Film Review: “Showing Up” — A Gentle Portrait of a Portland Artist

By Steve Erickson

Showing Up offers a much different kind of artist and art scene than we’re used to seeing in film.

Showing Up, directed by Kelly Reichardt. Screening at AMC Boston Common 19.

Michelle Williams in Showing Up. Photo: Allyson Riggs/A24

Showing Up is as stripped-down as American narrative filmmaking gets. Kelly Reichardt’s film lays out a community around an art school in Portland, Oregon. It doesn’t tell a story so much as it takes the spectator to a place for 108 minutes. It chronicles a week in the life of Lizzy (Michelle Williams), a sculptor preparing for a show. The pacing is extremely leisured — not much happens for the first half. However, the small tensions of Lizzy’s life slowly accumulate, until a fully formed picture of the character and her milieu emerges.

Lizzy works as an office assistant at an art school, where her mother is her boss. Her job consists of dull drudge work in front of a computer. More rewarding is how she spends her spare hours — working on ceramics. Theoretically she is friendly with her landlord Jo (Hong Chau), but her apartment’s hot water is out for the entire film. She becomes exasperated with Jo’s dismissive excuses for not having it fixed. Since Jo’s also an artist, rivalry and passive-aggressive behavior lurk behind their landlord-tenant relationship. Both women are simultaneously preparing gallery shows. One night, a pigeon flies into Lizzy’s house. Her cat Ricky mauls it. She tosses the wounded bird down to her backyard, where Jo finds it the next day. She swathes the bloodied bird in towels and asks Lizzy to take care of the it. Lizzy’s troubled brother Sean (John Magaro) has gone missing, while her divorced parents are unreconciled. All the same, the drama in Lizzy’s life is real but it is small and manageable. She worries more about her work getting burnt in the kin than not being able to pay rent.

Showing Up offers a much different kind of artist and art scene than we’re used to seeing in film. Despite the Portland setting, it could take place in a small college town at a local gallery. Instead of pursuing careerism and the possibility of selling their work to the rich, its artists are passionate about a craft they know will never amount to more than providing a part-time income. What puts Lizzy under pressure? Having to take a personal day to work on her art. Her sculptures are small-scale, modest images of women. (Cynthia Lahti made the artwork seen in Showing Up.) Even André Benjamin, once a superstar rapper, contributes minimalist wooden flute music to the soundtrack along with his small role as the school’s kiln master.

Any resemblance between Reichardt and Lizzy is not coincidental. Reichardt doesn’t make a living as a filmmaker and needs to teach part-time at Bard College to retain health insurance. In fact, she has said that it’s based on her experiences at the school. (The film rarely ventures off the art school campus.) While this is her second film to be picked up by the indie studio du jour, A24, Showing Up is unlikely to compete with Uncut Gems, Midsommar or Everything Everywhere All at Once at the box office.

Showing Up presents a kind of comfortable bohemian life that gentrification has all but wiped out. In that sense, the movie seems deliberately removed from the present moment, more an evocation of middle-to-lower rung artistic life in the 1970s though the 2000s. Lizzy doesn’t have to post photos of her sculptures on Instagram or make TikToks to promote her show. Portland has become increasingly expensive in the last decade, and its reputation as a hipster utopia (set in stone by the TV show Portlandia) has been marred by the rising presence of the far right, public recognition of its racist roots (Portland still has the lowest percentage of people of color of any big American city), and the GOP use of the urban center as a code word for “crazy leftists running out of control.” Co-writer Jon Raymond says “part of it [the idea for the film] was that Kelly and I really wanted to stay out of the rage of the last several years and do a story about something that we like, and we both really like visual art.”

Reichardt’s previous film, First Cow, engaged much more directly with politics, taking us back to the American West while offering a gentle, even loving form of masculinity. Its central couple may not be sexually attracted to each other, but they read as two men in love. They stand as a model of decent behavior threatened by the rise of cutthroat capitalism. Friendship, often carrying a homoerotic tension, is a constant in Reichardt’s films. Romantic love is often downplayed.

During the last few years, many of Reichardt’s peers, such as Paul Thomas Anderson, James Gray, and Richard Linklater, have turned to the past, creating versions of their youth. Perhaps this is an admission that directly addressing America’s present has become difficult. We’re still living with the impacts of Covid, Trumpism and the onset of the catastrophic climate crisis. These subjects tend to make it into American cinema around the edges or in allegorical form (although Reichardt’s 2013 Night Moves depicted a group of radical environmental activists).

Reichardt points to films such as Elaine May’s A New Leaf, Jonathan Demme’s Citizens Band, Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends, and Jack Hazan’s David Hockney documentary A Bigger Splash as models for Showing Up. The gentler, community-driven side of Robert Altman also lingers in the background (although Reichardt is a far more laid-back director). Amid the relaxed narrative vibes, Christopher Blauvelt’s extremely grainy cinematography stands out. The screen is full of tiny but noticeable dots. The film avoids digital cleanness in favor of a somewhat dirty look.

Showing Up stands outside of the current social turmoil, though its subtext (such as the injured pigeon’s possible symbolism) intimates the presence of damage. Reichardt’s ’70s reference points consciously avoid New Hollywood’s more violent, male-dominated brutality — this is a gentler kind of independent film. Still, it manages to dodge nostalgia by suggesting that we have something to learn from the past, artistically and otherwise.

Steve Erickson writes about film and music for Gay City News, Slant Magazine, the Nashville Scene, Trouser Press, and other outlets. He also produces electronic music under the tag callinamagician. His latest album, The Bloodshot Eye of Horus, was released in November 2022, and is available to stream here.

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