Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Apr 29, 2023 7:05 am 
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An artist prepares for her show

I previously wrote about Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women (2016-NYFF): "If Reichardt achieves authenticity and a sense of real time in these sad, dreary tales, there's also a lack of economy and a lack of verve, almost a stubborn clumsiness. And so this time it's tempting to side somewhat with Rex Reed in the Observer, who commends the acting in this film but condemns Reichardt's style. "Nothing ever happens in her movies," Reed says, "but a handful of critics rave, they end up on the overstuffed programs at film festivals like Sundance and are never seen or heard from again." That isn't really true. But this is a failed movie with one powerful thread, and I wish Reichardt's 2014 Night Moves had gotten all the attention that her 2010 Meek's Cutoff did."

This is the way it has gone for me, perhaps for others. Reichardt is a significant American auteur. Ever since what technically may have been her third film (2006), Old Joy (though nobody saw the first two), critics and cinephiles have had a lot of time for Reichardt's films, even when they were very often stubborn and resisted attention. There are only half a dozen, but have appeared regularly, mostly at three-year intervals; this new one shows no delay from the pandemic. All have stayed in the mind, nagged like Meek's Cutoff, excited like Night Moves, even touched like First Cow. The new one nags, bores, and annoys, but it won't go away. And though one strains to see why Reichardt wanted to make it, its realness leaves one impressed. It's a vivid slice of life. Was it worth slicing? Maybe here there is a lot about today's minor, struggling artist that is so specific it could wind up being enlightening.

Though sharing qualities of being stubborn, specific, and resisting conventional rewards, Reichardt's films have gone in different directions. She has shown a gift for carefully researched and offbeat dips back into early nineteenth-century America with the 1845-set western-traveling Meeks Cutoff and the 1820 pre-Oregon First Cow - the first hard to take, the second hard to resist. This time she doesn't go far: Oregon and art. (She has taught film for some years at Bard, in Annandale-On-Hudson, New York, a school with a strong art focus. Most of her films have been shot in Oregon.) The protagonist of Showing Up is a grumpy, dumpy single woman artist, Lizzy (Michelle Williams in her fourth Reichardt joint) preparing for a show of her small baked figurative sculptures while dealing with "the daily dramas of family and friends."

Léa Seydoux also drabbed-down for her lead in Mia Hansen-Løve's recent One Fine Morning. But with Léa, the radient beauty shines through. Michelle's doesn't: she loses herself in unappealing, unfriendly Lizzy. She doesn't seem to look at us, or anybody. She looks at, and touches, almost caresses those odd sculptures of hers (actually made by the Portland-based artist Cynthia Lahti). They are about two feet tall, or less, of women contorted or gesturing extravagantly. An extreme, expressionistic outgrowth of the school of Rodin, they seem unfashionable, out of date (who makes figurative sculptures anymore?). Isn't this part of the point? Though she doesn't quite say it, Lizzy probably doesn't expect her sculptures to be appreciated.

Lizzy grouses most of all with Jo (Oscar-nominated Hong Chau), her neighbor and negligent landlady, since the latter is s taking weeks to repair Lizzy's water heater. But Jo's an artist too - her work is big and colorful; we glimpse it - and has two shows coming up. Both are connected with a local Portland art school; Jo teaches, Lizzy works in an office, her mother the director. Jo points out her rent is low. She hasn't got it too hard. Her sculptures get baked in a kiln at the school by a friendly, cheerful guy, Eric (André Benjamin). Her father (the resurgent Judd Hirsch again), himself a potter, now, he insists, retired (his work looks handsome), is sprightly and cheerful.

Who arguably doesn't have things so good is Sean (John Magaro, who played the lead role of Cookie in First Cow), Lizzy's brother, who's an artist too. Lizzy may think her parents considered him more talented than she, but he has fairly serious mental issues; his behavior is unpredictable, and he's certainly not happy.

All this is what Showing Up is "about" - along with the obvious MacGuffin of a wounded pigeon Lizzy's cat brings in that she and Jo wind up trading places in caring for. The beauty of the film is how spot-on all the details are. But while Kelly Reichardt films have been fights for survival, the urgency level here is like, whether there is too much cheese on the table at Lizzy's show reception, and then, whether her crazy brother will eat it all up.

Showing Up, 107 mins., debuted in Competition at Cannes May 27, 2022, also in the Main Slate of the NYFF Oct. 5 and shown in a dozen other international festivals. US theatrical release by A24 April. 7, 2023. Metacritic rating 84%. Surprisingly, Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle gave it a rave. He always seemed to hate everything and have very conventional tastes. Screened for this review at Landmark Albany Twin April 28, 2023.

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