Wednesday, June 07, 2023

Art School Blues

Kelly Reichardt's new film, Showing Up (2022), strikes me as a film with a verrrrry specific audience, and unless you're either a fan of Reichardt's brand of minimalism or a member of the specific audience I have in mind, a potential viewer might have a hard time with it. I'm part of that very specific audience, having been through art school and having worked on and off in the arts throughout my adult life. As a result, there's a bracing shock of recognition in this film. It captures something ineffable about trying to make art in the wreckage of late capitalism and in a world that no longer values art and artists as it once did. I've never seen a film about art before that captures just how utterly tired artists are. It's no wonder that so many artists turn into cranks as they age.

The film follows a week in the life of Lizzy, a sculptor balancing the work she has to do for an impending show, her job at an art school, her responsibilities to her family, and the ongoing frustration of living without hot water. Her landlord, Jo, is also an artist, also preparing for two impending shows, and has no time to fix the hot water. One night, her cat captures a pigeon that has gotten into her house. She takes it away from the cat and shoves the injured bird out the window to die somewhere else. The next day, Jo brings her the injured pigeon and proposes that they nurse it back to health, a job that increasingly falls to Lizzy. Her annoyance with this circumstance only escalates when she's on the hook for a vet bill for the bird, which she needs to recoup from Jo. Jo is increasingly unavailable due to her own work and impending show. Making matters worse is Lizzy's father, who she believes is being exploited by his house guests, and her brother, who seems to be having some kind of psychotic break. She is increasingly frazzled by the late night demands of getting her own art made and ready to show.

Showing Up as a whole resembles an alternate version of Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes's Art School Confidential, though without the bile. John Malkovich's gormless teacher in that film would not be completely out of place here. This film has a less jaundiced view of art and artists, perhaps because it empathizes with artists who make art as therapy or because it feels good rather than as aspirational great masters. It would be easy--poisonously easy--for Showing Up to look down on its characters, but Kelly Reichardt is too much of a humanist for that. The key to the film is the title. It's not a matter of artistic triumphs, it's about showing up and doing the work. Lizzy's life is a grind, but she keeps grinding. She shows up to make art, she shows up to take care of her brother (if he would allow it), she shows up and tells her father than she thinks his new friends are exploiting him, and she shows up when Jo drops the responsibility of caring for an injured bird on her after she herself said no to it without the prompting of someone else. She's there for people, no matter how exhausting it is. When she eventually snaps at the end of the film, you understand just how much everyone around her is abrogating their own responsibilities. This is in contrast to Jo, who is constantly shown avoiding showing up for her responsibilities--particularly her legal responsibilities as a landlord--and to Lizzy's mother who just handwaves away the obvious mental breakdown her son is having when Lizzy asks her to help with him. Grinding away at the work is the film's overall modus operandi, too. The audience I was in wasn't receptive to that, which is fair, I guess. For me, film has genuine pleasures. As I say, I'm its target audience. One of those pleasures is watching its lead actress.

Michelle Williams is one of the great actresses of her generation, but she's the kind of actress who will only be recognized in retrospect. I can see her going unrecognized by major awards--a nominee, perhaps, but never a winner--until some twenty or thirty years from now when The Oscars or whatever remains of film culture realizes what they had right in front of their faces and gives her a lifetime achievement award or some such. I hope it's not posthumous. Here, her desperation and sheer exhaustion is a vital force throughout the film, and what force the film has builds through her anxiety. The contrast between this performance and the one she gave for Steven Spielberg last year in The Fabelmans is instructive, because they hardly seem like the same person. It's a chameleonic shift between the two characters. Mitzi Fabelman was outgoing, brash, showy. Carnal, even. Lizzy is withdrawn, sullen, resentful, and isolated. A lot of the technical elements of her performance aren't even in her delivery of lines. It's her posture, the way she holds her head in scenes with other actors, in the way she looks around the film frame. It's a brilliant performance, but since it's one that lacks the histrionics of a big speech or a spectacular breakdown, it's going to go unappreciated. But it's brilliant none the less.

So too are the performances by the supporting cast, especially the equally chameleonic Hong Chau as Jo, and Judd Hirsch as Lizzy's irresponsible father. This last performance also acts as a point of comparison with The Fabelmans, because Hirsch gets a showy, speech-y part in that film but a more subtle (and longer) set of character traits in this one. This is a film that's less about the show and the entertainment value and more about a portrait of these specific characters at an existential moment. It's not a confrontational movie on its surface, but it's absolutely a confrontational movie in its bones. What does art mean to these characters? Is it a job? A vocation? A mania? Maybe all of these at once, particularly in the case of Lizzy's brother, who digs an impromptu earthwork sculpture in his back yard in a fit of madness. It asks what art means to the viewer as well, and a viewer who doesn't think deeply about art might resent the film for asking this of them. I think a LOT about art and how it fits into the capitalist hellscape of the present moment. I'm less sanguine toward this film's concluding chase after the pigeon when it's unwrapped by a couple of kids and takes flight from an art show. This seems a blunt metaphor for a director whose symbols are usually as subdued as her stories.

Christianne Benedict on Patreon
This blog is supported on Patreon by wonderful subscribers. If you like what I do, please consider pledging your own support. It means the world to me.

No comments: