The Ecstatic Truth of Derby, Code Red Catch-Up, Part 5

It seems like I do a lot of bouncing back and forth on this site, between weird Code Red flicks and documentaries.  Well, who says those have to be such extreme polls?  Why can't they meet in the middle, like, say, a weird Code Red documentary?  Derby is just that, one weird but rather wonderful documentary, but put by Code Red.  This isn't their only documentary, they recently put out the infamous Being Different doc, and I guess if you want to count Urban Legends and The Art of Nude Bowling as documentaries, there's that disc.  But while Being Different promises something exotic and fascinating with its premise, it's actually quite drab and conventional.  And Derby is the opposite.  On its face, it looks like one of the most tedious, boring films of all time.  Some dated, low budget expose on roller derby?  That sounds like the kind of film you make a classroom of students watch as a punishment.  But it's actually nothing like you'd expect and utterly fascinating.
I said something along these lines while talking about another doc, but what really sets a great documentary filmmaker apart from the majority is the ability to make a compelling movie for audiences who have no interest in the subject matter.  You know, if you're a massive model train enthusiast, you might get excited by the prospect of a documentary that shows a bunch of rare, highly sought after but almost never seen trains.  But you've gotta be in that niche audience because everybody else would be bored to tears.  And if a film's got a topic with broader appeal, like a controversial true crime that everybody's already desperate to learn more about, it'll reach a wider audience.  But only the real masters can make a film about a niche subject that still works for everybody.

...Well, that, or you've got to just get super lucky and have the wildest, captivating shit just randomly unfold in front of your cameras.  Derby's probably the latter, but no less spell-binding for it.  Look closely at this next screenshot.
Derby starts out as a very conventional documentary about roller derby.  And okay, with it's penchants for random fights breaking out during high speed racing, it's not exactly the most boring sport to cover.  But I promise you, nobody could be less interested in roller derby footage than me, and yet I am 100% sold on this film.  Very early on as they're filming a roller derby event and doing some interviews with the athletes, a local young man makes his way backstage, determined to join the roller derby.  And so the bulk of this movie - it does go on a few other interesting tangents as well - picks up and follows this man on his quest, capturing his completely unfiltered, middle American life in the process.  And that's how it becomes one of the greatest American documentaries of all time.
This is the kind of film they could never make today, because people are too savy.  But in the early 70s, in Nowhere America, his bank just lets him walk in with a crew and film his experience trying to negotiate a bank loan.  It starts to feel like Louis Malle's Humain, trop humain when we follow him into the tire factory as he talks his boss into letting him forgo wearing safety glasses and beg for time off to train for the derby.  But again, "unfiltered" is really the key word here.  We follow this man to the seedy local strip club with his friend, swap stories at the local bar, his brother argue with his mom against getting a job while idly flipping through an issue of Playboy in bed.  Nobody in this day and age would let themselves be filmed in these positions, but here they just live their lives nakedly.
And there's really no limit.  When his wife and her best friend march over to another woman's place to accuse her of cheating with her husband, they have a long, unbridled argument right before our very eyes.  It reminds me a lot of Errol Morris's early films, like Vernon, Fl or that scene in Gates of Heaven where the old woman goes on a brilliant, unprompted monologue about her grandson on the front stoop of her trailer.  If you appreciate those works of documentary art, well, this film has every bit of magic those films do.  And it also has some more conventional derby coverage, too.  But they get some great footage and pull some pretty interesting interviews out of that material as well.  And the fact that this crazy, un-glamorous sporting world is the dream this guy is turning his life upside down for ties it all together.  It winds up with an utterly unpretentious expose on class in this country that frankly deserves an Academy Award, but instead has gone widely unnoticed and unappreciated, only rescued for DVD by cult maverick Code Red.  In terms of sheer artistic merit, this could just as well go in The Criterion Collection, though admittedly it certainly doesn't have the pomp or prestige one normally associates with them.
2009 US Code Red DVD.
Code Red's DVD is the only release of this film. It has a couple notices that pop up on start-up: that this is the director's original R-rated cut (apparently there was a shorter version made for TV at some point), taken from a 35mm archival print from UCLA (the film was shot on 16mm and blown up to 35), and that it's full-screen, which is the director's intended aspect ratio.  So all that's great.  I bet the director didn't intend for the interlacing problem this disc has, though.  That's a clear, unfortunate flaw.  But apart from that, sure this is in SD rather than HD, but as a 16mm blow-up, the film probably wouldn't look that much better in the hands of Criterion or anybody else.  There's a little dirt and chemical spots, naturally, but the only serious problem is the interlacing.

Audio just consists, as any Code Red aficionado could predict, of the original mono track in 2.0 with no subtitle options.
Special features, though, are surprisingly rewarding.  We get two audio commentaries - one by director Robert Kaylor and one by producer William Richert - and they're both great.  They're full of energy, have a lot of good behind-the-scenes info to share, and they're well moderated, though these two guys don't seem to need it.  And not only do they still have the original trailer (which, unfortunately, is in very low definition), they interview the original editor who cut the trailer.  Interestingly, the voice-over narrator for the trailer is none other than Roy Scheider.  There's also a whole ton of Code Red bonus trailers.  But that's still not all.
Wait a minute. I'm sensing a theme in Kaylor's work.
We also get Robert Kaylor's first film, Max Out.  It's a short film, but not that short at 45 minutes.  And this time it's not a documentary but a drama, cast entirely by ex-convicts.  And despite it's obviously minimal budget, it's actually rather good and holds up quite well.  I don't hold it in quite as high regard as I do Derby, and it's probably not a film I'd buy on DVD on its own.  But it makes for a nice bonus feature and is definitely worth the watch.  Unfortunately, it is also interlaced.  But on the plus side, Max Out also features an audio commentary by Kaylor.  Code Red really dug deep for this release.
So overall, this is a great DVD that unfortunately was never going to find its audience.  And so it's become one of those titles sitting on sale in the Code Red cartel that everybody passes over.  But I treasure it.

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