Despite the steady repetition of themes that define Kelly Reichardt’s filmography (alienation, class, gender, the American West), her output has remained surprisingly unpredictable moving from one film to the next. Showing Up is no exception, a work that at once feels familiar and distinctly hers, and yet somehow plays like a fresh change of pace, its small-scale stakes and lighthearted tone serving as a release valve for the pressure of having to follow First Cow, one of her finest films to date. The closest analog to Showing Up in her filmography would likely be Old Joy, with its easygoing melancholy and sweet Yo La Tengo score. But even that feels like a false comparison given how, despite its quietude, Old Joy’s focus is splintering friendships and loss, whereas Showing Up is almost its exact opposite, instead emphasizing the resilience of art and community as a bulwark. Furthermore, it’s the funniest film she’s made to date, albeit funny in the way Kristen Stewart’s 4-hour commute to teach a night class in Certain Women is funny, meaning even its humor is often cutting, bittersweet, and tinged with poignancy.
Speaking of the Reichardt back catalog, it’s been over a decade since Michelle Williams’ unforgettable, and quietly explosive, appearance in Wendy & Lucy. Williams has delivered a set of wonderful turns in subsequent films with Reichardt, but mostly in ensembles, and never did she so wholly own those collaborations in the way she shined playing down-on-her-luck Wendy. This trend finally shifts in Showing Up, as Williams returns to play Lizzy, an unassuming sculptor doing her best to prepare for a gallery show as a string of small but aggravating obstacles land in her way. These roadblocks include a self-centered friend/landlord who won’t get the hot water running, a brother who is spiraling while aloof parents shrug it off, and a wounded pigeon who’s been entrusted to her care days before the show. Williams brilliantly entwines herself in the role of Lizzy; she’s swallowed up in cozy sweaters, slouching from room to room in crocs with a dejected shuffle, and yet, beneath the rolled-out-of-bed get-up, hands stained with paint and bearing the dark eye bags of an exasperated artist, is a downright magnetic warmth and sweetness at her core. This type of invisible, character-forward performance is, despite its effortless appearance, just as rich, textured, and beautiful as any in Williams’ career.
All the while, Reichardt takes full advantage of the Oregon College of Arts and Crafts setting, taking breaks from the narrative for sojourns through studios where students are diligently weaving, painting, working on ceramics, and engaging in all manner of mixed media arts. There’s an undercurrent here of sardonic probing of the slacker-like disconnect from the outside world that’s so specific to Portland; like the sequence where Lizzy’s landlord/friend Jo (Hong Chau) huffs that she’s too busy to fix the boiler (broken for two weeks now) while giddily building herself a tire swing in the backyard. Even so, Reichardt’s humor is never mean-spirited, and despite these jabs never disparages the art itself. Jo’s artwork is later presented with equal reverence and intrigue afforded to everybody else, and in one of the film’s more memorable scenes, Lizzy walks through Jo’s exhibition feeling both appreciative, daunted by its scope and reception, and insecure about her place in the art world. A lesser script/director might reduce Jo to an easy antagonist by posing her art as vapid or ridiculous when contrasted with the protagonist’s sincere output, but Reichardt’s film is just as concerned with the craft as it is with its main character, so even if Jo tends to be careless with others and oblivious to her privilege, her commitment to her art and practice remains a serious matter worthy of consideration and respect.
That said, Lizzy’s art does take center stage in Showing Up. The film opens on gorgeously messy sketches of her figurine models, with splotches of paint giving the drawings a sense of movement and vibrancy. We watch the process through which these two-dimensional blueprints are carefully formed out of clay, studiously painted, and tempered with fire. Outkast’s Andre Benjamin, who’s been ramping up his film roles lately, plays a friend who works the kiln, handling Lizzy’s final works with sacrosanct care. His gentle handling makes them feel like holy relics, and Reichardt has lavished so much time on Lizzy’s hands lovingly molding and painting that it’s not too hard to believe that they might be. When Reichardt echoes the shot of those hands, now petting a pigeon’s head with the same delicacy and care, a bridge between Lizzy’s art and life forms. Speaking of the pigeon, a bird mauled by Lizzy’s cat, found by Jo and pawned off into Lizzy’s care as a favor, becomes an easy but touching metaphor. With her parents divorced and their attention split, her troubled brother Sean (John Magaro), like the wounded bird, seems in desperate need of care and would otherwise fall through the cracks if not for her. She finds him in his empty apartment in a paranoid fit, isolated and withdrawn, eating a sad bowl of spaghetti.
