While Andrew Bujalski’s films might have departed, in some ways, from the mumblecore aesthetic that he pioneered with Funny Ha Ha, they haven’t ever quite left the spatial malaise that made mumblecore so memorable behind. Those early, lo-fi, handheld efforts typically took place against fugitive, fleeting, transitory backdrops – spaces that never quite articulated themselves as spaces, or allowed characters to articulate themselves within those spaces if they remained in them for very long, or made the mistake of regarding them as permanent or homely. In a way, the mumblecore movement seemed prescient that urban space, and the public sphere, was itself a precarious prospect in America even then, seeking out the remaining fissures and interstices where a certain kind of slack-garde mentality could still flourish in the face of escalating gentrification, increasing real estate prices, and a general corporatisation of American public space in the wake of the great urban inner city blights that had reached their crescendo by the 1990s. Some fifteen years after Funny Ha Ha, that standardization of space is more or less complete, meaning that Bujalski’s outlook feels more relevant than ever, if only because the worlds his characters managed to temporarily set up around themselves feel more improbable than ever as well.
If you had to condense Bujalksi’s spatial sensibility down to one tendency, then, it is his ability to give a lived-in feel to spaces that are inimical to being lived in, and to provide characters who are effectively homeless, in one way or another, with a fleeting and precious glimpse of home, if only through affirming a shared and fleeting public sphere in which homelessness can be experienced as a communal affect. No spaces in America today quite encapsulate those tendencies like gyms, which require private membership, but are also designed to reinstate a public life missing from public space itself, and which typically spring up in the shells of structures typically once occupied by more traditionally communal outlets, especially family restaurants and video stores. Yet even when they’ve been established for some time, most gyms that have sprung up in this most recent wave of fitness fanaticism tend to feel transitory, as if they’ve never quite claimed the space they inhabit from what came before, and won’t leave any impact on the space after they’ve left it either. In part, that’s because gyms tend to be fairly bare-bones when it comes to fixtures and adornments, even as they insist upon personal attachment and loyalty as well, offering themselves up as zones where important relationships are played out, and moments of transformation take place, but rarely achieving homeliness, or a sense of being inhabitable.
In that sense, gym architecture has come to summarise the status of American public space today in a particularly acute way, testifying, time and again, to the impermeability of public space to anything resembling a fully-functioning public sphere, if only because gyms come closer to any other mass institution to trying to resuscitate it, whether through bootleg sessions that expand the activities of clients into surrounding parks, or promotions designed to bring the public into the gym itself through cheap deals, free sessions and group discounts. Yet Results makes you realise how rarely American cinema orients itself by way of the gym as a central space in American culture, as Bujalski suffuses the whole look and feel of his film with the provisional and transitory quality of gym architecture, outlining a narrative that is literally based in an Austin gym, but which quickly imparts the spatial logic of the gym to the film as a whole. Amidst a cast that includes actual bootleggers and gymgoers, the story centres on three characters who depend upon a local gym for their sense of public self, even if they can’t ever quite make the gym come into focus as a properly public space, or translate its publicity into the other public spaces they experience – Trevor (Guy Pearce), the manager, Kat (Cobie Smulders), a trainer, and Danny (Kevin Corrigan), a new client who moves into the area, and causes a rift between Trevor and Kat.
Although these characters very much determine the shape of the film, they’re introduced through and within the film’s broader spatial palette, which often reminded me of Aki Kaurismaki’s film’s in its awry, prefabricated perkiness. Never quite bleak, and never quite ironic, Results recognises that the standardisation of American urban space brings a certain comfort and charm with it as well, as Bujalski takes us through one bright, overlit, vacant space after another, in an endless array of sunny vistas and bright whitewashed walls that could occasionally be mistaken for an advertisement for a new business park, or a new gated community. While there may be social media outlets everywhere, the film cuts between YouTube and its own footage so seamlessly that any possibility of digital disruption is quickly subsumed back into the film’s brilliant palette, just as the internet is only ever present as a way to access fitness videos, and supplement training, rather than as a line of flight or point of escape, let alone anything that could genuinely disrupt this upbeat world.
