It’s nice to watch people make art
Creative oases, André 3000’s flute jams, profound animal encounters, and more, with indie movie GOAT Kelly Reichardt
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Kelly Reichardt — she’s one of the all-time great indie filmmakers, and her newest movie, Showing Up, is a delight. It stars Michelle Williams as a cranky but gifted Portland ceramicist who rocks cool white Crocs while trying to get her s**t together in time for a local gallery show, facing a variety of hurdles along the way. It’s a movie about the pleasure and pain of trying to build your life around the creation of things that are “useless” and yet you find them meaningful and tight and you hope other people do, too. Hong Chau, Judd Hirsch and God-Tier Spyfriend André 3000 himself are also wonderful in it. It comes out this Friday via A24.
Erin and I are huge admirers of Kelly’s movies, which tend to operate slowly and subtly, focused on people on America’s margins and captured in what can feel like real time. Her debut feature was 1994’s River of Grass — a weirdly funny postmodern Gen-X noir (?) set in and around the Everglades. Her breakthrough was 2006’s Old Joy, about what it’s like when two broskis get older and drift apart but try and enjoy a camping trip together. We love the Bicycle Thieves-indebted Wendy and Lucy, about a broke drifter (Williams) trying to reunite with her dog after she’s arrested for shoplifting food, even though it’s one of the saddest things we’ve seen.
My (Jonah’s) favorite Reichardt movie is probably 2020’s First Cow, an excellent period piece which no less illustrious a Reichardt fan than Bong Joon-ho described, accurately, as showing us “the seeds of capitalism” via a late-1800s frontier baker who chefs up sublime cakes by pilfering milk from some rich bozo’s cow. The movie, and the cow, are very beautiful!!
I was psyched to hop on the Spyphone yesterday with Kelly to chop it about linking & building with cinematic animals, whether landlords can ever redeem themselves, enjoying an impromptu 45-minute flute performance from André 3000, how Showing Up is kind like of the kindvibed Tár (?) and more…
Blackbird Spyplane: A lot of your characters are people who bond with animals in a spirit of reciprocity — not just dogs and cats but also cows, horses and, in the new movie, an unlikely, humble creature that Michelle Williams’s character encounters. I once went to a wedding at the Bronx Zoo where Ian Svenonius officiated, and during his speech, since we were at a place where people pay admission to see beasts in cages, he made a joke that wasn’t really a joke about how it’s sh*tty to be an animal under capitalism. Your movies are, in understated ways, about various casualties of capitalism — what do animals bring to the stories you tell?
Kelly Reichardt: “I always feel there’s supposed to be some deep answer to this question that I don’t hold, beyond, ‘I like animals and think they make life more interesting.’ There’s another way of communicating with them that isn’t the same way you communicate with people — a nonverbal line of communication going on. And also you can project whatever you like onto an animal, like, ‘This animal adores me!’ So that’s a nice thing to play with.
“Also it’s nice for actors to have something else to respond to in a scene: Something that’s not so much a narrative force, but something that takes the lead and they have to follow. There’s another world going on with animals, another agenda — even with a pet — where whatever you think is important isn’t important to them.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Showing Up is about people who work at a small art school, and it’s full of lovely footage of people posted up making cool s**t. It’s so nice to spend time in that universe — watching instructors and students totally absorbed in what they’re doing. It’s a way of life that has never been easy but can feel especially imperiled these days. I know the actual art school where you shot the movie closed down a few years ago and is becoming a private middle school …
Kelly Reichardt: “Yeah, we shot at the Oregon College of Art and Craft, which was a pretty significant place for potters and ceramicists in the Pacific Northwest for generations. So the idea that it was closing, as many art schools are, was a draw for me and Jonathan Raymond when we were coming up with the script.
“The actual location was awesome — we were snooping around there after it shut, trying to figure out, you know, ‘What a shame, it would be great to memorialize this place in some way.’ The architecture, and the memory of a place that existed with the idea of bringing people together and putting art at the center of education.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Hong Chau plays an artist named Jo who owns Lizzy’s building — on the one hand you could argue that her renting apartments to artists below market rate is a way to help the local creative community, but at the same time she’s still a landlord subsidizing her own art by charging other artists rent. And she isn’t good about keeping the hot water on!!
