“Showing Up” is the inspired title of Kelly Reichardt’s eighth feature, a sneaky, funny little masterpiece, beautifully measured, tender-yet-irritable telling of the daily life and low-level strife of a mid-career working artist, a ceramics sculptor in modern-day Portland, played by a formidably distracted Michelle Williams. Her daily tribulations are those of Job in six-point type; as she prepares a show while working at the Oregon College of Art and Craft (an institution, defunct since 2019, of which Reichardt and her crew had the run of the premises) while also dealing with a troublesome friend-peer-neighbor-landlord (Hong Chau, her character both focused and trippy) who’s preparing two new shows. Then the bird. Then her cat. Then everything.
The result is exquisite rather than mundane, slyly wicked, exploring a working artist’s tribulations and ministrations across a confined period of time, but in concert with everyone whose path she crosses in those few days. By story’s end, Reichardt makes it almost seem as if quotidian frustrations are a necessary part of Lizzy’s process, unbeknownst to her.
Reichardt and I spoke in Chicago in the middle of March. By contrast to the sleepy, warm Portland on screen, it was very cold outside. She’s as gracious to my effusive observations masked as questions as she is to her potentially foundering protagonist. (There’s a wonderful mutual appreciation society in session in a conversation between Reichardt and filmmaking peer Guy Maddin at Filmmaker magazine here.) Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
“Showing up is eighty-percent of life,” a once-prolific twentieth-century comedian joked, but the source of the excellent title is immaterial: it’s what Lizzy does and how each small victory or insight in the story is approached or attained.
Another phrase, revealed in the copyright notice in the end credits, indicates the title could have been “Crazed Glaze,” a technical term for lines or cracks that can emerge in wild profusion beneath a fired, glazed surface, minuscule fissures that become part of the art. That stress is kind of what Lizzy goes through.
Yes, right. Just that.
Lizzy’s so frustrated, there’s so much simmering. She never even stamps her foot once! She leaves a single voicemail where that includes the word “Fuck!” She’s mad at the bird that comes into her life at the beginning, she’s badgered and beleaguered, but she contains it all. She moves forward. She crafts the work, even when defeat is right at hand.
Yes, she’s simmering. It was one of the beginning points of Lizzy.
There’s so much to appreciate in your movie: I’m always gratified to see filmmaking that makes use of every means, all the material aspects. Light. That’s a start. You’re definitely capturing aspects in Portland light that you have observed. Inside and out, and all the way to the final shot of Lizzy and another character walking down a side street. The music. The songs characters listen to by themselves, they’re there but quiet. Sound design, the casting, the performances across the board down to the smallest face. But what’s really amazing to me is how the costume design, to a person, works as characterization. There’s a couple of scenes toward the end, there’s the art opening, but we also have a party with all the students, just this room full of students, I could tell you who each of those people were specifically by the pieces they wear.
That’s April Napier. She’s amazing and she’s really specific and there’s a lot of looking. It’s a long process with April but we start working really early. We do lot of sharing information, she’s amazing. She also did “Certain Women” and “First Cow.”
That’s different from walking into a party full of contemporary art students.
We were constantly having this conversation because that location has such a late sixties, seventies feel to it. But it’s a contemporary piece, we have to make sure that the clothing feels contemporary and then we’d go sit places and just watch people and go, “Okay, they all dress like they’re in the seventies!” Are Crocs coming back? I did see a picture of David Hockney wearing yellow tie-dye Crocs the other day.
I made so many notes writing down types of shoes. Crocs, mules, sneakers and there’s a slide Lizzy wears that’s almost a Moroccan babouche.
Yeah, the ones that Lizzy wears. They’re not quite clogs, and they have that sound.
She’s starting to become her mom a little, with her nearly muttering annoyance at the world, but also the costume design in the dowdy sphere, yet she still has just a touch of style. (Stage adept Maryann Plunkett plays Lizzy’s mother, who is also her boss, and the role is a marvel of familial irritations and, well, simmering.)
I had to go back in the sound design because I was like, okay. Michelle is like “I’m hitting it too hard with the shuffling!” I’m like, “I think we gotta pull that out a little bit because she can’t be that old yet!”
The sound design is spare, but with pronounced small details, little lyrical touches here and there throughout the picture.
There are a lot of options and ways that you could go, you know, when to be in the room as it actually is, or when to be more in her head . You know, I didn’t want to be in her head sound-wise. But then the music from her neighbor is bothering her. It’s coming through the walls. There is a party next door. Is that the scene you’re talking about?
