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The Termite Artist: An interview with Kelly Reichardt
With her eighth feature 'Showing Up,' Reichardt digs into the day-to-day pleasures (and hassles) of being an independent artist. She talked to us about her connection to the material.
The new Kelly Reichardt film Showing Up is about an artist preparing for a small exhibition while managing the hassles of academia and other minor stresses that swirl around her. Given Reichardt’s own career as an artist rooted in academia—she is currently an adjunct at Bard, where she’s been teaching since 2006—it’s not a stretch to note her personal investment in the film. Showing Up feels like a statement of purpose from one of the great truly independent directors in America, a deliberately and almost radically small-scale film about a woman’s day-to-day impulse to create art and the community that supports her work.
In their fourth feature together—following 2008’s Wendy and Lucy, 2010’s Meek’s Cutoff and 2016’s Certain Women—Reichardt casts Michelle Williams as Lizzy, a sculptor and teacher in Portland, Oregon who’s putting pieces together for a new exhibition in town. But in the lead-up to the gallery opening, she’s plagued by a series of personal problems, including administrative hassles, a landlady and fellow artist (Hong Chau) who won’t fix her hot water heater, all sorts of family drama, and even an injured pigeon she feels obliged to help after her cat wounds it. While in Chicago to promote the film, Reichardt talked to me about the life of a non-famous artist, the film’s connection to her own experiences as a director and teacher, and what it was like to serve on the Cannes jury.
You’ve talked about how Showing Up started as a biopic about the Canadian artist Emily Carr, but once you and Jon Raymond visited her in Vancouver, you discovered that she was a much bigger celebrity in Canada than you had anticipated. Why did that end up being a moment of retreat for you in terms of what you wanted Showing Up to be?
We didn’t want to make a film about a famous painter. We wanted to make a film about an artist or artists that made work every day, even if there wasn’t a built-in audience for them, or necessarily a place for them. No guarantee of them showing their work or maybe just showing their work to a community that’s sort of limited—a “this is who sees my work all the time” kind of thing. But they would still keep making work, because it’s a necessity. A big successful painter didn’t quite fit the bill. It’s just about making the work and there isn’t necessarily going to be the celebration of it afterwards. We didn’t want to make the genius artist kind of movie.
And that leads you to build the film toward Lizzy preparing for a local gallery show?
It's not even quite a downtown show! “It’s so close to downtown,” as Amanda Plummer says. It’s a little hole in the wall. But that’s where you find great stuff sometimes. I was in New York just a couple weeks ago on 14th Street and Avenue B, and in the back room at a dive bar in the back room, this tiny back room, I saw this amazing jazz swing band. It’s like, “Who knows these guys?” They all have day jobs, but they’re amazing musicians. It’s that kind of thing.
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What does that end up meaning for the artist in terms of their ambition and in terms of their satisfaction, I suppose, with what they do?
I guess it could mean different things. I mean, these guys in this band seemed perfectly happy to be playing for their friends, but I don’t know them, so I don’t know if they went through some point in their life where they wanted it to be something else. I’m sure it depends on the person. I’m sure it could be greatly frustrating. I think some people also don’t have great art careers because they don’t necessarily have the personalities to maneuver [through the business]. When I started making films, I had no idea socially how to make things work for myself in a way that made any sense.
Showing Up feels like a personal film in a lot of ways. And one of the things that it has you think about is where does the satisfaction come from? Does it come from this daily effort that you’re making regardless of what’s going to happen to the work? And do you find satisfaction at that end of the exhibition in just showing it to people?
Looking back to me at this point in my life, it’s the day-to-day work. And then around the big event, there’s a lot of anxiety and feeling really exposed or whatever. So then after it’s over, that moment of, “Okay, it happened,” and now we’re talking about it, me and Jon Raymond. The walk home from the big event, to me, is great. It happened, da, da, da. And then you’re ready to talk about the next thing or whatever it is to get back to work.
And I don’t want to romanticize what it is to be an artist and not have your work seen. I know filmmakers in that situation, and that is not a happy place. But you certainly can’t do it for this idea that there’s some night that’s going to matter. [Laughs.] I think people have compulsions to work every day, really. It’s what balances their life. That’s how you filter the world.
One of the most striking things about the film is its proportionality. It reminded me a little bit of the Ozu film Good Morning, in that the stakes are so different than what they are in even a small film like Old Joy. What was the thinking behind that?
That’s just the nature of the stories I want to tell. There’s time to get in just a little deeper. That’s the Manny Farber thing of elephant art and… uh… what’s that burrowing term?
You have a little more time to spend time on the moment as opposed to having to take on a lot. If you’re spanning years, it’s like a certain pace. Or if you’re spanning two weeks, that’s a different pace.
But still, even in Old Joy, there’s a close friendship at stake. There’s basic survival at stake in Wendy and Lucy. The stakes here are a little bit different.
