The States of Kelly Reichardt

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The director Kelly Reichardt was in a state of irritation at a screening of her eighth and latest feature film, “Showing Up.” Certain she had come to the theatre early, Reichardt had decided to kill time at a chain burger spot nearby. She was picking at fries when she realized that she had the time wrong. She rushed back to the theatre, arriving with no window left to run a sound check. Her film, a portrait of a sculptor beset by stress in the days leading up to an exhibition, was released into the world of the screening room sans her final stroke. “I think I made everyone uptight,” Reichardt recalled. “Because I was too nervous to show my friends my movie.” The screening was seamless if you were a member of the audience, a durational event if you were Kelly Reichardt. The director was her own seam.

The artist at work. Existentialists have hoarded the idea. (Think of that indulgent monster, wrecked in the process of translating soul to capital.) The concept signals the movements of the mind more readily than the movements of the hand. Reichardt’s film is a rejoinder to this—though that’s not to suggest that “Showing Up” neglects the fact of angst. Our sculptor, Lizzy (Michelle Williams), would like nothing more than to toil in her studio in knitted-brow concentration. But intrusions multiply. The cat needs food. Lizzy’s water heater is broken; therefore, she cannot bathe. And then there’s her day job, as a receptionist at her art-school alma mater, to pay her landlord, who dallies on fixing the heater. But we do not first encounter Lizzy in a state of upset. We encounter her amid her craft. The film opens with watercolors of a female figure, stretched in varying kinetic poses. They are sketches for Lizzy’s statues, little, odd women, possibly homunculi of the artist herself. Then we are led to glimpse Lizzy in her studio—the garage of her apartment—shaving away at clay. “Showing Up” aerates the act of making art, staying close to the anima while keeping the demands of the cynical market at a distance—bringing the mystery of creation to the everyday.

Reichardt is this country’s finest observer of ordinary grit, an American neorealist to place among the likes of Robert Bresson, Yasujirō Ozu, and Vittorio De Sica. The regard for her takes on a hero aspect. It can often feel dazed because of the deep reserve of Reichardt’s stamina, which has carried her through her singular three-decade career. What can seem ambiguous or glamorous about the labor of a director surfaces, in her case, as explicit and arduous. She may scour dozens of states for a filming location, grinding vehicles into highways and back roads. She splits the editing work with an assistant. She is fifty-nine; a good portion of her adulthood has been spread across sublets and rentals, in New York City and the Pacific Northwest. Only in recent years has she been financially able to tie herself to a mortgage. She is a working artist, one who supplements filmmaking with teaching undergraduates. Why should this normal life be classed as sacrifice, as pure? “I never assumed,” Reichardt said, “that I was not going to have a job.”

The director works cut off from anything that moves like Hollywood. (Of A24, the independent studio that produced “Showing Up,” she remarked: “I like them, but they do squeeze in an extra photo shoot.”) Before she came up with the idea for the film, Reichardt and the novelist Jon Raymond, her frequent co-writer, intended to write a script about the Canadian painter Emily Carr. Like Reichardt, Carr was impelled by the natural world, its enigmas. But the writers were drawn, “perversely,” Raymond told me, to the fallow period in which Carr could not approach the canvas and instead ran a boarding house. He and Reichardt travelled to Vancouver for a research trip, and they found monuments to Carr everywhere. A university. A statue of Carr, elderly, accompanied by her dog, Billie, and her monkey, Woo. Celebrity is anathema to Reichardt; it was clear that the bio-pic had to be scrapped. Reichardt’s gaze saps stars—Laura Dern in “Certain Women,” André Benjamin and Michelle Williams in “Showing Up”—of their typical screen glamour. Actors seek out this treatment. I will do anything Kelly tells me to do, is essentially what Williams, who has worked on four films with Reichardt, told me. Her character’s sculptures in “Showing Up” were made by the Portland artist Cynthia Lahti. “Go fall in love with Cynthia’s work,” Reichardt asked of Williams, and the actor followed orders.

