If anything, Kelly Reichardt’s experience of filmmaking is perhaps defined by ever-unfolding metamorphosis. From the endless planning of pre-production to the self-isolating cocoon of the editing room, Reichardt surrenders to interminable change within each step of painstaking collaboration. In planning shots with cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, in the quiet handling of her actors and in her meticulous attention to detail within the editing process, her works shift ever so slightly, taking on lives of their own — almost just as a sculpture does. There’s chiseling, re-etching and re-molding. And then her film’s cast hardens: a minimalist luster marking an ostensible end to the long, winding course of slow, serene re-fashioning.
Reichardt brushed off a comparison between sculpture and filmmaking following a screening of her latest film “Showing Up,” a comedy centered on a sculptor preparing for a career exhibition. But the precision and patience essential to both seem to render the two natural artistic counterparts. In this sense, “Showing Up” is perhaps the artist’s most directly self-reflexive work.
“We had been thinking about making a film about art-making or an artist biopic for a while,” Reichardt said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “We sort of reached further away and then ended up in our own kind of backyard in Portland, drawing from a world that screenwriter Jonathan Raymond and I both know quite well — in terms of artists’ lives, shooting on a block that a bunch of our friends live on and at a school where we know many people who have worked there… It somehow circled back to a more personal film than intended.”
Like the film’s main character Lizzy (Michelle Williams), Reichardt simultaneously juggles her work as a film professor at an art school with large-scale exhibitions of her own features at festivals such as Cannes — her teaching informs her art, her art informs her teaching.
At Bard College, the staples in Reichardt’s syllabi vacillate between the austere visual subjectivity of old Hollywood filmmakers to the DIY, economical cinema of underground filmmakers.
“I use a lot of different films, but I often use films to teach my students clean lines, like Anthony Mann or Douglas Sirk,” Reichardt said. “But then, you know, just to mix it up, I also give my students How to Light by George Kuchar, so there’s these kind of heavy Hollywood guys … but then I’m also showing what people can do in a studio.”
Art schools have long been key to Reichardt’s educational and professional life. Before Bard, Reichardt received her bachelor’s degree at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
“With the overall closing of art schools … this was something where we thought, ‘Wow, this would be an awesome space to shoot in before it’s gone,’” Reichardt said.
Reichardt’s cast and crew shot “Showing Up” at the now-defunct Oregon College of Art and Craft, with production designer Tony Gasparro filling in the space with the work of local artists from the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art.
“There was this one room of four women that were there for a really long time, just churning stuff out, making stuff — it was the most fun room in pre-production,” Reichardt noted. “Like if you wanted a lift to your day you’d go in, where the artists would just be listening to music and making art — it seemed like such a happy place to be. And then it just sort of grew and kept growing because the kids that came in were the actors who were learning stuff.”
What appeared early on to be background for the film became emblematic of the production process’s dual function. The shooting location for “Showing Up” was doubly transformative — as a site fostering a renewal of the area’s bygone art scene and as a lived-in environment grounding the ethos of the film. The two developments interlaced with one another, with crew members etching art for the film and local artists mooring the mise-en-scène.
“The woman at the end of the film who is doing the knotting over the credits was our head PA,” Reichardt said. “She had to do our looms because our loom person got COVID and couldn’t come. So, she ended up teaching everyone how to do that. A lot of people who worked on the film had a history at the Oregon College (of Art and Craft). Dale, who still runs outside ceramics classes there, helped us a great deal; he’s a ceramicist and his work ended up in the film. It all just took on this life.”
It’s Reichardt’s willingness to let a collective filmmaking process guide her, perhaps, that allows her meditative cinema to thrive, even as the filmmaker maintains a tight clasp on all portions of the production process as a screenwriter, director and editor for each of her features.
“Shooting has a lot of magical moments, but it’s stressful — in a word,” Reichardt laughed. “So that process can not go on longer than it does. But it’s also the maximum challenge.”