By the time the twenty-first century rolled around, Western culture had convinced itself that Art was somehow innately edifying--for those who created it, those who experienced it, and even society at large. And perhaps there is some merit in believing in its positive effects, if only the psychological ones (clearly in terms of politics and morals, art itself, with a lowercase "a," is neutral at best). Still, in both the popular imagination and the over-intellectualized discourse of the art world, artists are typically celebrated... or romanticized to the extent that they are not celebrated. Either way, there is still an "otherness" that clings to the aura associated with being an artist. The truth is, as I'm guessing most of us instinctively suspect, working artists simply show up and, well, do the work.
With this in mind, Kelly Reichardt's wonderful SHOWING UP, which premiered at Cannes last year. does more than just demystify the lives of contemporary artists: it shows that there's really nothing to demystify. That is, it refuses to apply any kind of essentialism to pursuing art, either as a vocation, an avocation, or something in between. There are all types of artists, with all sorts of motivations, and they take all kinds of approaches. Some may blame their cat for a poor effort or being ignored by the muse while others don't blame anything--they're too busy forging ahead and simply getting on with it.
Typifying the former approach is Michelle Williams, in a brilliantly lowkey comedic role; fully embodying the latter is the always reliable Hong Chau, who, to use a cliché, disappears into the role. Their characters, the best of frenemies, are consistently positioned as contrasts, and their art reflects their personalities, intensely personal and fragile versus vibrant and large-scale. But no judgment is placed on either set of artwork, and that fits with Reichardt's exquisitely observational directorial style. If you're expecting big scenes of dramatic catharsis, you'll be disappointed; instead, there are moments of hope and metaphor, and instead of feeling forced or trite, they feel well-earned.
In addition to these two main characters, the film presents a spectrum of the art community, from long-established "name" artists, to middle-aged art school faculty, to newbies/students. And Reichardt works wonders with the cast: I saw SHOWING UP some weeks ago, and the supporting characters remain both vivid and memorable. Yes, artists are interesting. But part of what the film argues is that they are largely interesting to the extent that they are not just artists.
To be sure, we should show up to support artists, and particularly those who are our friends, family, and colleagues. But we should show up with that in mind: they are close to us and we value them. If we come for the free cheese, or expect our lives to be changed via an aesthetically-induced epiphany, our expectations may be skewed; the only way our lives will change, Reichardt and co-writer Jonathan Raymond might contend, is if we actually change them.
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SHOWING UP releases from A24 on April 7.
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