When she alerts her mother that something may be wrong, the response Lizzy gets plays like a joke: “He’s a genius is part of the problem.” But what’s gorgeous here is how Reichardt forces us to confront this line later on: when Sean is in a dangerous manic state digging holes in his backyard, he speaks in the vernacular of artistry, describing his efforts as a piece representing the “mouths of the earth.” Lizzy, desperate to help her brother, has no time to process the undercurrents, but Reichardt stresses respect to the art first and foremost, emphasizing that the line separating Sean’s artistic expression and Lizzy’s is thin and imprecise. Earlier in the film, Lizzy attempted to rid herself of the burden of caring for the bird, “Go somewhere else, die somewhere else,” she yells in an uncharacteristic fit, but ultimately her compassion prevails, and the metaphor carries over for her brother to whom she returns. In the chaotic build-up to her big moment, Sean’s narrative of isolated frustration is inserted and juxtaposed with the nurturing studios of the school. Reichardt depicts his art as an articulation of breakdown, an art of pain, of loneliness, and anger; it’s an art that calls out to the world with a yelping cry demanding to be heard, and just like Jo’s art, or Lizzy’s art, or any art for that matter, what counts the most is who shows up to hear it.
Writer: Igor Fishman
“The family is the cradle of the world’s misinformation,” eminent Car Crash Studies professor Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle) says to his friend and colleague, Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), the world’s leading Hitler Studies scholar, near the beginning of Noah Baumbach’s White Noise. It’s a line that is repeated again in voiceover later in the film, and it’s a line that could be aptly attached to many of Baumbach’s other films. From The Squid and the Whale to Meyerowitz Stories to Marriage Story, families, and the ways in which they fail one another precisely while trying to be there for one another, have an oversized thematic importance across his oeuvre. It’s fitting, then, that in his adaptation of Don DeLillo’s classic postmodern novel, the chaotic Gladney family, in all its intellectualized passive aggression, is what Baumbach seems to get most right. Zipping in and out of the kitchen, arguing over the difference between rodents and vermin, or whether it’s better to eat sugar-free gum, which causes cancer, or normal gum, which causes heart conditions, the witty rapport between the four Gladney children and two parents carries all the love and animosity undergirding any functioning family unit.
Hovering at the core of the Gladney family, and at the core of White Noise — both book and film — is the specter of death. Death haunts the airplane crashes that the family watches on TV, and the chess game highschool-aged Henreich plays by mail with a death row serial killer. Death even haunts the pillow talk between Jack and his wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig); they argue listlessly at night over who will die first, each disingenuously proclaiming they would rather be the first to go so as to not see the other’s death. Death, and the existential angst swarming around the anticipation of death, is, ostensibly, the overarching theme of White Noise; unfortunately, it’s also a theme which Baumbach seems incapable of meeting in its attendant seriousness and depth.
While DeLillo’s satire evokes the cosmic tragicomedy of the theater of the absurd, meshing an existential focus on life’s meaninglessness with the spiritualistic ritual and alienated sense of belonging surrounding suburban consumerism, Baumbach never moves beyond a surface-level farce of pop-culture Americana. Baumbach, an inveterate New Yorker, has something of the Woody Allen-esque condescension of the rest of America in the way he facetiously tosses off the Gladneys’ predilection for mass market culture as goofy, sardonic character quirks.