I guess it’s all just the way certain things are. I know whatever I stress out about today. And you could say this in filming: there’s like a million fires. You’re like, “Oh my God.” But you could know for sure tomorrow’s fire will be different, and you will be spending this amount of energy freaking out over the next thing that’s a hundred percent going to happen. I think the stakes as far as humanity are low in this film, but for Lizzie, they’re not low at all. The stakes feel really high and she spreads her anxiety in different places.
One of the things I like about the film is that some of these very small problems really feel intense to her in the moment. The fact that it’s not really cute that the landlord isn’t taking care of a bad water heater or how it’s kind of a pain that she has to do these sort of academic administrative things when she’s got this other stuff to worry about. Does that feel true to your experience, too, as somebody who’s also in the academic world while having all this other stuff on your plate?
It has at times. Being an adjunct professor is a thankless job in some places for sure. I have it really good right now at teaching at Bard where it’s smaller classrooms and where there is support. People want you to keep making work. And I like talking about stuff with my colleagues and thinking about film with my colleagues. And Ben Coonley is actually in the movie. He’s my colleague at Bard. He does the dome with the projections on it.
I feel like I get fed from teaching. There’s always a scheduled thing where I’m like, “Oh, I’ve got to go back to school.” But when I’m at school, I go up for two days a week and it takes you out of your own... It’s an escape from your world because the kids have so much going on. And I just really like the people up there. It’s a world unto itself. I stay up at this boarding house that I really like and it is very rare that there would be a week I would come back from Bard and feel that it took more from me than it gave. That would actually be a weird experience for me.
I taught at NYU. Didn’t care for it at all. But in my years at Bard, which is almost now decades, it’s been a really good marriage of the filmmaking and the teaching. They’ve really fed each other.
How have students changed over time? Have you had to adjust to different generations of students?
Yeah. The generations of people teaching there have also changed hugely. Because Peter Hutton and Peggy Ahwesh and John Pruitt were all there for 30 years, and John and Peter passed away and Peggy retired. That was a big shift. And that made the school sort of a weirder place. Adolfas Mekus, too. Who could replace any of those people? I don’t think it can happen.
So there’s that shift, and I think the students were a little wackier when I started. I was the outlier in teaching narrative. [The department] had to stomach some narrative and they brought me in. But it wasn’t a narrative program. And in the winds of the world, kids want narrative more, though they still love the other stuff they’re getting at Bard.
But I like the narrative to be less pronounced and teach kids who spent a semester, say, taking landscape. I like them to take other things that aren’t narrative-minded before my class. We always talk about getting rid of those terms, but it never really happens.
They’re sweet, the kids are. They like working together. They’re not cutthroat with each other. I’m taken aback by how much they help each other. And they’ve been through something big. Some of these kids went through Trump and then COVID, and that was their college years. So right now, they seem really eager to get back into the world after sitting out with COVID.
Showing Up strikes me as a comment to some degree on independence itself and what it means. What does the word “independent” mean to you? Because it feels as if it’s defined now as a sensibility or a spirit rather than actual condition.
Yeah. It’s a weird thing, because I am working at the “giant studio” A24.
They just won a bunch of Oscars [for Everything Everywhere All at Once], that’s true.
It’s still a place where you can make a movie and edit it and be like, “This is what this movie is,” and have partners that are giving you the space to really support you when you’re shooting and stuff. The studio stories you hear about people who are working on bigger budgets, getting all that interference on set, I’ve never had any of that. So our little world works nicely. That, to me, is independent in that you can make these small stories. I mean, a studio let me make a film about some two guys that steal milk from a cow [First Cow]. You know what I mean? [Laughs.]
In the case of First Cow, those actors [John Magaro and Orion Lee] weren’t even sort of known. But I think that, obviously, American filmmaking is very cast-based as far as that goes. We’ve stayed on the small side of things and we’ve been able to purchase freedom with that, I guess. “Independent” is a weird label. It’s hard to know [how to define it] exactly, because it’s changed over the years.
What was it like to be on the Cannes jury in 2019? You ended up seeing two films [Parasite and Portrait of a Lady on Fire] that went straight to the Sight and Sound list. What was that whole experience like for you?
It was really fun. They asked me and I immediately said, “No, I don’t want to do that.” I just always say no to everything. And then my producers, Neil [Kopp] and Anish [Savjani] were like, “Maybe you do want to do this.” And I was like, “Oh, okay. What do I have to wear?”
But yeah, it was really fun. It would’ve been so stupid if I didn’t do it. I loved everyone on the jury. We became really tight, me especially with Yorgos [Lanthimos]. I’ve stayed in close contact. We really hit it off. And Alice [Rohrwacher] and Elle Fanning were on there, and she was awesome. And well, everybody was. It was a great group.
So yeah, it was a big love fest. And then you go get ushered into a movie, sit in the back in a beautiful seat and watch films. No muss, no fuss. And you go into a room and talk about movies with people. And then you can have chocolate croissants on top of it. It was really so great.