Strange Hope

In many respects, Showing Up is nothing new for Kelly Reichardt. Michelle Williams plays Lizzie, a struggling artist, in her fourth collaboration with the director. Jon Raymond co-wrote the script, having done so for all but two of Reichardt’s eight feature films; Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008) were adapted from his short stories, First Cow (2019) from his novel The Half-Life. The setting is once again the Pacific Northwest, now returning to the contemporary after First Cow’s excursion to the 1820s. And in keeping with past works, the film is realist, humanist; its focus, what Reichardt calls the ‘small politics’ of everyday life.

Of the many constants in Reichardt’s work, perhaps most singular is the taut thread of precarity running through it. In Old Joy, this means the first generation of American men to inherit a worse world, where career, family and other modern myths no longer ensure stability. Wendy and Lucy goes further, portraying a descent into homelessness and destitution following the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. Meek’s Cutoff (2010), set in the Oregon High Desert of 1845, was no less critical of the contemporary, offering an allegory of the Bush era – Stephen Meek a hapless fool who fails to lead his party through the desert. In Night Moves (2013) the precarity is a planetary one, which leads a small group of farm workers to commit ecoterrorism (perhaps Reichardt’s weakest film, the characters are morally indicted for this move from ‘small’ to ‘big’ politics). Certain Women (2016) chronicles the alienating qualities of late capitalism in three stories of quotidian suffering; First Cow, those of its beginnings – from barbarism to baked goods and back again. Always pulling at this common thread is the invisible hand of capitalist bondage, with Reichardt’s Pacific Northwest standing as symbolic endpoint for the American frontier.

Showing Up is a film about artmaking under capitalism. We know this because Lizzie makes no money from her work (statuettes, paintings, sketches). Instead, her income derives from an administrative role at a local arts college, where we see her designing promotional posters on an iMac (capitalist artmaking), and which allows her access to certain necessities – a kiln, a community. She rents her apartment from fellow artist Jo (Hong Chau), who swings by to shoot the shit, ask a favour, vent about the school (where Jo is artist-in-residence, much higher status, better liked, more successful). Despite their apparent friendship, Jo refuses to fix the hot water in Lizzie’s apartment, which forces her to shower at the school (another institutional saving grace). The two are amicable but rarely genuine. Lizzie is pointedly not invited to one of Jo’s parties, which may have something to do with her prickly demeanour. Lizzie exhibits signs of autism and struggles to reciprocate the friendliness of others. (Her brother is more obviously neurodivergent – perhaps bipolar or schizophrenic.) In her self-inflicted isolation, Lizzie is the community’s black sheep, and as much as she embodies – economically, socially, emotionally – the Reichardtian precariat, this lifestyle is nevertheless afforded to her by nepotism: her mother also works at the school in a senior role, while her father is an accomplished ceramicist.

This is hardly an inspiring portrait of the artist today. Though the film’s distributors seem intent on marketing the film as a placid comedy, one senses something of Reichardt’s rage in Lizzie: an undervalued artist struggling to make ends meet, forced to align with an institution for survival, reliant on the kindness of friends and family. Reichardt’s precarity as a director is well-known. A decade passed between her first feature, River of Grass (1994), and its follow-up, Old Joy, despite the former’s critical success – playing at Berlin and Sundance, winning prizes, making end-of-year lists. (River of Grass now exists at such a distance that it appears the work of some other director, Jonathan Rosenbaum calling it an ‘atypical first feature’ that ‘might foster some false impressions’.) Old Joy was partly funded by Reichardt’s work on America’s Next Top Model, its budget so low that it allegedly cost the same amount just to feed the oxen and horses on Meek’s Cutoff – Reichardt’s fourth film, given a more extensive but still comparatively meagre budget (she was denied even one extra day’s shooting on the project). Reichardt attributes these financial woes in part to her gender, stating that independent filmmaking is ‘not really open and generous to women’, as well as to ‘the stories that I’m interested in telling’. Meek’s Cutoff, for example, is an anti-western, told from the perspective of its women, languidly paced, its ending unresolved. The film barely earned back half its budget at the box office – the only metric that matters under the tyranny of commerce.

During that initial hiatus, Reichardt worked on a few experimental films and began teaching at Bard in New York. A second feature was never certain. ‘I just thought I would teach and make films for personal gratification’, she said, and in a sense, that is exactly what she has done. Reichardt maintains creative control over her films, while relying on her teaching career for a steady income and health insurance (she makes films too infrequently to qualify for the benefits of the Directors Guild of America). Showing Up is clearly informed by these years of teaching. It begs the question: does Reichardt hate her students? Thanks to the website ‘Rate My Professors’, we know her to be something of a grouch, vehemently against cliché, requiring strict adherence to storytelling rules. ‘Kelly told me to my face not to be a filmmaker’ reads one of the many apocryphal comments. (Given Reichardt’s experience, this was probably good advice.) The students who inhabit Showing Up’s imaginary campus are treated with similar disdain – hard to take seriously when talking of their ‘dream space’ or waving their arms about in a class titled ‘thinking and movement’.