Just in general. On the street it seemed like you were at times missing some of what would be the outdoors version of “room tone,” but then you would provide other sounds, just noticeable, off in the distance.
Right. Yeah, there’s some [repetition] going on. The glass. The skateboarder. When I think of Portland I think of crows and skateboards. Those are sounds I’m aware that I’m hearing all the time. In my apartment I hear skateboards go by so many times in the day. It’s always there, either smooth or there’s the move that no one seems to ever land and then the skateboarder was like, “I didn’t know how to do that.” Also trains, there’s always, you can hear trains. There are trains in Portland, you have to work them into the world. But yeah, [another] character, he’s closer to the airport, so there’s like a lot of airplane action and all there. And then in town, it’s a little quieter.
But still present. This is the world. Lizzy isn’t going crazy. This isn’t Polanski-style psychological stuff going on.
No, it’s not.
This is just— Drift, drift, drift, drift. The coo of pigeons, whir of skateboards, a basketball’s pounce. There’s a point where you hear that basketball. It’s there, it doesn’t become aggravating enough that it’s foregrounded. It’s just there for your psychological state to receive, we’re on that corner in Portland but it’s more shaped than simple ambience.
I’ve been thinking about sounds like, before going to do press on the movie. I think I hear things louder than the people I’m with. I could run out of a restaurant because the knife and fork sounds are drilling through my head or sounds of crackling in the movie theater. And I’m just like, “How is this not noticeable?” And of course my friends are like, “God, you know, just chill.” And I’m just, how is this not driving you… How is this sound of this idling truck not… They’re like, stop focusing on it. What do you mean, stop focusing on it! It’s pounding through my head! And I wonder, when I’m mixing stuff, if, you know, that we don’t all hear things the same way.
It’s not just people going deaf after thirty, after fifty, even ordinary hearing will have some level of high-decibel damage.
I think I hear certain sounds louder now than I used to. I find restaurants really hard and it’s not because of the people, it’s because of the silverware! When you’re mixing, you have to like decide what the sound of all those things are. And it’s funny if you’re working with someone who’s like twenty [who says], “You can’t really hear this.” I’m like, what do you mean? That’s like, are you kidding me! It’s killing me. So yeah, it’s, you know, along with the idea of where you hear things from where the character is, there’s this whole other thing that’s weighing in my head about how we all hear things.
There’s a psychological condition, misophonia, about pronounced sensitivity to particular sounds, but it’s different from changes in hearing. So yeah, it must be a worry if you’re a filmmaker. Someone who’s notoriously proud about their hearing is Michael Mann. And one of my favorite memories of a preview was being at the Ziegfeld in New York sitting on the aisle seat directly next to Michael Mann during an early screening of “Ali.” He’s twirling the knobs of a device in his lap and giggling maniacally whenever certain things happen, especially with Jamie Foxx, but he was also actively doing his own live mix just to figure out how it sounded in that great, defunct room.
I shouldn’t make it an old-age thing because I can remember laying in my bed and hearing my siblings at the table and being like, with my pillow over my head, when are they gonna stop scraping that plate?
What’s the origin of the end credits with the unbroken take of an art piece being woven by a woman with her hands, and this music that sounds like Steve Reich’s “Music For 18 Musicians” (1974-76)? The composition is an analogue for process, just like the movie we’ve just ambled through. It’s very much not just that artist’s process of weaving and tying that piece in front of us, but all that’s come before.
That’s [composer] Ethan Rose. I mean, it’s very much processed. The pieces are very… It has computers telling it, it has a rhythm that the computer is dictating. And so you couldn’t necessarily say, all right, I want that little part to happen right here because there’s a random thing that’s happening with how you make that music that’s out of human hands.
This gets back to that conversation I was talking about, not wanting this, like, seventies vibe to override things and wanting it to be contemporary. I got into a lot of digital music that I’ve never listened to before. And Dawn Sutter, the music supervisor, was turning me on to a lot of this stuff. and then working with Ethan was interesting because he’d come in with his little, like, he’s not coming in with an instrument, he comes in with a laptop, you know! Like, “Oh wow, okay!” So I thought the film, with these tactile, you know, the knot-tying and all this tactile clay and things like this, that I needed, this less technical sound to go with it. And so that was bringing in Ethan. Yeah. Yeah, so that’s a lovely little finish.
“Showing Up” is now showing at Landmark Century and River East.