The director sets her camera on transience. The lens moves slowly and horizontally, generating the vertigo of being on the road, of “passing through,” as Reichardt put it. Her 2006 film, “Wendy and Lucy,” begins with a freight train passing through timberline. Reichardt elongates our confrontation with modernity, of industrialization coming and changing humanity’s relationship to itself and to nature. The suffering of Wendy, who is stranded with her dog, Lucy, her sole companion, drifts from a desolate Walgreens parking lot to the dark of the forest. When Wendy and others appear in Reichardt’s frame, they are so pale they seem blue. A Reichardt character lives a life of rare creature comfort. This is a person who’s been around. They don’t have a lot of money. They want badly to hitch themself to that train or that ship or that caravan. The character could not be from anywhere but mainland America, a condition they share with the director herself. The propaganda of progress is their birthright, a sign worn subconsciously, as these characters are not overwhelmingly verbal. “The lies are in the dialogue,” Reichardt has said. “The truth is in the visuals.”

The settings of her films cluster in and around Oregon, where Reichardt lives for part of the year, and the greater Pacific Northwest. With Christopher Blauvelt, her cinematographer, Reichardt bears witness to the frontier, as region and as myth. The landscape—the bleached desert, the sloughed valley—has powers of its own. In her period piece “Meek’s Cutoff” (2010), about the frailty of language and paternalism, a small caravan of white pioneer families, led by an untrustworthy eccentric, Stephen Meek, imprisons a Cayuga man—“the Indian”—they find on the Oregon Trail. Unable to find water, the men in the troupe deteriorate, as the women uphold civilization. Reichardt is known for deconstructing genres associated with the hot-blooded masculine. The thriller that conceals the detonation of the bomb from the viewer, in “Night Moves” (2013); the gun that does not go off, in “Certain Women” (2016), a tryptic character study; the business fable marked, from the get-go, with death, in 2019’s “First Cow.” Reichardt starves the narrative, which is a narrative of whiteness, of its cathartic milk—the slaying of the Negro and the Indian, so to speak—as this catharsis is a fiction that the director finds artistically corrupt. She is one of the last American film artists who is in touch with what it is to be both white and other.

“Showing Up,” then, strikes not as a full departure but a slight swerve from the rest of Reichardt’s œuvre. We remain out West, in Portland. An aura of isolation follows Lizzy, with her beige clothes, her plain lunches. The creep of peril exists within the purview of craft. And yet the film is dense with the social, setting it apart. It has the most interior shots of any of Reichardt’s films. It is also the most obviously funny. “We’ve got different theories on cultural production, or he just doesn’t like me,” a co-worker commiserates to Lizzy. Virtually everyone in the movie makes art. Lizzy’s landlord, Jo (Hong Chau), constructs enormous, colorful webs, externalizations of her open personality. Lizzy is determined, closed, weary, a style that is evoked by her delicate sculptures. Her personality seems to emerge in relation to the other artists in her family: her mother, Jean, played by Maryann Plunkett, who runs the art school where Lizzy works; her father, Bill (Judd Hirsch), a potter reeling quietly in the shadow of his own success; her brother, Sean (John Magaro), a tender tortured-artist type, burrowing furiously into the earth.

“Showing Up” is against philistinism, an attitude that, of late, has come into vogue. The film projects the air of an encompassing thesis, an artist’s statement, by Reichardt. “I think I might be done shooting in Portland,” the director wondered aloud, not too long ago. Early on, she said, “it felt totally exotic, shooting all these Pacific Northwest films with hippies. But now it’s become my world.”

The scenarist of the eternal frontier first had to get there. Reichardt was born in the suburbs of Miami, Florida, which she has described as a “cultural desert.” Her mother worked as a narcotics agent, her father as a crime-scene investigator. (They divorced early in her childhood, and her father moved to North Miami, where he lived “with four other divorced cops,” Reichardt said.) “Despite my parents’ line of work,” the director once wrote, “despite the influx of Cuban exiles and boatloads of Haitian refugees floating up on the shores and despite Miami being the murder capital of the country—it seemed a pretty dull place to grow up.”