Where DeLillo can find a genuine sense of mystery and emotional insight behind Jack’s claim that the illustrations on the back of cereal boxes are “the only avant-garde we’ve got,” Baumbach lacks reverence or curiosity in his depictions of the family’s frequent visit to the supermarket, finding only kitsch among the aisles. One need look no further than the stunning, overly long, LCD Soundsystem-scored musical number which ends the film to understand his attitude toward the source: it’s a well-choreographed, bouncy dance through the supermarket aisles with almost every character putting in an appearance, but it lacks enough distance to land anything but the most hackneyed of opinions, mistaking a pop-laden, ironic celebration of consumerism for criticism of such.
White Noise’s perspective on its characters might have felt more balanced had the film demonstrated some conviction toward the other, more serious half of Jack Gladney’s life: his lectures in Hitler Studies and his obsession with death. Unfortunately, Baumbach, the son of two New York film critics, has often been less than an astute chronicler of intellectual life; despite the large roster of bookish thinkers, writers, and artists who populate his films, he’s rarely given their cerebral pursuits more than a parting, glibly satirical glance. White Noise is no different, and its depiction of Jack’s lessons in Hitler Studies trades a larger point on the spiritual power of communal spectacle for a cheap attempt at spectacle itself, playing them almost exclusively for laughs. An impromptu double-lecture between Jack and Murray — a diatribe on the security from the fear of death which people find by losing themselves in crowds — is filmed as a campy sideshow attraction, with Jack theatrically flailing his arms around in his black academic robe, unrealistically exaggerating every point. Indeed, White Noise is populated with hammy, over-the-top performances like these, turning many of DeLillo’s bizarre, thought-provoking characters — from an atheistic nun working in a hospital to a paranoid chemistry professor always on the run — into two-dimensional cartoons.
It doesn’t help that Baumbach falls short when it comes to the film’s more spectacular scenes. The director certainly has an eye for choreographing character-based drama and the domestic scenes pop with the intricate, yet unassuming, motion of children and parents weaving around the kitchen amidst casual petty squabbles, but when it comes to larger moments of action, like car crashes and shoot-outs, Baumbach unsuccessfully grasps for visual approaches from blockbuster genre masters like Brian DePalma or Tony Scott. Perhaps the most iconic and tonally complex part of the novel, the Airborne Toxic Event — a black cloud of toxic gas accidentally spilled on the highway near the Gladneys’ house — is treated with a faux-Spielbergian sense of the sublime: a major upheaval for the Gladneys that forces them to confront their own mortality and social confusion, the event is handled with opulent crane moves that play up the scale and wondrousness of the event a la Close Encounters of the Third Kind without ever fully delivering on the emotional stakes of the characters.
That this section of the film, however, manages to still be one of its more successful sections speaks more to Baumbach’s innate talents as a filmmaker than his shortcomings, and clarifies how misguided this project was. Over a tense family dinner delivered in a series of tight, claustrophobic shots of vibrantly colored green beans being silently passed amongst the family, Baumbach does more interesting work in three minutes than he does in the remaining 134, evoking the profundity of familial silences in the lucidly comic, yet restrained, manner that populates his best work. That this, and the ensuing scenes of the family’s struggle to remain calm as they sit in traffic while evacuating their home, is eventually drowned out by a poorly constructed car chase that results in little but lame slapstick is a tidy example of the film’s failings
“The movie breaks away from complicated human passions to show us something elemental,” says Murray during a lecture on car crash footage. Baumbach, despite his own proven impulses as a chronicler of domestic drama, also breaks away from human passions in White Noise, instead focusing on spectacle and satire. Sadly, he fails to acquire that something elemental, that existential rawness of quotidian anxieties swarming through American life that DeLillo so perfectly conveys in his novel. Even death, purportedly the film’s main thematic subject, is treated so nonchalantly in the few deaths we do hear about as to barely even register. What the movie ends up as — despite its best intentions, yet wholly appropriate for a modern Netflix film — is nothing but more white noise.
