Review | ‘Showing Up’: The drudgery and bliss of art making

(3.5 stars)

It’s sometimes been said that making art is thinking made visible. In her latest film, “Showing Up,” Kelly Reichardt, the director of 2019’s “First Cow” and virtuosa of slow cinema, turns her thoughtful attention to the act of creation itself, rendering both its transcendence and mundanity with equal curiosity.

Set in the milieu of a small art school in Oregon, and filmed on the campus of Portland’s now-defunct Oregon College of Art and Craft, the film is certainly not the first to hold the creative process up to scrutiny: its agonies and ecstasies, false starts and alchemical transformation of abject failure into — well, more interesting failure. But it is one of the best, in a medium that consistently gets art dead wrong, too often forsaking patience for the moviemaking shorthand of showing the flash of genius as, say, Jackson Pollock discovering drip painting literally overnight, in one alcohol-and-insomnia-fueled burst of discovery.

Co-written with her frequent collaborator Jonathan Raymond, “Showing Up” centers on Lizzy, a tortured ceramic artist specializing in small, sketchily rendered figures of women in awkward poses, created for the film by Cynthia Lahti. (Also accompanied by Lahti’s figurative drawings, Lizzy’s sculptural works sneak up on you gradually, like the film itself. These “girls,” as Lizzy’s friends call them, appear crude and slapdash at first glance, but the longer you look — and Reichardt lets us look and look and look — the more exquisitely expressive their eccentric gestures become.)

Is Lizzy, played by Reichardt’s other frequent collaborator Michelle Williams (“Certain Women,” “Meek’s Cutoff,” “Wendy and Lucy”), always this dour? Maybe not. In her defense, the opening of her next show is a week away, and she’s stressed out by the fact that she has had no hot water in the apartment she rents from her neighbor, fellow artist and (sort of) friend Jo, for several days. Jo is played by the ever-wonderful Hong Chau, last seen in Darren Aronofsky’s polarizing “The Whale,” for which she was nominated for a supporting actress Oscar. She is no less memorable here, as a woman whose blithely oblivious solipsism irks Lizzy.

There are other strains on our heroine, not the least of which is the care of an injured pigeon, mauled by Lizzy’s cat, subsequently rescued by Jo and then largely left to Lizzy to babysit while Jo, an installation artist, prepares to open not one but two of her own shows. Other headaches for Lizzy include worrying about her mentally ill brother Sean (John Magaro) and her childlike father (Judd Hirsch), a retired potter.

It’s an artistic family: Lizzy’s mother (Maryann Plunkett) works with her daughter in the administrative office of the school, where kooky students, faculty and staff members drift in and out, most notably musician/actor André Benjamin’s Eric, who runs the kiln where Lizzy fires her work, and Janet (Orianna Milne), who, while watching a tai chi-like outdoor workshop called “Thinking in Movement,” says, “I can’t figure out what class this is, but I really want to join it.”

You may have a similar sentiment about the film, which, like Lizzy’s girls, speaks not in words, but with a strange and strangely mesmerizing visual poetry: Reichardt’s camera lingers, with more forbearance than most films, on scenes where not much seems to be happening.

There’s a line in “Showing Up” that teaches us how to watch a film like that. Ironically, it’s spoken by Sean, who seems to suffer from paranoid delusions, and who generally makes no sense. One day, Lizzy finds him in his backyard, digging massive holes in the dirt — mouths, he calls them — for a “major” art piece. “Art is the Earth talking,” he tells Lizzy. “You have to listen to what isn’t being said.”

That’s absolutely true here, too. There’s a lot of talk about nothing. But it’s in between the small talk — Lizzy bickering with her family at the opening about whether there’s too much cubed cheese, or not enough — that Reichardt’s film speaks loudest. What is it saying? That the best art isn’t a religion, or magic, or maybe isn’t even genius. That, instead, it’s hard work. It’s getting your fingernails dirty and paying attention to the silence.

R. At AMC’s Georgetown 14 and the Angelika Film Center Mosaic. Contains brief graphic nudity, in the context of a life drawing class. 108 minutes.

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