A young Reichardt was exposed to her father’s crime-scene photography. The images were not art, per se, but exercises in framing, and how framing does or does not clarify truth. As a teen, she’d take her own camera to the ocean’s edge. “It was all old people,” she recalled. “It’s like you survived the Holocaust and then you went to South Beach.” The warmth of the country in extremis did not suit her. She dropped out of high school, earned her G.E.D., and caught a ride to Boston, where she learned how to handle a Bolex camera, and helped on her friends’ films. It was an ablution term: in Boston, she was exposed to the artist’s life. After receiving an M.F.A. from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, she moved to New York, where she found work in art departments on film sets, including on the movie “Poison,” directed by Todd Haynes, who would eventually become a friend and a producer on five of her films.

In 1994, Reichardt made “River of Grass,” her first feature. The narration of Cozy, a Miami housewife, establishes the dry tone. Cozy, drowning in domestic monotony, seeks to transform her unremarkable life, with the help of a man she meets at a bar, Lee, into something dramatic. A gun goes off, and Cozy and Lee attempt, and fail, to master outlaw existence. It is a self-consciously witty film about how real life cannot hew to the beats of genre. Reichardt paid for the production with credit cards, and filmed it in North Miami, shooting some scenes in her father’s home. Police constantly interrupted the shoot, alarmed by the waving of prop guns. “I’m very aware, when I watch it, of a young filmmaker who’s very in love with certain films,” Reichardt said. “I don’t feel like it’s totally my voice yet. My references feel close to the surface. I don’t remember seeing Godard at that point, though I must have,” she said, laughing. “But, clearly, I was taking from Paul Morrissey. ‘Trash,’ ” she listed, as well as Terrence Malick’s “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven.”

After the film’s release, Haynes, writing in Bomb magazine, drew attention to Reichardt’s otherness. “Kelly’s besieged, aimless characters give new meaning to the word anti-hero,” he wrote. “And Kelly herself, battling tooth and nail to get her film made, did so without any of the benefits usually afforded first-time directors, i.e., a film school background, a calling-card short, some connection to money, or a penis.”

“River of Grass” received plaudits at Sundance, and nominations for acting and directing at the Independent Spirit Awards. It did not lead to a sophomore opportunity. Reichardt spent the next seven years paying off her credit-card debt and trying to finance a second film, a crime-scene detective drama. The nineties are enshrined in cultural memory as the successor decade to the sixties, a period that fostered the ascension of the young, brash, and independent: Haynes, Tarantino, Coppola, Anderson, and Van Sant, another friend of Reichardt’s. But the wave passed over Reichardt, a woman who gravitated toward quieter ideas that she didn’t know how to sell, and who was generally terrible at schmoozing. After “River of Grass,” she told me, “I was feeling on the verge of something.” She thought if she rid herself of her boyfriend, her records—whittled herself to the basics, assumed the remove of an ascète—the universe would reward her. “I had a script,” she told me. “Jodie Foster had a company, and I went out to L.A., and she was going to produce it.” The project died in early limbo. “I could go to Jodie Foster’s office during the day, but I had nowhere to sleep at night.”

After crashing at the L.A. home of a producer for six weeks, Reichardt returned to New York. She gave up her apartment, looking to cut costs. She took a job assisting someone who was booking bands. Musicians and filmmakers occupied her social scene, and some of them were trust-fund kids who let her sleep on their couches. Julia Cafritz, a guitarist for the noise band Pussy Galore and a child of a real-estate fortune, threw cold water on Reichardt’s approach. “ ‘No one’s going to make a film with you,’ ” Reichardt remembers Cafritz saying. “ ‘You reek of desperation.’ And you know what?” Reichardt asked. “It was true.” She continued, “You can’t just ignore the basic pyramid of shelter, food, all these things. And then art is,” she said, raising her palm to her forehead, “up here.”

In the late nineties, Reichardt started teaching, first at the School of Visual Arts, and then, later, at N.Y.U. She would not make another film until 2006. Nearing the age of forty, she began shooting “Old Joy,” using the thirty thousand dollars she had inherited from a great-aunt. The movie was adapted from a short story written by Raymond, about two old friends—one bound for fatherhood, the other for listlessness—who reunite by going on an overnight camping trip. (“I don’t know anyone else who would’ve seen a feature in that story,” the novelist told me.) In his review of the film, the critic J. Hoberman, at the Village Voice, placed the director in a lineage: “Old Joy” scanned to him as a “diminished, grunge ‘Easy Rider.’ ” Two years later, Reichardt made “Wendy and Lucy,” cementing her place as a master minimalist. A decade after her début, Reichardt had introduced a gallery of the unassuming: stubbled faces, washed-out business façades, junky cars, worried women.