Kelly Reichardt: “Nobody’s one thing, everybody’s trying to figure out their way. If you make a place for people to live and rent it cheaper so your friends can be artists, that’s helpful. But you’re still the landlord. And Jo has to be the superintendent, too, because it’s a small situation. So yeah, everyone’s trying to find their way and there’s friction, as there is in life.”
Blackbird Spyplane: You teach filmmaking at Bard. I went there, and would love a 2023 Bard scene report — what culture are the kids into, what drugs are they doing and, most importantly, how big are their pants?
Kelly Reichardt: “Uh, gosh, I don’t know the answer to any of those questions. I only see the kids in the classroom — hm. I’m trying to think. It’s hard to sum up what everybody’s into.”
Blackbird Spyplane: D*mn, I’m gonna need to do my own Hudson Valley recon I guess. The Showing Up score includes a bunch of great flute music from André 3000, who plays one of Michelle Williams’s coworkers at the school. Am I right that you shot 45 minutes of André playing his flute in a field? Is that footage gonna be on the Blu-ray??
Kelly Reichardt: “We recorded sound of André playing, but we didn’t film him. It was just an experience of us sitting there and listening to him. His playing is beautiful, and it was really beautiful outside that day — it was great.”
Blackbird Spyplane: How cool to work with a musical genius, and you get to hear some spontaneous music from him in the process…
Kelly Reichardt: “He’s just always playing that flute. And what you might think the effect of having animals on set might be is the actual effect of someone playing flute on set — it’s very chill-ing. In the sense of it chills you out. He was like a Pied Piper.”
Blackbird Spyplane: I was thinking about Showing Up in relationship to Tár, as a kind of inadvertent companion piece, or imaginary double feature. They’re very different movies, in very different registers, but both are about “difficult” artists and themes of collaboration vs. competition, individual genius vs. community support, predation vs. nurture as it relates to the art world… Has anyone else brought up Tár with you in the context of this movie?
Kelly Reichardt: “No, but as a filmmaker I work with a community of people. And with Showing Up, we made it in the early days of Covid, so we weren’t able to be in vans together, and vans are where so much of filmmaking takes place. You go scouting, everyone’s been doing research, and you all get in the van and share ideas, share things you found, there’s so much. And in this case we all had to be in individual cars, doing everything on our own, then Zooming about it.
“Eventually we were allowed to get into these small bubbles, but it was such a non-natural way to approach filmmaking. Even having lunch together — I really missed that.”
Blackbird Spyplane: All right, finally, I asked you to send along a special object, and you chose what looks like a very funky Cold War-era manual for learning Russian — A Russian Course Part 1, by Alexander Lipson. What’s the story with this?
Kelly Reichardt: “I’m living out of a suitcase right now so I don’t have a ton of stuff with me, but this is my friend Mimi Lipson’s. She’s an author who wrote a short story collection called The Cloud of Unknowing, and I met her through Bard. Her father wrote this, and she showed it to me about a month ago. I wish I had a copy.”
Blackbird Spyplane: There’s a full digital scan online here, and it seems like a hoot — ostensibly it’s teaching you Russian, but via these strange songs and absurdist parables valorizing Communist industry and denigrating western decadence in very funny & strange ways. I’m reading from one of the pages you sent me —
“By the swamp is a beach. What do the inhabitants of West Blinsk do on the beach? Do they build factories? Do they build tourist bases? No. They don’t build anything on the beach. [with disgust] All day they lie on the beach and watch television. What decadence! And the inhabitants of East Blinsk? All day they sit by the sea. On concrete-mixers. [tenderly] They build hydroelectric power stations. What happiness!”
Kelly Reichardt: “Mimi has more stories than anyone I know. If she had a podcast she could be her own guest, week after week. So you never know what’s gonna happen when you visit her. I think we were talking about her dad, who comes up a lot in her short stories, and I was trying to concentrate on what she was reading but we’d also told her dog that we were going to the park, so Mimi settled into reading her dad’s book, he wants to go to the park, and the dynamic between the two is what I was looking at. She was on one track, he was on another.”
Showing Up opens this Friday. The trailer is here. All of Kelly’s movies are cool, though if you ask me her portrayal of the environmentalists in Night Moves, who plot to blow up a dam, is way too harsh. River of Grass, Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff, and First Cow are all particular favorites of ours.
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ID on the dress Hong Chau's Jo wears to Lizzie's art show?
Watched First Cow for the first time after reading this. The way Cookie interacts with that cow is magic.