Writer: Joshua Bogatin
Performance — itself a form of fiction — is a constant amongst the disparate subjects of Frederick Wiseman’s work: lectures, speeches, reprimands, all delivered with the attempted believability of your standard actor in an audition. As critics try and needlessly compartmentalize the handful of Wiseman films that are considered “fiction,” one should stay attuned to the source material, like in Seraphita’s Diary, which abstracts the ideas of 1981’s model with one of its participants at the center; or The Last Letter, which recounts a true story of a Ukrainian ghetto under Nazi rule, filtered through Russian author Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, and then again through Wiseman’s own cinema. More than a narrative feature, Wiseman’s latest, A Couple is an epistolary recitation, as beholden to the adaptations of Straub-Huillet as it is the landscape films of James Benning, though there is a multifaceted emotiveness here too, one which matches itself to a panoply of pastoral imagery.
The sole actor is Nathalie Boutefeu, playing Sophia Tolstoy, married to the much admired, much neglectful, quite jealous Leo when she was only eighteen. A stop-start monologue, pieced together from correspondences and diaries, A Couple is an interrogation of the implications of its general title, conveyed with speech that jumps back and forth across decades, while we as viewers remain in the splendorous garden with Sophia. Sometimes the way Wiseman positions Boutefeu in relationship to the camera and the natural surroundings is reminiscent of These Encounters of Theirs or Workers, Peasants, but there’s this steady pulse of auxiliary activity, like adjusting a shawl or violently untangling and snapping through a pile of branches. And much in the way that Wiseman teleports his camera across city streets and through hallways in his straightforward documentaries, Sophia frequently walks between locations, her own promenades representing a cut, a shift in focus.
In Leo Tolstoy’s A Confession, written while the author was in his early fifties, he admitted to feeling that he had accomplished little even when so cushioned by fame. Sophia pushes back at this, but given the indeterminate construction — there’s no chronological signposts, no distinction between letter and journal entry — her testimony plays like an argument with a loved one, flecked with half-remembrances and apologies amongst the barbs and rightful accusations of indifference. As best he can, Wiseman has visualized Sophia’s drafting process, inserting welcome interruptions in the form of a sun-dappled clearing, or frogs in a pond. Knowing that Wiseman’s own wife passed away only last year gives A Couple an extra shock of poignancy, but there’s a contentment in the way that Boutefeu passes through nature, and how her director willingly loses her along the paths and in the woods. For a director so fascinated by institutional minutia, a work of unfettered transcendentalism is, and should be, expected, anticipated, even.
Writer: Patrick Preziosi
Pietro Marcello’s background in documentary work aided his first fiction debut, Martin Eden, as his penchant for handheld Super 16mm film gave a “being there” quality that mimicked the earliest of verité filmmaking. This, combined with seamless transitions to archival footage in lieu of (potentially expensive) b-roll, solidified the period drama’s particular look: a surreal, visceral presence of the early twentieth century reminiscent of the uncanny valley of Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old. It certainly helps that Martin Eden portrays political meetings that blow up due to strained conversations of ego, art, and class, as many of the first verité films capture just that (Primary, Chronicle of a Summer). In other words, so the thinking goes, Martin Eden works thanks to its borrowing from a tradition that communicates and highlights reality, with its characters plucked out of documentary and its shocks mimicking the mythic L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat chugging forward to the audience — the train is there, and it’s coming.
But, in art, counterpoint can be just as important as fealty to reality. Thus, Marcello uses the same techniques to quite different effect in his recent Scarlet, another period piece, but one of fantasy and unreality. Based on what others have deemed a “quasi-fairy-tale” in Alexander Grin’s Scarlet Sails (adapted once before in Soviet-realist fashion by Alexandr Ptushko in 1961), Scarlet follows first a father, later his daughter, through a wartorn Normandy as gossip, a tough economy, and perhaps even a little magic enter their lives. That “quasi-” qualifier means that there are no explicitly fantastical elements — only too-perfect coincidence and more than one moment of breaking into song. But that’s enough to distance this sweeter work from the grimy brutality of Martin Eden, often to great effect.