Many of her later films, such as “First Cow,” the movie she made before “Showing Up,” are considered Westerns, a genre that counts the director as one of its foremost revivalists and critics. The Western adheres to a formula: the intrepid man sets his sights toward the horizon, encounters troubles, and yet ultimately perseveres. The Western is fast. A Reichardt Western is outside of the old math. A Reichardt Western takes its time. Violence is explored as something other than war. And, if violence is muted, then so is sex. The union that most interests Reichardt is that of the platonic pair. In “Old Joy,” the reunion of the two protagonists culminates in secular baptism, a naked soak in a hot spring. Cultural wiring might make you see Jo as Lizzy’s foil, in “Showing Up.” She is playful, well liked, more successful, clueless to Lizzy’s needs. But Reichardt thinks beyond zero-sum construction. The relationship between Lizzy and Jo skirts gendered competition. You sense an undercurrent, watching the spats between them, of warmth, as if, had this not been the week of overlapping exhibitions, Lizzy would be draped across Jo’s couch. When Lizzy sneaks off to see Jo’s works, she drops her mouth in awe. One of her sculptures is of Jo: a woman in overalls, spinning a tire.

I first met Reichardt during a respite in her spring press tour for “Showing Up.” She invited me to the Bronx studio of the artist Michelle Segre, whose yarn installations, porous and amoebic, resembling growths on the forest floor, are the work, in the world of the film, of Jo. Lost in the building, I knew I had finally entered the correct studio when I saw, through the slit of a half-opened door, the nose of Reichardt’s Blundstone boot. Inside, the sculptor and the filmmaker were arguing over what city they were in when they first met—Portland or New York. “Wait,” Segre said, mid-debate. “Can I take a picture of you sitting on my piece?” Suddenly aware that she had been grazing suspended fibres, Reichardt straightened. She gave her mock objections, arms aloft. No, no, no, oh, my God. Conversation had led her to forget her body a little. Segre was delighted. She would not relent on memorializing this Reichardt, with her typical vigilance relaxed out. Reichardt yielded.

Segre had visited the set during production. Reichardt deputized her as a supervisor. “You were, like, ‘Michelle, come here for a second,’ ” Segre recalled the director saying. “ ‘Would you ever have a Richard Serra poster in your studio?’ ” Exactitude is Reichardt’s goal. “Meek’s Cutoff,” for instance, is based on the journals of the real-life Stephen Meek, an Oregon Trail guide. Reichardt insisted on following the directions he’d left behind in his notebooks. “She is very interested in getting the real story and in speaking apart from any prefiguring ideology,” Raymond told me. “She clearly has liberal politics, but the truth quotient that she’s looking for is deeper in a lot of ways.” (Reichardt, he added, “is one of the great gossips of our generation. I don’t mean that in a salacious way. I mean that in the way of being interested in people, and in the minutiae of moral decision-making.”)

The school scenes in “Showing Up” were shot on the defunct campus of the Oregon College of Art and Craft. The institution operated for a hundred and twelve years, Reichardt told me, and now it is to become a private middle school. Reichardt is interested in the Black Mountain College model, “the idea that you put art at the center of learning, and it’ll generate critical thinking, which is necessary for democracy,” she said. The set developed into a school itself. Boundaries, during Reichardt’s shoots, must be penetrative, as her team depends on locals to mount production. Artists and students were game to be extras, making their real art in the background.

Since the première of the film, at Cannes last year, there have been efforts, in reviews, to bridge the character of Lizzy to her creator. Is Reichardt drawn to women loners because she herself is a woman loner? “There’s the link between filmmaking and teaching, I guess,” Reichardt offered. Autobiography cools her imagination.

