Monday, April 17, 2023

Sometimes You Are the Pigeon, and Sometimes You Are the Statue: On Showing Up

(Kelly Reichardt, USA, 2023, rated R, 108 minutes)


 "You have to accept the fact that sometimes you are the pigeon, and sometimes you are the statue."--Claude Chabrol

Showing Up is not without incident. Things happen and characters react to them, but the events are so seemingly trivial that a viewer, especially one unfamiliar with the sly work of Portland writer/director Kelly Reichardt, could be forgiven for watching the first 20 minutes, and then wondering, "When does the film begin in earnest--when do the big things start to happen?" That viewer would be waiting in vain, because they don't. 

Reichardt starts by introducing Lizzy (a brunette Michelle Williams in her fourth go-round with the filmmaker), a disinterestedly-dressed, socially awkward visual artist. By day, she works at Oregon College of Art and Craft (a 112-year-old institution that abruptly closed for good in 2019). 

In her off-hours, Lizzy works on ceramic sculptures of women in various poses (created by multimedia artist Cynthia Lahti). With her garage door half-open, the rustle and coo of pigeons soundtracks her artistic labors. After she finishes each piece, she applies glaze, places it in a tray with her other most recent figurines, and then fires them in the school's kiln.  

At the outset, she's preparing for a gallery show, so she isn't exactly an unknown quantity in the local arts community, but she isn't as successful as former OCAC classmate Jo (The Whale's Hong Chau), a sunny, easily distracted apartment manager and textile artist who is preparing for two gallery shows of her own.

Reichardt and co-writer Jonathan Raymond (Meek's Cutoff) don't explicitly point out the differences between the women--named after his daughters--but they become apparent in subtle, yet significant ways. Lizzy's work is small, figurative, and breakable, while Jo's work is large, abstract, and pliable. It requires more of a physical effort and takes up more space. 

One morning before dawn, Lizzy hears a thump in the bathroom. She gets up to investigate. To her horror, she finds her orange tabby, Ricky, circling an injured pigeon. She shews away the cat, scoops up the bird with a broom, and pushes it out the window, saying, "Go die somewhere else."

Presumably, she feels bad. Or maybe she doesn't, but she attempts to move on with her life. What might prove a random incident in another film incites everything in this one, because Jo greets her the next day with the pigeon swaddled in a box. She found it that morning and assumed the neighborhood tomcat caused the injury. Lizzy doesn't correct her, but she can't move on with her life after all, because Jo ropes her into caring for the bird. Lizzy doesn't know how to say no, and they'll spend the next few days bandaging its wing, visiting a vet, and trading pigeon-sitting duty. 

On the surface, that's the gist of the film, except the incident awakens something in Lizzy. There are no declarations or grand statements, and nor does she end up a completely different person by the end. 

Instead, Reichardt fills in the contours of her life--which now includes pigeon care. If Lizzy appears to lack close friends, she isn't alone. She has a divorced father, Bill (Judd Hirsch, a recent Oscar nominee like Chau and Fabelmans costar Williams), and mother, Jean (Maryann Plunkett), and a brother, Sean (John Magaro from Reichardt's First Cow), with a history of mental illness. 

Prickly by nature, Lizzy doesn't have an openly affectionate relationship with any of them, but they aren't combative either, and everyone worries whenever Sean goes on a walkabout. Reichardt also amusingly reveals that the boss with whom she has a chilly rapport just happens to be her mother, so Lizzy has hardly distanced herself from her artistic parents. 

If it's clear that Lizzy is jealous of Jo, the latter is consistently, sincerely encouraging, but she also keeps making excuses for the delays in fixing her hot water heater. Reichardt suggests that she's so preoccupied with her upcoming shows that she's let her apartment manager duties slide. And yet, unlike Lizzy, she’s a savior of animals. People are complicated.  

Lizzy's entanglements with all of these people converge at her gallery opening. Up until that point, I was a little disappointed by the lack of overtly consequential incidents, and Reichardt certainly creates opportunities for that sort of thing. When Lizzy needs to fire up her clay creations, for instance, she seeks out ceramics instructor Eric (actor/musician André Benjamin, who supplies the flute doodles on the soundtrack). While Lizzy can be tense and anxious, he's the epitome of self-possessed chill with his "We'll make it work" mantra. Eric becomes neither friend nor love interest--he's just a person in her life. 

By that measure, the pigeon is more important to the story--sorry, André--linking the film to 2008's Wendy and Lucy, a prior Portland film with a brunette Michelle Williams in which she plays a vagabond whose only real friend and companion is her steadfast yellow lab, Lucy (played by Reichardt's own dog). Similarly, Ricky serves as Lizzy's only real friend and companion until the pigeon situation opens up new possibilities. 

Wendy and Lucy was a deceptively modest film with a heartbreaking ending. Showing Up, however, ends on the opposite note. In Reichardt agnostic Richard Brody's New Yorker review, he claims the director's eighth feature--"a masterwork"--as her first great movie. I would counter that they're all pretty great, but Showing Up just might be her best.   


Showing Up opens at the Cinemark in Bellevue on Friday, April 21, and at Grand Illusion Cinema the week of May 19. Images: A24/Deadline (Michelle Williams), Paris-LA (Williams with Ricky the cat), and Allyson Riggs/A24 via AP (Hong Chau with and without André Benjamin). 

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