In their yearning to occupy the fleeting fringes of a rapidly homogenizing world, mumblecore films were as much about digital technology as they were about urban space, to the point where their endless corridors, fire escapes and transit lounges all felt like so many digital glitches, disruptive reprives in a world that was quickly containing and homogenising the haptics and body language of the characters that occupied them. More specifically, perhaps, mumblecore films were concerned about the ability of urban space, and digital technology, to genuine mediate, rather than simply dictate, human experience and behavior. Fifteen years later, Bujalski’s mumblecore murk has been relegated to the corners of the few night scenes in Results, all of which feel darker than the daylight sequences of his earlier films, while the capacity of digital technology, let alone traditional cinema, to adequately mediate reality, has been bypassed as well, as evinced in a phone conversation between Danny and Trevor that takes place during a movie screening with no sense that the theatre a different kind of space from the gym on the other end of the line.
Instead, Results frames disruption, and rehabilitation, in a slightly different way from Bujalski’s earlier films. Rather than centre the action around fleeting moments of murky dissolution, Bujalski instead floods his spaces with a profound emptiness and vacancy, divesting them of virtually all fixtures and furnishings, until they all feel like more or less the same space. While Results may be considerably higher-budget than Funny Ha Ha or Mutual Appreciation, it therefore feels like a low-budget film, just because it feels as if it has been shot within as narrow a spatial ambit as possible, or that Bujalski has just picked the most anonymous and accessible spaces he can find for the sake of practicality. Despite the fact that the action moves between Austin and Texas, the two most “arty” cities in Texas, they’re both divested of even the most residual texture or student culture, subsumed into the broader swathe of Texas much as the most residual idiosyncrasies in each space are subsumed into the homogenising principle of the film as a whole. In fact, Texas is little more than a massive, sunny, vacancy throughout Results, leaching Marfa, in particular, of so much texture, that the only reason Trevor travels there in the first place is to visit a Russian kettlebell instructor who happens to be in town, and who he wants to invite to visit his gym.
What makes that anonymity all the more unsettling is that various exterior sequences make it clear that Results is indeed shot on location in both Austin and Marfa, even as Bujalski treats that location as a pervasive, upbeat anonymity – the presence of the broader Texan sprawl – rather than as an attention to any putatively local culture. Only at the very end do we see anything like a genuine panorama of Marfa – we never see much of Austin at all – but even then it’s splintered between Trevor and Kat as they embark on their separate runs, both of which are scored to musical tracks that are too dissonant with each other, and too dissonant with Marfa’s downbeat atmosphere, to ever allow the city to really take on a presence of its own. Meanwhile, back in Austin, every space feels continuous with the gym, from Danny’s new house, which still has plastic on the furniture and doesn’t even have television hooked up, to the blank site that Trevor has fixed upon for his new gym – a site that is temporarily personalised through his relationship with Mandy (Constance Zimmer), the real estate agent who brokers the deal for him, only for this to end abruptly when the deal closes. Throughout all these spaces, Pearce’s presence exudes the atonal blankness of an Australian indie film, since while his accent initially feels out of place, it gradually becomes the driving principle of the film, displacing cosiness and homeliness in much the same way that the Australian accent displaces American notions of cosiness and homeliness in films made down under that are keen to insist upon their local ambience and experience.
Beyond a certain point, that all produces a drifting, aimless, directionless energy that percolates every space, and that imbues every body with an inherent malleability, pliability and apathy. The result is never exactly tragic, but never exactly comic either, instead drawing upon the unique combination of boredom and depression – boredom as a form of depression – that made mumblecore so powerful to begin with. In Results, that boredom is not only more prevalent than ever, but is the basis of the fitness industry, which attempts to regulate, or to mediate, it, much as mumblecore cinema did a decade before – with one critical difference. For whereas Trevor continually sets out to contain and control boredom, Bujalski is also aware that exercising, and the anticipating of exercising, creates further boredom – in other words, that people are getting fit and not getting fit for the same reason. That circularity, and the awareness that there is no clear or direct line of flight, is a very mumblecore insight, and it creates more dissonance with Trevor’s worldview as the film goes on, just as it becomes clear that all three of the main characters – Trevor, Kat and Danny – are trying and failing to use fitness as a way of completely containing this boredom.
