Showing Up, Kelly Reichardt, and the Space to Create

Movies Features Kelly Reichardt
Showing Up, Kelly Reichardt, and the Space to Create

Showing Up opens with a studio tour of sorts. The camera pans and zooms along drawings hung on the wall and down to their three-dimensional counterparts on the work table. It is how we first get to know Lizzie, the unsure-of-herself sculptor played by director Kelly Reichardt’s most frequent star, Michelle Williams. As the camera keeps moving down, we notice that this isn’t some independent studio space, but her garage, the door slightly ajar to let the clay dry and to allow fumes from the glaze out. A few pigeons walk about as the shot lingers. 

When Showing Up was first announced, I was hesitant about the premise. Perhaps it just seemed too close to the zeitgeist; after all, an A24 movie about a artist dealing with day-to-day problems while getting ready for a big opening in Portland feels almost like a parody of a “trendy” movie in 2023, something which doesn’t compute with the rest of her filmography—at least when put that way. But it was always going to hit close to home for me, as Reichardt’s location of choice is where I spent the first 18 years of my life, and the recommodification of it in the 2010s as the new hip place to move was in part what made me want to go somewhere else after high school. A search for breathing room led me to Montana which, unbeknownst to me, Reichardt would also be heading to at a similar time. 

I first found her work when my film school advisor lent me his copy of Meek’s Cutoff. It was the rare kind of thing that can only happen so much in one lifetime, where an artist’s work turns out to be the exact thing you’ve been searching for. Everything about it—the rhythm, the breath, the texture—it was that exact type of banality and decay I needed to find. It was exciting even though it, I will admit, briefly put my 20-year-old self to sleep. And maybe it’s proof of Kiarostami’s anecdote, because it is a film that still haunts my dreams. 

Reichardt’s stories see people forging their ways in the west, whether that’s in the historical or contemporary sense, and not by way of machismo and violence regenerating the land. Reichardt has recently been citing Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” in which the Portland-based novelist argues against the narrative convention of heroes modeled after prehistoric hunters, when much of human society in most parts of the world seems to have modeled themselves as foragers. She explains that the stark, violent action of the hunter is narratively gripping, yet establishes a reified patriarchal myth that is simply not true. Reichardt transposes this concept into filmmaking by showing us not who shot Liberty Valance, but why that was never important to begin with.

In their excellent book on Reichardt, Katherine Fusco and Nicole Seymour identify that Reichardt’s films are caught between the everyday and emergency. They mean “emergency” not just as a shorthand for danger, but also as the idea of “emergence” applies to her filmmaking, where things evolve, unfold and compound. It is that inherent contradiction of a banal existence, a life made of chores and routines, that has to 

And it is here too where I think she differs from a lot of the “slow” cinema filmmakers she’s often grouped with. Her camera lingers, yet never deliberately draws out. Instead, her sense of time is more rhythmic. It is less the overt, aggressive slowness of Weerasethakul or Diaz, and more the rhythmic mundanity of Bresson. It is that feeling of coming in and out of focus on a long drive, like the one taken in Old Joy: Heading out of Portland’s dying industrial northwest and into Oregon’s deep green along Route 30, shot in those same dampened blues and grays I remember so well from looking out of bus windows. 

There is a textural specificity to the qualities of light in Reichardt’s work, one far beyond the incredibly dull observation that the places she films look like the places that they are. This isn’t just due to architecture, landscape and flora, but because of the way that light never feels dressed up. There are certain golds you can only see reflecting off Michelle Williams’ hair when the air is as cold and thin as it is in the Rocky Mountains. In the subsequent years since Portlandia and Yellowstone parodied their respective inspirations and acted as harbingers for the tech- and tourist-catered simulacra of themselves, just saying that a film looks how it really felt is the greatest compliment I can give.

Of course, Showing Up is also a movie—it’s as made-up as any other, a recreation, even if that recreation is reaching for reality. The college so central to the film went defunct a few years before the shoot, leaving Reichardt with the task of re-populating a colony, rebuilding a space that lives on its own from a cold architectural skeleton. In a typical Reichardt inversion, what would usually be the foreground becomes background and vice-versa. The camera lays at distance or passes by the students and teachers, their art-making and their follies, and instead always returns to Lizzie, the quiet administrator whose artistic aspirations are not held back by her ability, but position. She needs a day job.

Someone who doesn’t, or at least doesn’t in the conventional sense, is Jo (Hong Chau), Lizzie’s peer, old friend and, unfortunately, landlord. That last title is the one the film always falls back on, even after the moments where Jo’s art and process enamor us, because Showing Up is from Lizzie’s perspective. Because Jo’s position gives her power, power that looms over Lizzie, it becomes her dominant trait. But Jo doesn’t want to be a landlord. She is both clearly bad at it and almost completely disinterested. One of the main sources of contention is Lizzie’s hot water which, after not working for almost two weeks, makes any and all of Jo’s actions outside of her duty seem frivolous.

The genesis for Showing Up came from Reichardt and her regular co-writer Jon Raymond wanting to make a film about the years that Canadian painter Emily Carr spent as a landlord, thinking it would be an easy way to get herself financially stable enough to focus on art. In actuality, it led to a decade of her painting almost nothing at all as she got wrapped up in the overwhelming responsibility of stewardship. 

