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Review by Tom Avila
Rating: (4 out of 5)
Sunday, 10/15/2006, 3:00 PM
Shorts presentation, $9 at Lincoln Theatre
THE TAGLINE FOR the documentary Jam is, ”In 1973, roller derby died… Nobody told them.” The choice is, like the film itself, both funny and a little bit sad.
Jam ( ) director Mark Woollen can’t seem to decide whether he is paying tribute to or making fun of the American Roller Derby League (ARDL). Founded in the late 1990s and led by Tim Patten, a man whose unbridled enthusiasm for the sport is fortunately matched by apparently unlimited reserves of cash, the ARDL is Patten’s attempt to return roller derby to national prominence. He’s gathered together some of the finest skaters from roller derby’s prime, men and women who clearly long to return to the days when they were household names and small screen stars. We follow the League over a number of years, watching as Tim tries time and again to shore up its shaky foundation, attempting to hold off the failure that feels almost palpable in every scene.
When Woollen allows his film to move on its own, Jam does that wonderful thing that only truly great documentaries can do. It translates obsession into something graspable by the rest of us. It takes a seemingly ridiculous dream and allows viewers to understand, if only briefly, why someone would risk everything to make it happen. We want Tim to succeed if only because it means that success is possible. We want the League to flourish because it means that maybe we all get more than 15 minutes of fame in this lifetime.
The only moments when Jam falters are when the film tries to assume a cool distance from its subject. You suddenly wonder if you’re supposed to be empathizing with these aging hopefuls or if this is all just some big joke. Strange choices for background music, a brief bit of animation intended to explain the sport to roller derby neophytes, and the aforementioned tagline — when Jam tries to be clever, it loses its heart.
Did roller derby really die in 1973? That seems open for debate, perhaps on the way home from seeing a great documentary on the subject.
Also playing is the documentary short High Heels on Wheels ( ), which has the kind of polish one would like to see more of in documentary filmmaking. It’s ironic that this quiet and poetic series of portraits is, like the full length film that it accompanies, about the rough and rowdy world of roller derby. High Heels focuses on the women who put on their skates in the ’40s and ’50s and found not only a sport that welcomed female athletes, but a provided a safe space for out lesbians. — Tom Avila