Since 2006, Reichardt has been on the faculty at Bard College. “Old Joy” had grabbed the attention of Peter Hutton, the chair of the film department at the time. Reichardt was teaching at N.Y.U., where the administration hands to faculty prefab syllabi, unchanged through the decades. “It’s a zone of hacks and bad dudes,” Reichardt said, of the people running the film department. “You have twenty-five kids in a class, and you pick the eight kids that get to make films, and the other kids have to work on their films.” She continued, “The wealthiest kids, they have parents who are already in the art world. . . . I never would’ve gotten picked. I didn’t have ideas.” Bard is different. The film program has roots in the avant-garde. In Hutton, and in Peggy Ahwesh and Jacqueline Goss, her fellow department professors, Reichardt found compatriots.

In the studio with Segre, Reichardt discussed teaching. She wanted to show “Far from Heaven,” Haynes’s melodrama of forbidden longing, to her class. But would her students, turned on everywhere by the dogma of political correctness, misapprehend Haynes’s aim? Would they see Dennis Haysbert’s character of Raymond Deagan, a Black man, the quiet gardener—and the basin for the loneliness of Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore)—as beatific, two-dimensional? When we first met, Reichardt had mentioned that students seemed straighter these days, as in conscientious. I wondered if by “conscientious” she meant “righteous.”

Who Reichardt is as a professor is a source of curiosity. One type of admirer thinks, Why this disproportion, a master catering to young birds? Reichardt has spoken to her own personal exhaustion about the sexism that has attended her thirty-year career. But she has also made a choice to be relatively free. The thing is that Reichardt likes teaching, and she likes her students. “I’m teaching undergraduates,” she said. “That’s a different place in life. Who’s making great art when you’re seventeen, eighteen, twenty? I’m just helping them wade in.”

Most semesters, including this past one, Reichardt teaches two seminars. To get to Annandale-on-Hudson from the city, she takes the train up the Hudson River. Her car is back in Portland, and so Mike, a local driver, picks her up at the station. He will not entertain arguments about who will be the one to sling Reichardt’s suitcase in the truck. Settling in beside him, the director will unsheathe the cap on her fingerless gloves. On the short trip to Bard, they may discuss the Murdaugh trial or the lack of snow this season or nothing at all. After her first class of the week, Reichardt decamps to a local bed-and-breakfast that hosts a transient population of professors, graduate students, and locals and has more than one painting of Slovenian malaise on its walls. In the morning, Goss picks her up, and they have peanut-butter toast or oatmeal at a café before heading to their respective courses. Recently, Reichardt invited me to Bard to observe one of her spring classes, on the condition that I didn’t quote any of the students. It wouldn’t be fair, she said.

The film-department building seems to sway if there is even the slightest wind. Reichardt walked into a second-floor room, carrying a stack of DVDs. There was the spine of Haynes’s “Far from Heaven.” She drew a calendar on the whiteboard. Time was running out. The objective of the class was to re-create a film—Leonard Kastle’s “The Honeymoon Killers”—by the semester’s end. The movie is about an unhappy nurse, Martha, and a scuzzy gigolo, Ray, who draws Martha into his scheme of luring lonely old ladies into their nest and killing them for their pensions. It is the genre that Reichardt anatomized in her own début. Each student is assigned a ten-minute portion of the film to reshoot. The goal is not to regurgitate frame by frame but to grow more aware of the infrastructure of filmmaking: blocking, staging, depth, and the like. Reichardt dimmed the lights.

It was a workshop environment. Revelation about art-making would come from art-making. Reichardt was encouraging, but she didn’t coddle; if a student didn’t bring anything to show, she’d look at them, and then look at the calendar. The group critiqued audition videos for potential Rays and Marthas. “Too nice of a face,” Reichardt said, of an aspiring Martha. One student quibbled with the teacher’s evaluation. You could sense, in some spirited caveat speeches, what were defenses of friends. Reichardt reminded them that gratitude couldn’t come before discernment.

And then there was the matter of the hammer. One of the elderly marks in Kastle’s film is bludgeoned to death by Martha while Ray looks on. The student who had been assigned that particular scene had brought in a prop hammer. They seemed excited to use it. Reichardt questioned, carefully. She was in the small but not insignificant position of shaping how another person sees. Reichardt popped the DVD of “The Honeymoon Killers” into the player, and the group rewatched the original scene. The old lady begged for her life. The nurse gripped the tool. Pause. Reichardt paused, not allowing Kastle’s camera to give us the murder. Wasn’t it more powerful to focus on the hammer, and to have sound suggest the rest? ♦


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