As the resident Kelly Reichardt fanboy around these parts, it’s my duty to inform the TFE readership that Showing Up is currently available on PVOD, and it’s another smashing success from the director. Admittedly, such effusive verbiage is at odds with the film proper. You see, Reichardt has produced a film of such self-evident smallness it seems to arrive pre-labeled as a minor work in the auteur’s canon. Then again, all of the director’s features could be similarly described by those misaligned with her insularly specific wavelength. No Kelly Reichardt film feels big, not even when containing sprawling landscapes, multiple storylines, or the ghost of past lives haunting present earth.
And yet, Showing Up takes things to another level, closing itself in a cantankerous mood and hyper-precise milieu, playing with anti-dramatics to the point it feels like a provocation directed at those who don’t get it. In other words, this may be Reichardt’s version of ‘one for the fans’…
Michelle Williams plays Lizzy, a Portland-based sculptor currently dividing her attention between administrative work for a non-profit arts organization and creating new pieces for an upcoming exhibition. There’s also the matter of her family which might or might not be troubled, on the constant verge of a crisis. It’s difficult to parse out what is genuine worry and what is performative in Lizzy’s interactions with father and brother. It often feels that she keeps finding her way into these relatives’ business to procrastinate herself out of creative responsibilities – all this without swallowing the bitter pill of guilt. If that gives Lizzy a sense of moral superiority, all the better.
Maybe she even makes things worse whether she consciously wants it or not, like an unfortunate soul trying to redirect the brain’s attention from a toothache to a pinched thigh. It’s fascinating to watch her faff about, but just as rewarding to observe the sculptor at work. Reichardt isn’t interested in romanticizing the artist’s labor, considering her character’s process as something thorny and mundane, grounded by everyday life rather than elevated to a mythic mirage. In that regard, Showing Up’s reminiscent of Victor Erice’s Quince Tree Sun, though much less lyrical and conspicuously uglier, too.
Working again with her go-to cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, Reichardt has strayed away from First Cow’s painterly realism to pursue the uncomfortable juxtaposition of digital capture and celluloid textures. The filmmakers have rendered Showing Up in fifty shades of greige, going deep into the sometimes Spartan, sometimes messy, functionality of workrooms and white-walled spaces meant to direct the eye toward art pieces. The light values of 16mm are absent, of course. However, its graininess is artificially imposed through high-contrast effects, forcing the viewer to acknowledge the image’s tactility, the objects, and materials captured wherein.
We’re made hyper-aware of Lizzy’s sculpture as physical entities, the pieces’ volumes, and palpable features. We’re also reminded of their fragility through the ever-shifting grain, like a swarm of bugs flying over the screen or specks of dust consolidating ephemerous shapes. And so, sustained by god-level art direction, these lensing choices make Showing Up look sturdy but also like a gust of air might break it into a swirl of dispersed particles. Such contradictions are essential, teaching us how to regard Lizzy and her struggles, her prickly interactions with everything and everyone, from family to a fellow artist/landlady brilliantly played by Hong Chau.
She’s Jo, a more successful artist than her renter, whose merek of potentially insincere cheeriness grates Lizzy like nobody’s business. The trifecta of Reichardt and her two actresses capture that delicate disharmony of someone who annoys the other through their mere presence, perchance because they’re actively nefarious or maybe for no reason at all. When the camera ambivalently regards each woman’s reactions to her colleague’s work, movie magic happens in micro-expressions. Like Garbo at the end of Queen Christina, Reichardt’s thespians give their viewers abundant material to complicate the scene but never enough to lead them away from drawing personal conclusions about the characters. Your own biases shall dictate meaning.
These games proliferate through Showing Up, clearing the way for a feeling of instability akin to the cinematography’s patina. They further instigate humor, surprising Reichardt aficionados who might not readily associate comedy with the director’s modus operandi. Consider the nonsense surrounding a pigeon armed by Lizzy’s asshole cat. She’s ready to ignore the broken-winged bird, but Jo forces the responsibility of its wellbeing on her tenant. Gradually, resentment over the wounded animal turns into what looks like care but might be another procrastination tactic, a needed distraction from those sculptures whose feminine shapes waver between the balletic and convulsing.
Showing Up is as much a subdued joke as a character dissection, the kind of pithy overview an insider might make about their area of expertise, as full of judgment as jokiness born from complicated affection. No wonder many critics have been keen to point out how Lizzy feels like a Reichardt avatar, a commentary of the artist about herself and the rarefied cosmos she inhabits. Sure, sculpture takes the place of filmmaking, but the potential for self-portraiture remains clear. If you’ve ever pursued an artistic endeavor, watch the various reactions to uninvited praise and try not to wince in recognition. Observe the ecosystem of colorful fully-sketched personalities and see if you can pinpoint familiar types, rivals, friends, maybe even yourself.
While it’s easy to overvalue this sense of authenticity, what Reichardt and company achieve is as precise as any formalistic showcase. Every performance is as perfectly pondered as those who illicit awards talk though not nearly as showy. Williams, in particular, once again proves she’s never better than when directed by her trusted friend and collaborator, giving herself to a shielded register that dances around notions of total obscurity and the transparency of a crank. She’s abrasive while leaving space for a final grace note when what could have been a screwball escalation diffuses itself in sunset shades. The undoing may feel anti-climactic to some, but it will surely prove revelatory to others. You can guess into which camp I fall.