dir: Kelly Reichardt
I am not really sure who this film is for.
You could say that about many of Kelly Reichardt’s films, and I’m not saying that to invalidate her approach or sound dismissive. They’re just… idiosyncratic films.
Lizzy (Michelle Williams) is a middle-aged artist. She sculpts figurines, of women.
And that’s pretty much it. We watch her process, watch her sculpting, watch her take her sculptures out of the kiln, sometimes mount them on stands, stare at them with a critical eye, and...
Does a film need to be more than that? I guess it depends on what you expect out of a movie-going experience.
I think, maybe, this film asks a bit much of the viewer.
Set as it is where it is, it is a very low-key look at the everyday lives of a bunch of people. There’s no pretense that there is anything about these people that is that interesting. They just are who they are, and they do what they do.
There are lots of scenes of people either making their art, installing art for exhibition, or talking about upcoming shows, that you might think the flick is saying anything about art scenes in general or the art scene of Portland, Oregon, where this is set. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is a Kelly Reichardt film. She doesn’t tell you what to think about anything. She doesn’t even give you an inkling as to why she was interested enough to make the film about this art scene, because she’s not mocking it (that much) nor is she showing it up for the bunch of pretentious twats that you know must populate it.
Maybe it is just about the work. No-one toiling here, in what is not relative obscurity, is doing what they’re doing because of the promise of big bucks or potential discovery. These people are either students at the local arts college, or teachers / administrators at the college, and they do what they do, with the arbitrary deadline of upcoming shows, in order to just do what they do. Lizzy is working nervously to finish her pieces for her upcoming show, but so are most of the people around her as well, with their own shows to worry about.
Jo (the always, always, always great Hong Chau) exists not so much as a thorn in Lizzy’s side so much as another example of another artist working and living in the same area, but she seems to come at her work (and life) from a different direction to Lizzy.
And yes, it doesn’t help that Jo is Lizzy’s landlord, and that the hot water has been out for weeks.
And instead of getting the hot water system repaired, we watch Jo lovingly (and slowly) tie up a tyre swing in her back yard. Throughout the film an increasingly peeved Lizzy will keep pleading with Jo to fix the hot water, and you wonder if it’s one of those existential things, like the waiting in Waiting for Godot, you know, something that will never be satisfied.
Or whether Jo is deliberately not doing anything to fix it, because like all landlords she’s notoriously cheap. Or whether she’s doing it because she gets perverse enjoyment from making someone’s life worse (again, like all landlords) for no real reason other than being able to do it.
Or whether their rivalry as artists perhaps extends to trying to sabotage the other in order to, what? I don’t know. You can conjecture all sorts of things, because nothing is underlined. We watch both of them work in quite different media, with a similar unhurried dedication, but coming from significantly different places. Jo seems to derive a sense of enjoyment from both her art and life that doesn’t really seem like something Lizzy has access to. And after a while we perhaps get the impression that Lizzy knows this, too. It could even be yet another reason for her to resent Jo.
The peevishness Lizzy expresses towards Jo is not that far removed from the peevishness with which she treats almost everyone and everything in this world. Same with her admin job at the arts college where her mum rules the roost. And even on the day she’s meant to be taking off from work in order to finish her pieces, circumstances contrive to thwart her artistic flow, in the form of a pigeon.
A fucking pigeon.
Her cat mauls a pigeon in the middle of the night, and, grossed out and horrified, she tries to tip it out the nearest window. She doesn’t exactly make the “I wash my hands of this” gesture and go back to bed, but pretty much.
Next day, Jo comes along, saying “look at the bird I rescued”. On a new level, on a new playing field, Lizzy and Jo passive aggressively compete to see who can look after the goddamn pigeon the most.
I’ve described a bunch of things that happen, but nothing’s really happening. There’s no plot, and it’s not a comedy. It’s wry in tone sometimes, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not trying to garner laughs. At most there are a bunch of amusing moments (how could there not be when there are people like Judd Hirsch at work here, playing Lizzy’s self-absorbed dad?). But I neither promised you a rose garden nor did I say the flick was trying to be funny.
It’s too deliberately flat and unexceptional for that. I hesitate to use the terms “natural” or “naturalistic”. Some of these actors are way too good to do anything uninteresting. I would watch Hong Chau put together flat pack furniture from IKEA, because I know she would do it in a compelling and interesting way.
Michelle Williams, as the central character, has a much more complicated role. The counterpoint that she’s providing (to the audience, to the world), is the counterintuitive argument that’s meant to be contra to the whole generally straight white male narrative of genius or brilliance in art. She might be a difficult person to relate to, she might not get along well with other people, whether artists or not. The quality of her work stems not from whether she’s an arsehole or not; it comes from whether she works hard at it even amidst the boring difficulties of the everyday.
As a contrast for this in conversation with her distant mother, Lizzy’s brother Sean (John Magaro) is referred to as a genius, and that with genius comes difficulties (mostly for the people around the so-called genius). If Sean is a genius, well, we’re not given much evidence of that. The most we see him do is theorise that the neighbours are blocking his ability to watch his favourite tv channels somehow, and that he’s working on a ‘piece’ that involves solely digging a hole in the back yard, which talks if you have the ears to hear it, don’t you know.
Nothing good comes from digging deep holes in back yards. And yet, shush, hush, the genius is at work, don’t disturb him.
There is no real reward; not financial, not critical here, for all one’s efforts. All of the kids at the college we see will be working as baristas, ripping tickets, serving meals and delivering deliveries as well as trying to make ends meet and buy art supplies for many years of their lives, with no payoff. Lizzy will never be financially independent, on the cover of magazines or feted by the cognoscenti. But she keeps going.
People keep going. They persist, even in the face of the world’s overwhelming lack of interest. And she’s not doing it for the cat, or the pigeon, or her rival, or maybe just to hear some words of praise from her mother or father (who are divorced, and seem to hate each other only as people who were together for decades can). In the end she can be doing it only because she gets some personal satisfaction from doing something difficult, that expresses the inexpressible, that captures something, that maybe some other people might get something out of once they seem them.
While I don’t always love Michelle Williams in every role she does, she is an actor with great range, and everything she didn’t get across (for me) in a role like the artistically (and sexually) frustrated mum in last year’s Spielberg stealth biopic The Fabelmans , she is more than able to get across here with far less dialogue and far less resources at her disposal. I think, considering the other flicks she’s done with Reichardt that they really work well together and that they trust each other creatively (it’s just my opinion, man, not written in stone). It’s one of the great actor / director collaborations.
Showing Up is not going to work for a lot of people, I don’t think. Someone coming to this cold knowing nothing about Reichardt’s other films or without much of a stomach for “unhurried” films or from a creative / artistic background I imagine could be bored out of their fucking minds by all this folderol and foofaraw.
Most people literally don’t want to watch the sausage of “art” being made in front of them, they just want to consume the product at the end. This flick is watching the sausage made in painstaking, unhurried detail, because the whole point is in the “making”, because it’s also coloured and flavoured by everything else happening in an artist’s life. “Showing up” is whatever it is, half the battle etc, but actually “making” the fucking thing is the entirety of it. It’s everything.
7 times I wonder if intensely intricate and pointless things like this have any right to exist in this world out of 10
“sorry…” - she whispers as she breaks off one of her figurines arm’s, and puts it on the opposite side of the sculpture - Showing Up