes of dollar bills changing hands or being counted or thrown in the air or poured onto a naked woman, and it might be that every third or fourth movie is in some way about the corrosive effects of wealth (or its correlatives) or the desire to attain it. But if banking and finance are depicted at all, they're likely to be mere facades for generalized power-lust and narcissistic excess. I can think of a few movies--Wall Street, Boiler Room, Other People's Money--that tried to illuminate some of the capitalist machinery, but in varying degrees they're all flatly melodramatic. Oddly enough, Trading Places, with its climax turning on a play on orange futures, is one of the few films that evokes something of the system's huge opaque power.

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And when did you hear people in movies discuss the deficit or the debt or the balance of payments? Of course, you don't hear much in movies about the family values agenda either, and the US election seemed to show that this is a more pressing issue to the heartland voter than the machinations of the economy, however grim those might be. But cinema hasn't served us well here. God knows one never tires of love and relationships, but mightn't one of our leading filmmakers reflect that the incremental benefit to the audience of one more illustration of human foibles would likely be less than that of a rigorous examination of the influences that govern our future? Even The Corporation, so biting and periodically insightful on the erroneous way of companies, missed the big picture by failing to explore the complicity of governments (and, for that matter, that of greedy, complacent investors) in all this. So Pakula's enterprise in taking this on still strikes me as commendable, and would be even if the execution had been botched. …