' ' Cinema Romantico: Showing Up

Monday, June 05, 2023

Showing Up

The key shot in “Showing Up” is essentially the first one as Portland artist Lizzy (Michelle Williams) sits at her desk, sculpting in clay, before the camera drifts away to the right, eventually settling on an image of her open garage door because that is what passes for her studio – a garage. Director Kelly Reichardt and her co-writer Jon Raymond might have been inspired by real-life Canadian artist Emily Carr, but unlike most Reichardt scripts, this one is an original rather than an adaptation, and though her movies have always been personal in so much as they have been about issues that matter to her personally, none have felt quite as personal “Showing Up.” Reichardt, after all, has frequently spoken of struggling to get movies made despite being own of America’s best moviemakers, and in the space of that garage, you can sense the artist’s struggle. Not that “Showing Up” is a fiery screed. If anything, this is the closest Reichardt has yet come to making what you might deem a comedy, if funny in her typically unhurried, observant, quiet way, like a Nicole Holofcener movie made from as many withering expressions as lines. 

If pigeons sometimes denote peace and prosperity, in “Showing Up” the appearance of one in Lizzy’s bathroom at night, mauled halfway to death by her cat, just seems like a harbinger of One More Thing. The movie takes place over the course of a single week as she readies for an upcoming art show, or tries to get ready, I should say, since the movie is sort of a semi-shaggy dog story of quietly amusing accruing aggravations. Her landlord Jo (Hong Chaug) rescues the discarded pigeon of whom Lizzy becomes reluctant caretaker while Lizzy is repeatedly promised by Jo that her lack of hot water will be fixed...soon-ish, anyway, causing Lizzy’s visage to grow more and more unclean and disheveled. Lizzy also has a nine-to-five as an administrative assistant at an Oregon art school where the way Williams has Lizzy glare at her boss only feels slightly more piercing because her boss doubles as her mom (Maryann Plunkett), evincing the stark contrasts between living to work and working to live.

It this kind of direct and comic clarity that demonstrates how Reichardt eschews a romanticized notion of a struggling artist, just as she inverts the stereotype of a tortured artist through Lizzy’s mentally ill brother Sean (John Magaro), who might have once had artistic promise himself, that their mother can’t help but cling to, even as he claims the hole he’s digging in his backyard is some sort of earthwork as artwork. It’s not an insensitive moment, just a harshly revealing one, that we don’t create because of what ails us but despite it.

If Sean is a contrast to Lizzy, so is Jo. She’s also an artist, albeit more successful, with two upcoming shows to Lizzy’s one. This character could have been annoying comic relief or simple antagonist, but not only does Chau provide her with a mellow human dimension, Jo is not conceived in such simpleminded terms. True, her introduction, putting up a tire swing as Lizzy wonders when the hot water will be fixed, evinces an obvious dichotomy, but Jo’s sunnier attitude is ultimately portrayed as a direct result of her more assured footing in the artistic landscape, how one can afford to me more blissfully unaware when struggles to finish your sculpture because you’re struggling to make rent are not intertwined.

Jo is not the only one with a sunny attitude. There is also Eric, kiln master at the art school, just a peripheral character, really, even though he is played by André 3000, and when he fires one of her ceramics, it comes up slightly burnt. He says it looks kinda cool, which in his André 3000 voice you kinda believe, though Lizzy clearly doesn’t believe it looks cool and never comes around to believing it either. Just as the character who mentions how impressed she is with Lizzy works never signals some upward swing for Lizzy, this moment with the kiln never suggests something kismet, just a ruining of her hard work, which is how “Showing Up” ultimately sees art – as hard work. 

Reichardt presents the art school as a hub of energy, of people creating and coming and going, even as her framing of Lizzy and the performance of Williams deliberately render her as an afterthought, not unlike the dog sitting in the doorway that people are always stepping around or over. It is in her eyes, though, where you detect Lizzy’s imagination always at work, like in the scene where she sits outside eating lunch and watching people in the grass partake in a class called Thinking in Movement. It’s humorous, their motion compared to her severe stasis, but the way Williams has Lizzy watch belies someone taking in everything she is seeing. Indeed, in sculpting her statues, positioning the bodies and arms, she seems to be thinking in movement, and the way Reichardt positions the camera over Lizzy’s shoulder in these moments of Lizzy at work create nothing less than a visual symbiosis of the artist as her work.

No comments: