Take These Broken Wings: Kelly Reichardt on “Showing Up”

By Adam Nayman

After previously playing a dog person for Kelly Reichardt in Wendy and Lucy (2008), Michelle Williams is now a cat person in Showing Up. Quietly intense in her wardrobe of shapeless earth tones, sullenly poking around Portland in crocs and socks, Williams’ Lizzy is finishing up a degree at the Oregon College of Art and Craft (OCAC), where she specializes in sculpture. Her rent-paying job in the school’s front office—under the watchful eye of the department supervisor (Maryann Plunkett), who happens to be her mother—enables her to share her two-floor, studio-basemented apartment with a pushy orange tabby whom Lizzy can barely seem to keep in Kibble.  

From Robert Altman to Hal Ashby to the Coens, using a feckless feline as shorthand for a loner’s stubbornest traits is an old trick. Reichardt, however—who by now is no less than the aforementioned a Great American Filmmaker—makes the device work on her own, more naturalistic terms. Whether malingering by its perpetually empty bowl or jutting her claws out from underneath a closed basement door, Lizzy’s roommate exudes the coiled, ambient agitation of a creature bridling against its own domestication. When the animal mauls a pigeon that’s crept into the bathroom, it’s as if it were acting out some tetchy, subconscious impulse on its owner’s behalf. 

The cat doesn’t finish the job. “Please go outside to die,” Lizzy urges the wounded intruder while sweeping it up and out the window. The next morning, though, she’s coerced into caring for the bird by her neighbour-slash-landlord-slash-classmate Jo (Hong Chau), another aesthete whose subtly overbearing Good Samaritan act—bandaging the victim’s wounds and nestling it into a cozy shoebox of its own—inspires what would seem to be a desired mix of resentment, shame, and competitiveness. Lizzy and Jo’s relationship, which we join in medias res and clearly extends beyond the purview of Christian Blauvelt’s fine-grained frames, is intimate but ambiguous: as ever, when it comes to questions of dramaturgy, Reichardt opts for a less-is-more approach. The same goes for her symbolism: in a lesser or more obvious movie, it would be spelled out that Lizzy and Jo’s joint Florence Nightingale act on behalf of a helpless bird was a metaphor for their own healing relationship. Instead, in the deceptively offhand context of Reichardt’s art-world comedy, it’s just another sweetly puttering running joke.

Given its Pacific Northwestern setting and episodic, quasi-sketch-comical structure, it’s tempting to call Showing Up Reichardt’s version of Portlandia, with Lizzy and Jo’s foundling serving as a neatly coincidental manifestation of that IFC series’ greatest catchphrase: the repeated exhortations by Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s hipster interior decorators to their clout-chasing clients to “put a bird on it” (“it” being anything at all). Such matters of gentrification were surely germane to Reichardt’s 2016 Montana triptych Certain Women, with its big-box strip malls and curt, devastating middle section about sly city mice trying to bilk an elderly homesteader out of his valuable antique stones. There, Williams’ bourgeois character’s lilting bird calls to the ancient René Auberjonois suggested a disingenuous act of solidarity across class and generational lines. Like her fellow left-leaning regionalist John Sayles, Reichardt’s eyes are peeled to the ways that local cultures get variously usurped, bought up, and commodified, and to the attendant vaporization of local utopias. These themes were taken to a relatively epic extreme in the tragicomic capitalist allegory of First Cow (2019), whose entrepreneurial heroes got busy seasoning a nation’s melting point and ended up as skeletons in history’s closet. 

Besides the reliably gorgeous landscapes and reliably anguished politics, First Cow’s most outstanding element was its intent, tactile presentation of skilled hands at work. In a turn that will surely excite cinephiles whose cinematic Venn diagrams encompass both Reichardt and Michael Mann, the director has doubled down on depictions of process in Showing Up. The first time we see Jo, she’s lazily but very delicately assembling a tire swing in her backyard, which is a good way to act distracted while a tenant (that’d be Lizzy) angrily asks her to deal with their property’s sputtering hot-water pipes. Jo’s relaxed dexterity anticipates her loom-based artworks, while elsewhere, the ever-genial Eric (André Benjamin) projects the same even, low-level warmth as his beloved communal kiln. As for Lizzy, her painstakingly shaped array of Giacomettian ceramics—all female forms, with lanky limbs that fold and splay in every direction—are obviously self-portraits, and the fine motor skills exercised in their creation exist in tender, ironic counterpoint to the slovenly little sprawl of their maker’s existence: the red-eyed all-nighters without a shower; the thankless busywork of fliers and invitations; the distressing check-ins with friends and family members consumed (or devoured) by their eccentric passions (e.g., her possibly mentally ill brother [John Magaro], who’s literally and figuratively digging himself deeper into a hole); the Tupperware lunches on campus, staring hypnotized towards a horizon that just keeps receding behind the clouds.

Thus comes the other big temptation with watching and writing about Showing Up: to perceive Lizzy and her quotidian struggles to have her work seen and catalogued as a stand-in for a certain woman behind the camera, and the film as whole as Reichardt’s Pygmalionesque reckoning with her own intertwining vocations as a filmmaker and a lecturer. (In May, Williams told Variety that her director teaches at Bard partially because she doesn’t get health insurance through the DGA.) Whether Reichardt would ever admit that this synchronicity is deliberate (and there’s something to be said for directors who take the Fifth), the film plays unmistakably with the contingencies—ideological, economical, emotional, philosophical—of what noted sculptor David Lynch has called “the Art Life,” especially in a place that nurtures such aspirations while implicitly delineating their limits. Familiarity breeds all kinds of things, and the weekly cycles of in-crowd exhibitions and openings have an Exterminating Angel aspect to them—a Sisyphean roundelay of cheese plates and veiled, careful compliments, a year’s work elevated as a conversation piece or reduced to small talk. 

In 2019, the OCAC was closed after restructuring efforts “could not sufficiently eradicate the rising costs of running a private arts college in the 21st century.” In a gesture of bittersweet defiance that doubles as a kind of pre-COVID time machine (ditto the prevalence of cell-phone calls over text messages), Reichardt and her collaborators have resurrected the campus as a bustling hub of self-directed creation, integrating lingering glances at various student works and projects in between the plot points (such as they are). These interstitials are funny, but never judgmental; they’re sight gags, but never punchlines. The narrative device of building gradually towards Lizzy’s first solo exhibition—and establishing that a big New York art-world powerbroker is slated to attend—recalls the arc of Christopher Guest’s Waiting for Guffman (1996), but without the satirical, burlesquing condescension. Rather than inviting us to laugh at its characters for their solipsism, Showing Up sweetly celebrates (though not consecrates) the persistence of their vision, and does its best to align it with our own. A late shot of the whole motley ensemble with their eyes lifted to the sky is an ideal grace note—they’re looking for something elusive, vanishing, vulnerable, and real. 

Cinema Scope: What went into the decision to make Lizzie a sculptor? Was there an artist or a piece that shaped the idea of making a movie about that particular artform? I assume the script predated the sculptures themselves—were the female statues made to order based on the writing, or did you take writing inspiration from them once they were done? And how much did the sculptural work showcased in the movie come to inform Michelle Williams’ performance? 

Kelly Reichardt: The script was written with Cynthia Lahti’s work in mind. Everything in the film is handmade; no moulds were used. Jon Raymond has known Cynthia for 20-some years. I was very familiar with her work. I also had Michelle Segre’s artwork in mind for Jo. Chris Blauvelt and I had already filmed Michelle in her Bronx studio for a short film I made for the Pompidou. And the glass pieces that are the work of Marlene, the visiting artist (played by Heather Lawless), is the artwork of Jessica Jackson Hutchins. I had filmed Jessica for that same Pompidou project. 

Michelle took some classes with Cynthia here in Portland, and Hong Chau worked with Michelle Segre in the Bronx studio. The characters were quite different than the real artist to my mind, but also the artwork is so personal I’m sure there’s some crossover. 

Scope: Keeping on the idea of sculpture/physical artwork, the movie is filled with all these moments of people working in very tactile, hands-on ways, like when Jo makes the tire swing in the opening scenes. Maybe you could talk about that idea of filming very physical, three-dimensional work—and, more generally, putting artistic process (as opposed to necessarily finished artworks) onscreen?

Reichardt: The idea was to show the process—how artmaking is like eating and sleeping for some people. The daily rituals, routine, and labour that goes into making work, whether there’s an audience or not. It’s somewhat about artmaking as an extension of life—not separate from your friends, your day job, your sense of humour, or whatever else. 

Scope: How has your process with Michelle Williams changed after so many films together? This is the biggest role she’s had since Wendy and Lucy; it’s an ensemble, but much more than in Meek’s Cutoff (2010) or Certain Women, she carries the film. It’s a performance with a lot of interior space, and I’d love to hear you talk about how it was achieved.

Reichardt: Like everything, it’s a process. There’s no grand approach—we are just in it and doing the work at hand, considering the moment we are in and deciding what that moment is about. Sometimes things are coming through in performance, and sometimes through the frame. Michelle is always focused on Lizzy, and I’m also thinking about the bigger picture of the story.

Scope: There’s a common thread in your movies of very insular, self-sustaining communities; the wagon train in Meek’s Cutoff; the farms in Night Moves (2013); the fort in First Cow (very different context, but still); I also thought of the insularity in Old Joy (2006), the idea of creating a small little world and living inside of it. Is this a denial of the larger America? An attempt to live beyond it? To what extent is this small Oregon college/college town rooted in reality, and how much of it is a bit of a fantasy? And how does your own work as a teacher go into making a movie that’s largely about inter-faculty relationships?

Reichardt: The Oregon College of Art and Craft was a real place and an important institution for the Pacific Northwest ceramics scene for 112 years. It closed its doors in 2019. The college had a few different locations over the decades—we were lucky enough to film in the funky buildings in southwest Portland that were built in 1979, before a renovation got underway; it’s becoming a private middle school. The OCAC campus became our hub. The rooms were empty when we arrived, but the art department used the woodshop and wardrobe took over the basement; it became a functioning place. Local artisans were hired to make what would be the student art in the film, so things were getting made in all of the classrooms: dying fabrics, ceramics, and weaving. Week by week, the school was coming to life during pre-production. Then came the kids that would play the students in the film. They had to learn all the crafts, so there was teaching and learning going on and a real community was forming.

My filmmaking world and teaching world collided. My colleague Ben Coonley even flew out and built a Buckminster Fuller–type structure. That was a real highlight for me, having Ben there and having him work with production designer Tony Gasparro and the Showing Up art team. 

It is sort of an idealized world. I’ve been interested in Black Mountain College for a long time, and that approach to teaching I’m sure influenced the design of OCAC and Bard, and was in my mind while creating the school for Showing Up.

Scope: More technically, how the hell did you film with real and robot pigeons? Is this the most complicated special-effects thing in any of your movies? It’s a short list, I know. 

Reichardt: I don’t really want to give away things in the movie, but there are only two very brief moments in the film where the bird isn’t a real bird. It’s not one bird doing everything, but they are real birds for the most part. 

Scope: What can you tell me about the wardrobe choices on this movie—there’s so much beige. I feel like the clothes are funny, but there’s also something in there about comfort, not needing to keep up appearances or “make a scene.” It’s a bohemian scene, and everybody’s sort of slovenly. The exceptions are the New York visitors—and that contrast seems maybe important to an idea about art as a career versus art for its own sake.

Reichardt: Michelle’s character wears some beige. Lizzy is working with colour in her art. Her clothes are like having a uniform: she can get dressed without a lot of thought. She would like the attention to be elsewhere, not on her. I wouldn’t say that she has decided that she isn’t trying to make a career out of art—everyone has their dreams and ambitions, and the world makes some of those decisions for you, as does luck. There are a lot of factors outside of the art itself. And yes, New York is more formal than Portland. Lizzy is working at her home studio; the New York art dealer is on a trip. We should mention that the costume designer on Showing Up is April Napier.

Scope: On First Cow, you and Christopher Blauvelt used digital video to mimic celluloid grain. I’ve not read one way or another if the look here was also a trick, but I was reminded mostly of the look of Certain Women. Can you talk about the shooting choices here, and particularly how you as a director wanted to frame/film inanimate objects?

Reichardt: Every movie has its own recipe. We have references and we do tests and try to get the film to look the way we want it to look for the movie we’re working on, finding the look that works with the story that we are telling. That’s done with finding a colour palette, picking lenses, film stock when we’re shooting film, an approach to lighting—these things all come into play, including the time of year we’re shooting in.

