Bujalski: Support the Girls (2018)

Andrew Bujalski’s latest film, Support the Girls, is one of the most moving and understated workplace dramas I’ve seen in a long time. Most of it takes place over one day, and revolves around the people who work at Double Whammies, a sports bar and restaurant on the side of the highway in some undisclosed area of exurban Texas. The main character is the bar’s manager, Lisa Conroy, played by Regina Hall, who spends this day trying to maintain work flow, and keep things running smoothly, before finally deciding that it’s time to move on to another position. Problems arise both inside and outside the restaurant, while the looming threat of ManCave – a corporate sports bar chain – is always on the horizon. Most of the film occurs before the lunch rush and before the dinner rush, when there are only a few people in the restaurant, and most of the characters are young women, presented as the coal face of the precariat, and the group where precarious labour is most vividly dramatized.

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Over his last couple of films, Bujalski has tapped into the look and feel of a world where cinema has vanished as a communal presence, and as a point of communal convergence. More generally, Bujalski’s film capture something post-visual about the American landscape, the sense that everyday life no longer aspires to the flair of television, cinema, advertising or all the other visual media that once dominated the nation’s culture. While his heartland palettes might be bright, his compositions might be crisp, and his tableaux might be beautiful, Bujalski’s recent visual style is usually offset by a sense of absence, an awareness that the focus of everyday life has moved away from the visual field, or dissipated our visual field in some way. In particular, Bujalski seems prescient that cinema can no longer be relied upon to mediate professional and personal relationships in the way that it once did, whether by providing an actual space where romance and work can be extended, or by providing cues to be incorporated back into the viewer’s own romantic and professional life.

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Something of that situation works its way into his depiction of Double Whammies, a space that promises to provide romantic fulfilment for its patrons, and professional fulfilment for its employees, but is never quite able to mediate or moderate that balance in a stable way. Although Double Whammies markets itself as a leader in the “entertainment industry,” it often feels as if it needs the support of a more robust entertainment industry – and a more robust cinematic industry in particular – to make its project of community work. For all its “atmosphere,” the restaurant never escapes the continuous sounds of the highway, which is often front and centre within the soundscape, but is just as often pushed to the very fringes of ambience, all the more resonant when it is almost sublimated into silence. In recent American cinema, this continuous drone of cars is often used to suggest a camera, and a cinema, that can no longer sequester itself from the world, and offer a self-contained reality, as it once did. The same holds here, as Bujalski structures the day around two post-cinematic technologies that never quite succeed in keeping the mission of the bar in place.

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The first of these occurs early in the day, and involves an errand run by Lisa and her friend Danyelle, played by Shayna McHayle, who also works as a waitress at Double Whammies. In order to secure a good deal on a new entertainment system, Lisa reluctantly encourages Danyelle to flirt with a customer who works at an entertainment store. While this customer is married, he likes to flirt with women by taking them on a “tour” through the latest entertainment console, which features a cinematic-sized screen, reclining chairs and other accoutrements typical of a traditional theatre. We never find out exactly what happens when he takes Danyelle on this tour, since watching the promotional footage on the console – which she has seen many times before – makes Lisa so uncomfortable that she quickly leaves Danyelle before the tour can begin. Still, there’s a threatening overtone to this home theatre environment that’s totally inimical to the cosy cinematic experience it wants to ape.

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The second post-cinematic technology occurs that night, in the bar itself, where the crowd starts to grow restless after the digital feed stops working, meaning they can’t watch the fight they have come to see. In order to ameliorate the situation, Lisa’s best waitress, Maci, played by Hayley Lu Richardson, does a “preshow” on top of the bar, alternately dancing for the men and paying tribute to Lisa (“it makes such a difference when the boss really cares about you.”) In lieu of the fight, however, the family vibe of the restaurant starts to break down, as Maci encourages them to celebrate what makes Double Whammies so special – “men being men, watching women being women” – only to find the toxicity of the crowd starting to peak beyond her control. Finally, as the adrenalin reaches a tipping-point, the fight comes back on, assuaging the crowd, but leaving all of the employees in a disheveled and fractured state of mind, whence they have to rapidly work their way back to normality.

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In both these cases, the longevity of the bar depends upon a post-cinematic technology that doesn’t seem able to guarantee consensus or community with the same dexterity as cinema. That’s not to say, of course, that the consensus and community of cinema is good in and of itself. After all, the character who probably cares the most about the cinematic sheen of the bar – owner Cubby, played by James LeGros – is also the most prejudiced, insisting on only one black waitress per shift to maintain the right mise-en-scene for his Texas clientele. Rather, the film is poised between the artificial consensus of cinema, and the vacuum left in the wake of cinematic consensus, aware of a structuring absence without ever exhibiting too much nostalgia for the presence that preceded it. This produces moments of quietness, and immanence, that wouldn’t have been possible within a more cinematic milieu – moments that depend precisely on that lack of consensus in order for these characters to be able to commune in a more provisional and spontaneous way with one another. At the same time, it offers a vision of precarity unthinkable in a more traditionally cinematic release, partly because this precarity stems from precisely this absence of cinematic cues.

