In an alternate universe, Kelly Reichardt has made the defining movie about Emily Carr. That was the plan, at least, when the acclaimed filmmaker from Portland, Ore., was in the early days of researching what would become her new movie, the gently sharp art-world comedy Showing Up.
It was a few years ago, and Reichardt – known in film circles as much for her meditative and rich art-house work (First Cow, Wendy and Lucy, Certain Women) as she is for rarely straying far from her Pacific Northwest base – was contemplating what might be next for her and writing partner Jonathan Raymond. At first, the pair were intrigued by how Carr had once bought a piece of property with the intention of renting out its rooms. Her plan was to earn money, affording her the time to paint, but instead Carr found her tenants to be impossibly needy, and that life as a landlord was working in direct opposition to her life as an artist.
Reichardt, who has always been fascinated by the space that work takes up in a person’s life – the processes, the responsibilities, the trade-offs – thought that Carr’s travails made the perfect fodder for a movie exploring the delicate balance of passion and subsistence, body and soul. And best of all, here was a brilliant painter who almost no one had ever heard of that they could introduce to the world!
“We were very naive about Carr and just didn’t know that she was a huge person in Canada – we just didn’t Google,” Reichardt recalls today. “We drove up to B.C. to research and realized the error of our ways when we got to customs. The guard asked us, ‘What are you doing here?’ ‘Oh, we’re investigating this painter Emily Carr, you probably don’t know her.’ It was like coming to America and asking if they had ever heard of Norman Rockwell.”
Unfortunately for the Carr estate – but fortunately for fans of Reichardt’s subtle, enveloping, brilliant movies – the filmmaker turned the mishap back on itself to make the contemporary comedy Showing Up, which opens in select Canadian theatres Friday after premiering at Cannes last year. While the film doesn’t have anything to do with Canada, it does pivot on that original Carr question that so captivated Reichardt and Raymond: How can you live as an artist while also dealing with the everyday distractions of, well, living?
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Set largely on the campus of the Oregon College of Art and Craft (a real though now defunct institution), Showing Up focuses on Lizzy (Michelle Williams), a ceramic sculptor who struggles to balance her artistic practice with her day job in the college’s administrative department, which is run by her mother (Maryann Plunkett). Flitting around Lizzy are a number of artists who alternatively inspire and unnerve her, including her psychologically disturbed brother (First Cow star John Magaro) and her landlady Jo (Hong Chau), whose stubborn refusal to fix Lizzy’s hot water echoes the property-maintenance thread in Carr’s life that so initially interested Reichardt.
As the film amiably shuffles from one quotidian situation to the next – Lizzy visits her divorced father (Judd Hirsch), Lizzy is asked by Jo to take care of an injured bird, Lizzy tries to gently pressure her family into attending her upcoming exhibition – Reichardt and her usual band of collaborators, including Raymond and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, paint a portrait of the artist as a young(ish) woman.
Showing Up works so well not only because of Reichardt’s typical technical prowess and attention to detail, but also because of the natural onscreen strength of Williams, working here with the director for the fourth time. While Reichardt doesn’t see a through line between the characters that she has asked Williams to portray, she does feel that the two established a layered relationship from their first collaboration, on the celebrated 2008 microbudget drama Wendy and Lucy.
“I did find her going through my purse early on so that set us back, but aside from the stealing, there’s a lot of trust,” Reichardt says with a laugh. “When we made Wendy and Lucy, that was a 13-person crew. Thirteen people made a movie! But I remember when we did the first scene together, I was like, okay, I hadn’t really worked with actors who just have the technical skills. Someone who could alter something just a notch.”
“I do think about all the characters, but I don’t really connect their dots,” Williams adds, sitting next to her director during a Zoom interview. “It was such a happy time making Wendy and Lucy, though. I found a way of working that I had always dreamed of – that you could make something so special that it felt like you were working with a family.”
As with every Reichardt film, preparation was key to filming Showing Up. Williams shadowed the Portland artist Cynthia Lahti, who created about 20 small-scale sculptures for the film, working with no instructions or creative input from Reichardt.
“I like to spend as much time as possible in preparation, some of it to mellow out anxiety because the longer that you can prepare, the longer you can dissipate that nervousness,” Williams says. “Acting is so strange because you spend so little time acting. When you finally get there and hear the word ‘action’ you are no longer in the waiting room, so I need to learn to become this other character so thoroughly. Being with Cynthia, and watching her do what she does to make these sculptures come alive, was incredibly helpful.”
At one point in Showing Up, Lizzy slips into disappointment when one of her pieces emerges from the college’s communal kiln overheated and near-burnt. While there is temptation to draw a parallel between that moment and the sentiment that a filmmaker like Reichardt might feel between the time spent shooting a movie and seeing what emerges in the editing bay, the director gently dismisses that notion.
“I was just thinking about that statue and the damn glaze. It was such an object of concern about how burnt that piece should be,” the director recalls with a laugh. “I always get in the editing room and think that I set out to make something completely different than the time before, but then I realize, ‘Oh, it’s another one of these.’ I recognize that the film is mine, that it’s what I made. Just like I would know that’s a Cynthia piece if I saw it anywhere.”
Showing Up opens in select theatres April 14.
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
Written by Kelly Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond
Starring Michelle Williams, Hong Chau and Judd Hirsch
Classification 14A; 108 minutes
Opens in select theatres April 14
Like a number of Kelly Reichardt’s films, there is an animal at the centre of Showing Up. But whereas the director’s 2008 drama Wendy and Lucy found working-class vulnerability in the journey of a dog and its owner, and 2020′s First Cow employed its titular bovine as a focal point for history’s forgotten figures, Showing Up uses an injured bird to signal an artist who is ready to spread her wings only when the time is right. Which might, in fact, be never, given how the film’s central character, a Portland sculptor named Lizzy (Michelle Williams), is in a near-constant state of anxiety and concern over her upcoming solo exhibition.
Maybe, Lizzy seems to think, it’s best to take after her new pet and nest instead, comfortable in living a life that no one will ever intrude upon. Or maybe a bird is just a bird, and the real aim of Reichardt’s amiable, wonderful movie is to offer a warm and frequently wry look at what artists do to keep their passions alive. Either way, Showing Up is a beautifully acted, carefully observed work of body, mind and soul – with surely no animals harmed in the process. B.H.