Rating **** Masterpiece
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
Inherent in the process of artmaking is the imperfection, the unexpected detour that can radically change the overall trajectory of the artist’s intent and execution. Mark Toscano once wrote about an occurrence in his restoration of Stan Brakhage’s films, where the legendary avant-garde filmmaker stated that, for a particular short, he had initially failed to spot the hair in the camera gate; upon doing so, he decided to orient his entire visual conceit around that unintended intrusion. Such an approach can be found across media and along the entire continuum of resources and styles: whether it be classical or experimental, a mega-blockbuster or a no-budget picture, a piece of music or a film or a play, the essential humanity of art means that nothing “perfect” exists, which is something to be cherished and upheld as indicative of a personality, or a coterie of personalities, behind pieces both imposing and modest.
The best films about art accept this idea on its own terms and incorporate it into their forms; the miracle of Kelly Reichardt’s Showing Up lies in its ability to do so while creating a vivid world of its own, filled with quotidian frustrations, mysteries, and liberations. In her portrait of Lizzy (Michelle Williams), a sculptor who does administrative work at a Portland art college for a living, Reichardt does this task almost literally: the film takes place at the Oregon College of Art and Craft, which closed just before the pandemic. Temporarily resurrected during filming, the space conjures an effect not so dissimilar from Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye Dragon Inn, though there is no looming closure that threatens to destroy an entire way of life.
Instead, Showing Up takes place over the course of a week, as Lizzy attempts to create enough pieces for her first solo show while dealing with sundry personal problems: her contentious relationship with her friend and landlord Jo (Hong Chau), who is dragging her heels on fixing her fellow artist’s hot water due to her own impending shows; her tedious days at the college under the watchful eye of her boss, who happens to be her mom (Maryann Plunkett); and her house calls to her eccentric father (Judd Hirsch) and troubled brother (John Magaro). An additional wrench is thrown into the proceedings when her cat mauls a pigeon, breaking its wing; almost by accident, she ends up taking care of it for large stretches of time, forcing her to alter her art-making routine. Crucially, however, Lizzy is not the sole protagonist. Jo takes center stage at numerous moments, with her relatively carefree nature — she is introduced excitedly rolling a tire down the street to a tree so she can swing from it — acting as a source of equal parts hilarity, resentment, and serenity, something which Chau inhabits with exquisite good grace. Even more importantly, the film is strewn with shots of students and teachers creating their own art in wildly different media — light installations, artifice-forward films, wool-work, dyeing, painting, and much more — usually without Lizzy or any named character in the shot, frequently featuring bold tracking shots to convey the scope of this institute.
While Showing Up is probably funnier than all of Reichardt’s previous films put together — the withering glares Williams flashes at certain points are especially choice — it generously refuses to look down on any of the art its characters make, not even a landscaping piece that Lizzy’s brother claims to be crafting near the climax of the film. Its view is humble yet expansive, often using uncharacteristic jerky small pans and zooms which could be called be called, not unlike the more apparent zooms of Hong Sang-soo — whose recent films, particularly The Novelist’s Film, feel like kindred spirits in their approach to the artist — amateurish.
Of course, the entire nature of what it means to be an amateur, especially in this milieu, where a relative star like Jo still has to deal with possibly not getting a catalogue for her work, has no bearing on the quality of art or its maker’s level of dedication. While plenty of artmaking is seen, including from Lizzy, the most extended view of her practice comes in a static long take, where she breaks off the arm of one of her sculptures so she can carefully attach a different, extended set of arms in its place. That concept, subtraction in the service of addition, can be found all over Showing Up, especially its climax at Lizzy’s opening, which evolves into a litany of anxiety and passive-aggression that then unspools into a fitting equanimity. The key in that modus operandi is the back-and-forth: the blindspots and irritation must exist alongside the camaraderie and rapprochement, often coming from the most unexpected of sources. In that balance, in her leads’ abilities to carry both emotions, Reichardt finds her brilliant muse.