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For me, this is the heart of what makes Bujalski’s films so powerful – their ability to evoke the romantic precarity, and professional precarity, that ensues in a world where we no longer have certain standard cinematic cues, beats and tics embedded within our physiology. Once upon a time, cinema seemed to provide a series of postures and bodily orientations for withstanding precarious situations, but as cinema has waned, so too has this catalogue of positions. While in practice these positions may have only been available for certain demographics, Support the Girls seems to suggest that they had a more general, hypothetical applicability, if only by assuring people that at some point there would be a cinematic manual for the kinds of precarities they were experiencing. Within Bujalski’s films, that assurance no longer holds true, as his characters are faced with situations that both demand and defy cinema as a therapeutic medium, forcing them to find alternative forms of community and collectivity that substitute or approximate for what cinema once provided.

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Much of that search takes place in and around experiences of assault, or imminent assault. Few situations fuse personal and professional precarity like assault, since assault often depends precisely on introducing a precarious personal dimension to professional relationships. For the girls at Double Whammies, this is an occupational hazard, since they have to use flirtation as part of their brand, but also maintain a “zero tolerance policy on disrespect.” For them, toxic masculinity isn’t an abstract concept, nor one singular event, but a daily workplace situation that can never be completely managed. While they need to remain “mainstream,” and cultivate a family-friendly image, they’re also aware that pushing things a bit further can be remunerative, and sometimes necessary, for their financial survival from week to week. Over the course of the film, precarity comes to consist of this need to push things, or poise things, just beyond what is legitimate – to treat policies as guidelines, rather than statements of fact – since it’s impossible to stay afloat within them.

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In the process, the prospect of assault becomes the situation in the film where this absence of cinematic consensus is most vivid. On the one hand, Bujalski can’t exhibit nostalgia for cinematic consensus around assault, since that very consensus, at an industrial level, is what allowed assault to continue for so long unchecked. At the same time, the film does yearn for a common set of poses, postures and tics – analogous to those provided by cinema, but not cinematic in themselves – that will allow its characters to negotiate the continuous prospect of assault in a productive and liberating way. Yearning for the presence of a common vocabulary for negotiating assault, but unable to mourn the absence of a cinematic vocabulary, the film unfolds one situation after another within which the characters aren’t quite able to mount a common or collective front against the omnipotent prospect of being manhandled and wolfwhistled, however many measures might be put in place. Longing for cinematic consent, but aware that the very idea of consent has been tainted by cinema, the characters in Bujalski’s world are forced to improvise a new set of bodily languages for each situation as it presents itself, especially when the situation turns upon assault in some way.

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Rather than fall back upon older cinematic postures, or invent a new quasi-cinematic vocabulary, Bujalski’s characters thus turn the experience of precarity itself into a line of flight from the narratives of consent that might be fostered upon them. Never quite aligning her consent with Double Whammies, Lisa is attuned to the highway above all else, tapping into its rhythm and momentum, and refusing to ever stay still for long enough to congeal into a steady pose, or feel the absence of conventional cinematic poses too dramatically. The one thing she can’t stand is people who don’t try – it’s the reason her marriage falls apart – while the one place she feels comfortable is on the highway, with Double Whammies only turning out to be a pitstop on her wider journey. In the final sequence of the film, that splits the highway murmur into two very different types of white noise, and arranges Lisa’s trajectory around them. The first is the barely audible white noise of the corporate suite where she and the other girls interview for ManCave after leaving Double Whammies, adopting the cinematic postures that are required to get them through the interview. The second is the raucous roar of the highway, which Lisa, Maci and Danyelle immerse themselves in when they climb up to the roof of the suite for a drink after the interview. When Lisa reflects that “I do love that highway sound, cars driving by,” Maci, Danyelle and then all three women scream into the onslaught of noise in the film’s last note.

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In an older kind of film, or a film more nostalgic for cinematic language, this would be a gesture of resistance, or a gesture of frustration, or a gesture of empowerment. Yet the tonality is more diffuse here, as each women simply immerses herself in the precarity of her romantic and professional life, lets it wash over and around her, to remain suspended in a space between the absence of cinema and whatever technology might next regulate and organise our body and thoughts in the way that cinema once did. In that moment, it’s a utopian vision, especially since smart phones don’t seem capable of this kind of regulation in Bujalski’s world, despite playing an important role in nearly every scene. It may be, the film suggests, that we never have a medium capable of mediating our lives and work in the same way that cinema once did, which is a bit scary, but also a bit liberating too. In either case, Support the Girls ends up as one of the deftest takes on consent, and cinematic consent, that I’ve seen post-Weinstein, as well as the best take on how the world looks after that cinematic consent has dispersed, along with the visual field it once commanded and contained.

About Billy Stevenson (930 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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