At its best, the cinema-verité style of documentary filmmaking gave the world such valuable artifacts as Grey Gardens (1975), which presents the activities of fringe-dwelling eccentrics without judgmental commentary. Yet every cinematic style creates problems when taken to extremes, and the shortcomings of verité become evident while watching Derby, which is about roller derby. Since the film lacks narration or any other form of context, the parallel storylines about an aspirant and a successful player don’t connect as strongly as they should. In the aspirant storyline, wannabe Mike Snell comes across as a fool willing to quit his factory job in order to try his luck at a sport he’s never attempted, even though he has a wife and children to support. Does he have potential? Are his exploits meant to be a cautionary tale about recklessness, or an inspirational saga about following one’s dreams? Director Robert Kaylor and his collaborators withhold so much information that we don’t even know if Snell makes it to training camp, much less professional competition.
The scenes with derby professional Charlie O’Connell are more informative, simply because O’Connell is a motor-mouthed braggart, but again the lack of context is problematic—did the filmmakers elect to follow him because he’s typical or unique? Viewers can’t even discern whether O’Connell is as talented as he proclaims, since vignettes displaying action during games move so quickly that it’s hard to tell who’s skating at any given moment. Seemingly random cuts back and forth between women’s and men’s games exacerbate the murkiness. Oh, well.
Viewers who accept that Derby doesn’t answer its own questions can still find interesting things to watch. The sports-action scenes are photographed in an exciting way, with the camera moving at top speed alongside the players to catch every brawl, crash, and high-velocity knockdown. A clear picture is painted of fans demanding and rewarding violence, so there’s a quiet statement about the dark side of the American character. Similarly, the Snell scenes tell a grim story about the lives of uneducated laborers. For lack of a more gentle term, Mike and his intimates seem like white trash, especially when Mike’s wife and one of her gal pals hector a neighbor lady with accusations of being a slut. Today, entire reality-show franchises rest on the shoulders of people like the Snells—but it’s hard to figure out what slovenly housekeeping and vulgar tirades have to do with roller derby.