This is the big lie that comes with the current model of landlordism: That it is passive income. My last landlord—one my roommate and I lived quietly under since we first moved to Baltimore—thought of owning the place, my home, as a supplemental income to retirement rather than a continuous relationship that could easily fall into neglect. When that neglect did eventually boil over and we were asked to leave—after three and half years of fighting off a rent increase, a hole in the roof leaking water into the power outlets whenever a hard rain came down—the sting set in. The sting of trying to do everything right and being told it does not matter. Late in Showing Up, Jo snaps at Lizzie, who now seems to her just a gadfly keeping her from enjoying the art life she’s spent so long trying to earn. She tells Lizzie that even though there is “no excuse” for the water situation, she gives her a “good deal.” She doesn’t pay “that much” in rent. It was incredibly cathartic to see Lizzie tear up some of Jo’s nice tulips after that.

While Reichardt’s characters don’t often let their emotions out, they are usually in private when they do. Lizzie pushes this line, albeit through the mediated vulnerability of a cell phone, where her frustrations end up as voicemails. Like any good artist, there is something she has to say that she needs to get out of her—although she doesn’t necessarily feel ready to express it so publicly. If Fusco and Seymour identified “emergency” as a Reichardt throughline, Showing Up’s one-word theme is “insecurity.” Like Fusco and Seymour, I mean this in two senses: Both the physical insecurity that materially keeps Lizzie from ease, and the mental insecurity that keeps her from the confidence that seems to come so easily to the more apparently successful people around her.

There is a great moment when Lizzie is having lunch on campus—what looks like some leftover cold pasta—while the school’s artist-in-residence (a position Reichardt herself holds at Bard) tries to strike up friendly conversation while eating a nice-looking store-bought sandwich. Lizzie is cold and doesn’t mention that she is an artist in her own right, not out of ego or humbleness, but plain-and-simple insecurity. It is not dissimilar to how Jo’s (in)actions, simply devastating to Lizzie, are not out of malice or spite, but out of a disinterest in responsibility. We see this again when Jo rescues a pigeon that, unbeknownst to her, was mauled by Lizzie’s cat the night before. Despite her initial gesture towards caring for the animal, she says she doesn’t have time to watch it and drops that responsibility onto Lizzie. But where Lizzie falters into inaction, and where her peers seem to excel, is self-promotion. Firmly placed within a culture rife with shameless self-promotion and increasingly powered by an influencer economy (something lurking right outside the frame), Lizzie is held back by either her insecure inability to self-promote or her active disinterest in it.

The autobiography in Showing Up is less direct and more expansive than it is often pointed to. There is obviously a lot of Reichardt in Lizzie, but I can also see her in Jo, who needs to eschew responsibilities just to be where she is, and in the older, more self-assured artist-in-residence Marlene (Heather Lawless). Different facets of herself at different times, talking to each other. After spending so many years on a forced hiatus, bouncing around couches and odd jobs before quietly being able to carve out a place for herself within the independent film world, there’s something beautiful about Reichardt looking back at where she started and where she had to go. 

Here, we see the years it’s taken to build back a youthful confidence as she has developed into one of American cinema’s most sage directors. She’s talked about negative experiences making her 1994 debut River of Grass, and how difficult it was to command the respect of the boy’s club on set as a 5’ woman who did not want to work conventionally. She would often cite never wanting to try to get a dolly set up again, and where some might see it as a surprise when there’s a tracking shot in the first few minutes of Showing Up, I see it as a breath of fresh air. It is to introduce Jo, no less, immediately establishing her with the confident camerawork that Reichardt has wanted to get back for so long.

Filmmaking, beyond its smallest scales, is predicated on collaboration. To get to this level of artistic confidence took years of building community, and Showing Up is nothing if not a family affair. Both in the sense that it is, more than any of her films since River of Grass, about the weight of responsibility one is born into in the unchosen family, and the tribulations of the larger family that collectives of people build together. The individualist narrative of the artist is wholly undermined by the time we reach Showing Up’s conclusion, but with such subtlety that it could be missed that Lizzie’s actualization has come from her mutual acceptance of community. It seems redundant to point out, but it is important that her art is an act of communication for the creator and the audience: The community gets to understand Lizzie in a different light through her work, and Lizzie gets to communicate in a different way with her community. It is essential, mutual bonding.

Just having that room—both in the literal, physical sense of material needed to be an artist and in the emotional space critical for reflection—is one of hurdles that so many never get over, and even more find to be an immovable wall. Simple things like money can do a substantial amount of the heavy lifting. What Showing Up shows with so much clarity—even though it can easily be missed as the background noise or the people behind the wall keeping things running—is that even this necessarily self-centered art world, one focused on these great individuals, is held up by communities. The gatherers, the unsung. There is the relatively small-scale dramatic tension to it, even smaller in scale than the multitudes of her characters trudging away from their lives in search of a different start to build from. The impossibility of certain reconciliations will always exist; people will always have interpersonal problems and power dynamics will always exist (even if there is no reason they have to be so permanent), no matter how utopian the front. But that is no reason not to step back and breathe, to appreciate what has been built, what can be built.

Alex Lei is writer and filmmaker currently based in Baltimore. He can usually be found on Twitter.

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