That’s probably clearest in the case of Trevor, whose drum kit identifies him with the persistent beat that fades in and out of the film, as if trying to keep the broader hush and spatial sameness of the Texan urban sprawl at bay. Goal-centred and result-driven in everything he does, Trevor is continually trying to broker an uneasy alliance with Bujalski’s bright mise-en-scenes, and to reclaim their blankess as a “wellness philosophy” in which self-actualisation is possible provided that he standardises himself as much as the spaces he occupies. By contrast, Kat treates these spaces as a direct threat, continually challenging and even threatening people who give up on their fitness routine, and prepared to sacrifice professionalism if it means keeping a client dedicated to their schedule and results. In fact, so antagonistic does she seem towards the film’s spaces that she can’t go for any sustained length of time without a workout – lrunning away from one bland vista after another, or running headling into one bland vistas after another, depend upon how you look at it – while her brief shot at a corporate job produces a flurry of panicking stretching and lunging that leads to her returning to fitness almost immediately. Finally, Danny embodies everything the fitness world is trying to forestall, which is presumably why Trevor finds him so infuritating and Kat finds him so compelling. Where Trevor plays drums, Danny plays an ambling, improvisational strain of electrical guitar, while his body language is too unusual and unkempt to ever quite lend itself to training (the closest he ever comes to lifting weights is after a drunk conflict with Trevor). To make matters worse, Danny has the wealth that is one of the end goals of Trevor’s self-actualisation, but he is never able to quite inhabit or compute it, since it gradually emerges that he abruptly inherited a huge amount of money just after breaking up with his wife, meaning the windfall was his to spend alone.Yet that very fact also means that Danny, like Kat and Trevor, needs fitness in his life, if only as a rhetoric of self-actualisation that will allow his wealth to feel like a meaningful achievement, and permit him to fully move into the expensive mansion that he has rented.
Between the three of these characters, fitness addresses, but never quite resolves, the yawning spaces of the film. While Trevor is quite compelling, his Australian accent works perfectly to capture the false transparency – the reassuring appeal to “commonsense” values – that makes his self-actualisation philosophy so appealing (“Part of achieving excellence is delivering excellence – consistently”). Similarly, while Kat’s combative approach to the world allows her to momentarily disrupt the spaces she departs, in one run after another, she never quite prevents those spaces from reconstituting themselves seamlessly in her wake either. And, finally, while Danny may try to use fitness as a way of brokering some kind of peace with his newfound wealth, he never fully moves into his house, which looks more and more like the gym as the film proceeds, not least because his home gym is the only part of his house he even furnishes. Even the brief workout montage sequence between Trevor and Danny is suffused with the same sense of lethargy, despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that they reference Rocky’s montage sequences just before it occurs, and indeed seem to be consciously creating a montage sequence all of their own.
In some ways, the waning of Rocky as a motivational text – and the workout spaces it once commanded – says it all here, but Results isn’t entirely pessimistic either. No doubt, as the film proceeds, this trio of characters finds fitness more and more indispensable for navigating the strange spatial malaise that surrounds them, but more and more inadequate, at the same time, in totally addressing or containing it. In true mumblecore fashion, escape is both necessary and impossible, forcing Bujalski to double down on the moments of haptic communion that made mumblecore so precious in the first place, but condense them even more directly and viscerally to the human body. For it’s in the haptic connection between trainers and clients, and between trainers and other trainers, that this brief glimpse of a public sphere still occurs – a place where you can still brush up against other bodies, and have a sense of embodied collective life, while still maintaining some semblance of anonymity as well. By the end, that haptic intimacy of fitness has become synonymous with romance, and even sexuality, paving the way for an epilogue in Danny’s house in which he plays guitar and Trevor and Kat dance amidst a sea of other bodies, even as it’s not quite clear whether Danny is remaining, whether Trevor and Kat will remain together, or whether the house has been furnished in any way. For the first and last time Danny’s guitar and Trevor’s drums momentarily meet up on the soundtrack, and for the first and last time we see a crowd extrapolated, fleetingly, from all the haptic communions that have occurred around fitness across the film, none of which are quite synonymous with fitness either, in yet another of moments, and conclusions, that make Bujalski’s body of work so beautiful.