Scope: There are so many close-ups and inserts of pieces here, which take the place a bit of the landscapes in your other movies. At times, it feels like you’re shooting Lizzy’s pieces especially as characters… 

Reichardt: One image gets its meaning from the image you put next to it. Figuring out what the right shooting strategy is for a film has nothing to do with some other film I’ve made. You can only live in one film at a time. A lot of figuring out how I wanted to shoot this film came with the location of Lizzy and Jo’s apartment building. I know this building well. I’ve stayed in Lizzy’s apartment, my friends have been in and out of that apartment complex. The upstairs/downstairs of it was really appealing—these friends are living next door to each other, so they are always on top of one another, hearing each other’s comings and goings. Spending enough time in that location, figuring out how to shoot Lizzy in her space, helped to inform how the rest of the movie would be shot.

What you refer to as “insert shots” I would never think of like that. An insert shot is meant to show you something—that’s not what’s happening here. This isn’t like, “Look at the gun under the pillow!” These are the sculptures Lizzy is living with: they’re on her shelves, and in her mind, and in the process of being made.

Scope: I’m going to slip this one in here: how much can we read into a movie about self-portraiture—and sort of tortured, ambivalent self-portraiture—as your own version of same? 

Reichardt: Our original idea was to write a biography about Canadian painter Emily Carr. We wanted to cover the decade of her life when she took in renters with the hope that being a landlord would allow her more time to paint as opposed to having a day job. In fact, her tenants took over her world and she had less time to paint than ever. That was our starting point: an artist trying to balance art with making an income. 

When Jon Raymond and I went to Canada we found out just how iconic your beloved Carr is—not at all as obscure as we had presumed. Anyway, that couldn’t work, because we didn’t want a famous artist. So we came home and turned to the artist people we know, to the art scene here in Portland. No one is any one person—Jo and Lizzy are mixed bags, and they’re fictional and shaped to fit our story. 

Scope: Where did the idea of an artist family come from? There are different approaches to art as practice (and profession) in Lizzy’s family, and they’re all sort of in conflict with each other throughout the movie: different mediums, different ambitions, different ways to have (or not have) a day job. In some of your films, family relationships are either off to the side or in the background; here, they come increasingly into focus as the movie goes on.

Reichardt: The artist family structure was something Jon Raymond had in mind. He’s riffing off various friends and families and dynamics that are close to him. This mix of people got turned into the fictionalized Carr family. A whole new dynamic comes about when the actors arrive and are reacting to each other in a scene.

Scope: Did you come to cast André Benjamin based on High Life (2018)? He’s such a relaxed, lovely presence in this movie—the most relaxed in the movie. What was the impetus to have him contribute flute music to the soundtrack?

Reichardt: Gayle Keller was the casting person on Showing Up, and I think she first brought up André. I found this photo of him with his big smile wearing a pair of overalls, and I just had that on my wall for a while with other faces—like Lee Bontecou, who was on my mind a lot when thinking about what Lizzy might look like. The part of Eric the kiln guru had to be an easy presence in the film. He plays an important role at the school: he’s a very roll-with-it guy, and that is not Lizzy at all. I got so used to looking at André’s face—he seemed the perfect vibe for Eric, and he was! 

As to the music, André was roaming around playing his flute all the time, as he does when he isn’t needed on set. It was lovely having that sound waft through the air and through the windows or across the yard. On the last day of filming at the school André went out into the field and let us record him playing. In the editing I had his flute there to do with what I wanted. 

Scope: Do you feel like this is the most explicit comedy you’ve ever made? There are moments of humour in almost all of your films—and the comedy here is quite deadpan—but it feels like there’s something in your directing that’s more about pace and timing and reaction shots or gestures than ever before. Are you a fan of any comedic directors in particular? 

Reichardt: We thought we were writing a film that was partly comedic in tone. I can find a lot to laugh at with liberal arts while still believing liberal arts are super-important. Some of the situations in Showing Up are comical, but the people aren’t stereotypes—we really tried to stay away from that. I’m a fan of Elaine May, Mike Leigh, Jacques Tati, Albert Brooks…I was revisiting Lukas Moodysson’s Together (2000) not long ago, that film makes me laugh. A somewhat recent discovery for me is Anne Bancroft’s film Fatso (1980), with Dom DeLuise. Can’t show that in a liberal arts class.