Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 22, 2018 6:55 am 
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Us too?

The general manager at a highway-side ''sports bar with curves" has her incurable optimism and faith, in her girls, her customers, and herself, tested over the course of a long, strange day.

Andrew Bujalski's early work, which got him the title "the Godfather of Mumblecore," began with Funny Ha Ha (2002), in color, and went on to Mutual Appreciation (2005), in 16 mm. black and white. Like others of this genre, they focused on the relationships of middleclass white American twenty-somethings. Beeswax (2009) took a stab at high concept or took on a dare, hinging on the odd situation of twins, one of whom is in a wheelchair, the other normal. Bujalski went to Harvard, and his early movies were shot around Boston or New York.

My review of Mutual Appreciation was positive and in the nature of finding a diamond in the rough. Though it's not particularly cinematic, I wrote, "something magical does happen" because, in time, observation of the trio of people depicted (with Bujalski, as Funny Ha Ha, also one of the main actors) the film reveals "the inner beauty of their natures." The Variety reviewer said Bujalski's sceond film seemed like a script by Eric Rohmer shot by John Cassavetes. Had Bujalski been Rohmer or Cassavetes, he'd have gone on shooting work in this talky, semi-autobiographical vein.

Obviously Beeswax was a departure. But nothing prepared one for Computer Chess (2013) . Today it may look like a nerdy East Coast-set outtake of the recent (2014-2017) AMC series "Halt and Catch Fire." It focuses on a circa 1980 weekend computer chess convention. It depicts a time when the technology was clunky and the people were not hip. But that description can't explain the wonderful strangeness. Bujalski's Mumblecore methods contribute, but there is the whole period thing, and the strange nascent technology that coalesces into something unique, a kind of retro-sci-fi. Computer Chess got Bujalski more attention than ever before. Some were ecstatic, others repulsed. Either way it was clearly a cult film, and sui generis.

Two years later, Bujalski's 2015 Results was another shift. It's rather a disappointment for those whose expectations were aroused by Computer Chess, but it's a slicker, more conventionally accomplished film, this time with a cast of experienced actors, and, though a romantic comedy set in Austin, Texas (Bujalski's home ground, to which he has returned), with odd, specific details. Bujalski again focuses on a trio of lead characters, an enthusiastic fitness gym operator, (Guy Pearce); his recalcitrant and sexy personal trainer (Cobie Smulders); and a newly rich client they both tangle with (Kevin Corrigan). What we may take with this into Bujalski's latest, Support the Girls, is that some called Results "Altmanesque."

Girls, a further leap in a new direction, makes one think even more of Altman, because it has an ensemble quality. It relies on a place - a southern place - a big mediocre Texas "sports bar with curves" called Double Whammies with busty, scantily clad waitresses programmed to be friendly, but not too friendly. The subject is the cacophony of this world. Bujalski doesn't do the group action as richly as Altman would, and his main focus is on the manager of the bar, Lisa (Rebecca Hall) and this is a day (and a little more) in her life. A tough one.

The cast is mostly of pros, but not names like Guy Pearce. Hall is excellent, totally believable and appealing. I particularly noticed Lea DeLaria, as Bobo, a middle-aged dike who's a Double Whammies regular. She has recently been in "Orange Is the New Black," but I know her as Angie, the lesbian mentor of Eric, the protagonist of the best American gay coming of age film, the 1998 Edge of Seventeen. And then there's the '80's and '90's indie film favorite and never-star, James Legros, who you may remember as Matt Dillon's sidekick in Drugstore Cowboy. He plays Cubby, Lisa's difficult and annoying boss.

Support the Girls begins with an obvious warmup section where we meet the girls and hear from Lisa how the joint is run. At first the mood is cheery. The girls are bouncy in spirit as well as boob. The place is not blatantly sexist like the chain, "Man Cave," and is really a "family bar," she claims. Hence the girls have a strict code of conduct - and dress - and so do the clients, who can get eighty-sixed sometimes, which we see an example of right away. Double Whammies is rife with inappropriate behavior nonetheless. Gradually throughout the day things get worse. There is an attempted burglary, and it's obviously an inside job so Lisa must fire a cook. Repair of the breakin damage cuts off the TV, a running problem throughout the day.

Not all the action is confined to the bar. A drive with Cubby leads to Lisa's being fired. It's not for the first time, but this time, it's for keeps, though later she regrets that decision. Another fired girl gets helped out by Lisa, who takes back a loan when the girl gets reunited with her deadbeat boyfriend. Lisa's depressed, unemployed husband unexpectedly leaves, not something she needs on a day as full of mishaps and disappointments as this one. And yet, Lisa is reluctant to leave Double Whammies, because it is her home, and the girls and customers are her family. But she does leave, for a coda when she and several of the girls apply for jobs at the local Man Cave. They end letting off steam on the roof, yelling at the top of their lungs, out toward the highway, with its sound like the sound of the sea, in the most beautifully photographed sequence of the film, shot in bright natural light that highlights the beauty of these pretty, goodhearted, underappreciated women.

Support the Girls carries the tranche de vie to perfection. It really does feel like peering in on people's lives, mainly Lisa's. Bujalski has come a long way from his nerdy East Coast white twenty-somethings; that must be partly the idea. This is emphatically not something Eric Rohmer would have done,- gone out and shot a subculture he knows nothing about. But maybe Bujalski does know something about places like Double Whammies. The point is, he's entering into quite other lives, and doing so with a remarkable seamlessness. This could be like a sitcom, like "Cheers." But it is not. It's a sympathetic look into lives very much not of the rich and famous, nor of the educated, nor of the upwardly mobile. Its vérité methods test our ability to get along without dramatic structure, or resolution. But a final chorus of screams helps. It will have to serve in the absence of an Aristotelian Catharsis, which modern realism does not afford us. Bujalski's film does have economy, and scenes. By whatever path he has gotten here, with this look into a low-paying, often-disrespecting work environment for women, he has touched one of the nerves of contemporary consciousness.

There's a very informative, appreciative review by Mark Jackson in Epoch Times.

Support the Girls, 90 mins., debuted 9 Mar. 2018 at SxSW (Austin), and showed in seven other festivals. Its general US theatrical release begins 24 Aug. 2018. Metascore 87%.

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