Robert Kaylor, Derby, 1971, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 93 minutes.


ROBERT KAYLOR’S 1971 documentary Derby is a quintessential movie about the American dream. The film centers on a young factory worker, Michael Robert Snell, and his pursuit of stardom on the professional roller derby circuit, but due to the proclivities of its eccentric subject—a handsome, twenty-three-year-old husband and father of two who has not outgrown his wild adolescence—Derby is also a movie about harsh American realities. Since we never know whether Snell makes it, Kaylor’s movie emphasizes the process of personal transformation rather than the goal of that transformation, and in so doing confronts the viewer with the sadness of a reinvention more deluded than courageous.

Surely over the years we’ve seen enough evidence of the disparity between American dreams and their true, pathetic circumstances—from Grey Gardens (1975) to American Movie (1999) to Capturing the Friedmans (2003)—but Derby flirts with the gawking condescension of those films without ever succumbing to it. Focusing on the boyish insouciance of Snell and the strange movie-star life he leads in Dayton, Ohio—where the sunglasses-sporting pseudo-greaser juggles nine-to-five drudgery with a rotating roster of lovers and indulgences in strip clubs and motorcycles—Kaylor taps into a Midwestern disappointment and ennui that was also finding expression in contemporaneous New Hollywood landmarks like The Last Picture Show (1971) and Five Easy Pieces (1970). Except, of course, Kaylor’s film is all too raw: patio-set confrontations between wives and mistresses, good ol’ boy boasting about extramarital conquests, accounts from returned vets about the battlefields of Vietnam.

There’s also plenty of roller derby, a sport that, judging from the terrific footage Kaylor has compiled, appears to be a succession of brutal fights intermittently broken up by skating. Legend Charlie O’Connell offers a vague history of the game and his own rise to the top, while a host of characters provide colorful locker-room commentary. The almost anarchic violence of roller derby is no doubt a perfect fit for the obliviously destructive Snell, but ironically, our quasi hero is never once shown skating, and thus we can never evaluate his potential in the sport. It seems doubtful that Snell can cut the required training period down from six weeks to three, and his plan to sneak out on his job and transplant his family to San Francisco smacks of horribly selfish judgment. Appropriate, then, that we only see Snell at the rink as a spectator, waiting for the beginning of a contest as the national anthem is canceled due to technical difficulties.

Michael Joshua Rowin

Derby plays Saturday, November 13 at the 92Y Tribeca in New York. For more details, click here.