I regard most films about artists with trepidation. At its worst, the so-called “art world” — a complex and diverse conglomeration of working artists, art schools, galleries, nonprofit spaces, museums, curators, auction houses, critics, collectors and arts workers of all kinds — is ripe for satire. Please see (Untitled) for my favorite tongue-in-cheek depiction of gallery inner-workings, with a bonus plot about avant-garde music.
At its best, making or experiencing visual art can be transcendent. It can connect us to others. It can get at things that are too large or too hard to express through other means. It can be deeply, personally rewarding.
On the spectrum of worst to best, Kelly Reichardt’s new film Showing Up leans toward the latter, depicting, with a light touch, the very ordinary lives of those who make art.
Starring Michelle Williams (in her fourth Reichardt film) as the somewhat joyless ceramicist Lizzie, Showing Up centers on an insular artistic community circling Portland’s Oregon College of Arts and Crafts. The production, instruction and presentation of art fills almost every scene of the movie. Long shots of Lizzie glazing her dancing women or of her landlord and friend Jo (Hong Chau) wrestling a chunk of foam give the film a gentle pace, even though there’s a deadline on the horizon. Lizzie is just a few days away from the opening of a solo show, and she has work to finish.
The question isn’t really if Lizzie will be ready in time, but whether she’ll experience any pleasure in its pursuit. Small everyday inconveniences pile up, adding to her downtrodden demeanor: a broken hot-water heater; a draining office job at her alma mater (where her mother is her boss); an injured pigeon she first ignores then sanctimoniously cares for; an unstable brother to worry after.