This article appeared in the April 6, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Showing Up (Kelly Reichardt, 2022)
There is a familiar trick of mise en scène in the long-form profile of a working artist. The chronicler goes on a studio visit and sets their subject in situ, discerning minutiae from work-strewn surfaces—a pile of canvas scraps, a tool in unusual isolation—as if every chance arrangement might reveal some worthy secret. This is how Kelly Reichardt introduces Lizzy (Michelle Williams), the sculptor protagonist of Showing Up: surrounded by reams of sketches, she is rapt with focus, coercing clay into tender figuration. The opening vision of labor comes to us in the intimacy of a close-up, but a slow pan discloses the reigning fact of Lizzy’s circumstance: her studio is the cramped garage of the rented duplex she shares with Jo (Hong Chau), a colleague who is also the film’s first punch line—she is Lizzy’s landlord.
Circumstance is a kind of cruel enclosure for the characters in Reichardt’s Americana; they’re always stalled on the way to greener pastures, always just around the bend. Unlike in First Cow (2019) or Meek’s Cutoff (2010), there are no grand traversals in Showing Up, but the film teases Lizzy with a task as elusive as any arcadia: between her day job at a local art college and motley distractions, she must salvage enough time for her art. If cinema tends to aggrandize the (real or fictive) artist biopic with deep solemnity—good old hagiography à la Carol Reed’s The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), or the grim demystification of Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh (1991)—Showing Up opts to draw levity, not gravitas, from the mounting demands of Lizzy’s days. With steadfast writing partner Jon Raymond, Reichardt softens the accretion of minor disasters into something like a sitcom. In the tired orbit of home and work, Lizzy must deal with a landlord who won’t fix the hot water and a maimed pigeon who requires babysitting, all while on deadline for her upcoming show. The situation is her life; the comedy, its ongoingness.
Showing Up is the first Reichardt title to make explicit the latent grammar of her entire oeuvre: the gerund—a verb reified into a noun but still suggestive of action, of process. Her characters are perpetually en route, in the thick of doing. What better tense than the present continuous for Showing Up, a film so centered on the act of making? We see Lizzy bent over her sculptures, smoothing unfinished joints into coherence or coaxing new textures from clay. We glimpse students, too, mid-project on campus, in real-time vignettes of weaving, painting, shaping, and more, all shot at the former Oregon College of Art and Craft—a bastion of community that was shuttered in 2019, but whose historic grounds were touchingly repopulated for the film’s production.
Reunited with Reichardt for their fourth film together, Williams is just one frown shy of curmudgeonly as Lizzy, stalking the office and campus corridors with the melancholy plod of one who is killing time but also mourning its passing. Sporadic flickers of wonder and worry enliven her perma-scowl, but the foremost determinant of Lizzy’s physicality is her creative practice. Since her sculptures—the real-life creations of artist Cynthia Lahti—are no larger than her cat, she bends over them at her workbench, coiled in such protracted concentration that the slouch seems to haunt her body even outside the studio. Against Lizzy’s tense curvature, her clay figurines appear almost balletic, and if I’m compelled to call them girls, it’s because their lissome forms seem unburdened by age or self-consciousness, their rough, smudged features broadcasting insouciance unlike their slow and careful maker. Some of the girls are locked in fierce contrapposto while others seem interrupted, as if still en route to their final pose: a heel raised mid-step; a head pitched at a curious slant.
How apt that the first of Lizzy’s own interruptions should solicit the same posture as her art. After her ginger tabby wounds a pigeon, the bird endures as a karmic (and comic) burden. Grounded by its bandaged wing, it roosts close by in a cardboard box while Lizzy works, its sight line almost level with her sculptures. Both the creature and Lizzy’s artworks compel the same dipped neck, the same furrow in Williams’s brow that telegraphs concern and fierce focus, her body revealing its orientation, however reluctant, toward care. It’s telling, too, that Jo, a more celebrated artist, works in the scalar inverse of Lizzy’s huddled intimacy, her work luring the viewer’s body into an open bloom as if echoing her own candor. Artist Michelle Segre’s creations stand in for Jo’s sculptures, bric-a-brac materials suspended in colossal webs of wire and yarn. These vibrant works sprawl with a near celestial reach, tapping the visitor under the chin and drawing their gaze upward.
So much of Showing Up relies on spatial modulations to articulate its sense of dailiness. Reichardt and DP Christopher Blauvelt remind us that a frame can signal routine not only through gestural repetition but also in the ways things take up space: the office dog lazing in the doorway, slumbering in a sunbeam; sculptures drying on packed shelves, nestled between old garage miscellanea. Finding time is also a matter of finding space, surveying a day—a life—for the nooks and crannies that might accommodate pursuits beyond bare survival. Soon, even Lizzy’s avian novelty falls in step with her rhythms. She brings it along while tending to her longest-standing distraction: familial duty, mostly felt as a peripheral tug until she checks in on her brother, Sean (John Magaro), a lone wolf clearly roiled by some unnamed mania. In a scene that nods to Magaro’s role in First Cow and that film’s opening exhumation, Lizzy finds Sean digging up his backyard in the name of creating “earthwork,” standing in the loamy chaos of a Robert Smithson spiral gone subterranean.
In the film’s closing set piece, Lizzy’s distractions converge in a sudden crescendo. At her well-attended gallery opening, two kids decide to unbandage the pigeon among all the guests. Although the brief bedlam threatens heartbreak, all frenzied flapping around Lizzy’s brittle sculptures, there is no final catastrophe. Amidst the chorus of panic, Sean picks up the bird with knowing calm and shows it to the door, where, at last, it finds the sky again. As an allegory, this parting flight is a little pat—and in lesser hands might have tilted into tweeness—but its real gift is one of literal reorientation. After all the cowering and hunching, the contortions around things that clamor for love or just concern, the volant pigeon lures everyone’s eyes skyward, a mass of craned necks crowding the gallery entrance. But even after we leave the scene of airborne freedom, even when the violet horizon deepens with dusk, we see Lizzy walking with Jo, still looking up, still stunned that an object demanding care could become one that elicits awe.
Phoebe Chen is a writer and PhD candidate with work in Artforum, The Nation, The New York Review of Books, and elsewhere.