Portland’s uniquely liberal nouveau boheme became the subject of parody in Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s series Portlandia over a decade ago, which opened with a song-as-thesis-statement: ‘Remember when people were content to be unambitious? Sleep to eleven? Just hangout with their friends? You’d have no occupations whatsoever. Maybe you work a couple of hours a week at a coffee shop?’ The dream is alive in Portland, goes the chorus. ‘Portland is a city where young people go to retire!’ Portlandia’s theme tune could accompany many of the cutaways in Reichardt’s film, where we see students spinning yarn, rolling on the floor, pointing projectors at the wall. One student asks Lizzie not to be grouped with a certain professor because they have ‘different theories of cultural production’. What is Reichardt’s theory, exactly? Lizzie’s cultural production is moneyless, mirthless. Her sole gratification comes from a sad gallery show at the film’s end, with one prominent artist giving her a pat on the back. Is this how Reichardt sees herself? Her great theme of precarity is never resolved by hope or its fulfilment; fatalism reigns. Just like the arid desert of Meek’s Cutoff, Reichardt’s America is inhospitable. And yet, if ever a better world is possible in her films, it is in the school of Showing Up.

‘Places where people can still have a Bohemian lifestyle are a nice thing to have in the world’, writer Jon Raymond said in an interview. ‘I hope this movie depicts that kind of community – the community of Lizzie and Jo – in a positive light, one that is not satirical, but inviting and real.’ In that ‘real’ lies the rub: Reichardt’s fantasy campus is built on the boneyard of the Oregon College of Art and Craft, which closed in 2019 after more than a hundred years of teaching. Some of its graduates even worked on the film. A statement from the school’s board claims that the ‘path to closure was paved with years of restructuring, none of which could sufficiently eradicate the rising costs of running a private arts college in the 21st century’ – which says plenty about our present condition. In amending this reality, Showing Up represents perhaps the only time in her career where Reichardt has deviated from the real in favour of something hopeful. She resurrects the school to make a claim for its necessity – reframing her portrait as something almost radical. This is truly art for art’s sake, a polemic for the roly-poly.

Strange hope for stranger times: if this is truly utopia, why such precarity? Why is my boss my mother, my landlord my best friend? Why is this hope still so fatalistic? In Spirit of Utopia (1918), Ernst Bloch claims that times of decline perpetuate such fatalistic thinking, and that ‘those who cannot find their way out of the decline are confronted with fear of hope and against it’. He continues: ‘On bourgeois ground, especially in the abyss which has opened and into which the bourgeoisie has moved, change is impossible.’ This is the abyss that we encounter in Night Moves, where radical change is ruled out in favour of the status quo. Reichardt’s solution, then as now, is community, albeit one embedded within a hierarchy of exploitation.

Bloch argues that utopia has a ‘double origin’, rooted in ‘the remembered image of a time when men lived in a paradisiacal order, and in the desire for a future in which this order will be re-established’. Reichardt’s utopia is conservative in the same way: not a ‘memory of the not-yet-realized’ but of the once-was. The school is a place in the past; there is nothing of the ‘new’ in such nostalgia. In its portrait of American origins, First Cow endorsed a similar sentiment: a cow arrives in the area and so begins private property and its violent control. As in Meek’s Cutoff, the past operates to mediate the present. Both films ask how we arrive at the present misery of Wendy and Lucy, another film occupied by the violence of possession (and its supposed antidote: the kindness of the community). It is telling that in Showing Up, Reichardt’s first time engaging with artmaking and the nearest thing she has made to a self-portrait, we are not only estranged from the future, but also the present. Lizzie’s art is one of petrification. Her statues depict those in her community, in a way that chimes with the realist ethos – an exacting portrait of the present, a mirror up to nature. She is charged with stopping the flow of time. Film does the same.

The mirror can only look back, and so Brecht tells us to reach for the hammer. Reichardt rolls her eyes. Is this why Lizzie works with clay and not marble? Perhaps her statues are meant to crystallize the many contradictions of the topicShowing Up a utopic dystopia, or dystopic utopia. Both suffer from myopia, the artist’s inability to look forward. Another contradiction: the word ‘precarity’ derives from prayer, entreaty, a wish for the future – in a word, hope. I may suffer in the Here and Now, but in my present misery, I imagine a better tomorrow. It seems Reichardt’s films cannot. This is not her failing, but the great failing of our time. ‘Hope’, writes Bloch, is ‘the most human of all mental feelings and only accessible to men, and it also refers to the furthest and brightest horizon.’ Showing Up ends with Lizzie and Jo walking into the sunset. Make of that what you will.

Fredric Jameson, ‘The Politics of Utopia’, NLR 25.