Raphaël (Raphaël Thiéry), a man whose face and grace befit a cartoon of a French prole, hobbles back to his village after the Great War, only to learn that his love has been buried. A daughter remains, one whom he has never met, and he works to make a life for her. But, as the circumstances around little Juliette’s birth, as well as his wife’s death, become clear, Raphaël rages against the village and ultimately isolates from most of their sneering and gossip, taking solace only in his expert carpentry and a sole confidant, the widow Adeline (Noémie Lvovsky). Juliette (played by Suzanne Marquis, then Asia Bréchat, and then mostly as an adult by Juliette Jouan) grows up defending her father, much to the chagrin of the townspeople and children who have come to label the family as personae non gratae. Her only escape comes from the prognostication of a witch (Yolande Moreau, whose natural sybillic performance makes that little “quasi-” work overtime) who promises that the sight of red sails will set her free. And, wouldn’t you know it, a plane carrying France’s favorite historical face, Louis Garrel, just happens to crash in a field, upsetting the rhythms of her life. But: no red sails for now. While that prophecy carries the weight of myth and fate (usually of the inescapable variety), Marcello’s film gives Juliette control of what the red sails could mean.
Scarlet’s continuation of Martin Eden’s visual style gives intimacy where there was once anxiety. A major death scene is backlit with only the golden-hour sun as the other characters scramble in and out of frame, allowing the honeyed glow to sit on a face long after the lips stop moving and the room fades to orange. The morning hours are ones of a usual toil, and DP Marco Graziaplena lets its blues filter into the dirt of the road or the plainness of their clothes. The entire film is shaped by a trust in this natural light: the festival poster even features a scene in which the sun hits Juliette’s face just so as she dwells on her fate. Scarlet may not be a fairy tale, but it manages to mix the witching hour with the golden.
Writer: Zach Lewis
In a spare industrial space, an audition is held for men between the ages of 16 and 99. Sometimes individually, sometimes in pairs or groups, the men take turns sitting on a pink couch, variously engaging with the erotic material they are presented with. Against all odds, this is not a description of a casting call for gay porn (or of a João Pedro Rodrigues film like The King’s Body, for that matter). Rather, it’s the logline of Ruth Beckermann’s latest feature, Mutzenbacher, named after the 1906 novel Josefine Mutzenbacher or The Story of a Viennese Whore. Published anonymously but often attributed to Felix Salten, the author of Bambi, the book is a world-renowned classic of pornographic literature — though it remains controversial for what the film’s opening text describes as “its salacious and abusive portrayal of child sexuality.” Banned in Germany until 1968 and featured on the list of Writings Harmful to Young Persons until 2017, it’s the focal point of the auditions, in which the men engage with the text in a variety of ways. Some simply read the extracts given to them. Others comment on the text and its relation to either contemporary mores or their own experiences, sexual or otherwise. Meanwhile, Beckermann provokes her subjects from behind the camera, prodding them with ironic questions or laconic follow-ups. Her editing remains largely unobtrusive throughout, though she also includes a few sequences where the hundred or so men auditioning line up in rows and, in a kind of call-and-response interlude, recite a brief exchange from the book. For instance, Q: “What does the prick do in the cunt?” A: “It fucks.”
Apart from the amusement of hearing a hundred grown men chanting “Banging, screwing, reaming, shagging, poking, pounding” in the manner of a nursery rhyme, these interludes have a linguistic dimension that is certainly lost on those who do not speak German. Mutzenbacher as a whole, though, may be said to conduct an investigation that is archaeological in the sense Foucault gave the term. Beckermann’s conception is certainly pedagogical and didactic, but hers is a pedagogy and didacticism geared toward excavating the gap between the film’s subjects and the original text. As the men comment on the novel, they are aware not just of their distance from the material, but also of how their own comments separate from their status as the film’s subjects. Their remarks do not stand as mere evidence for some thesis about contemporary sexuality, but continually refer back to a gap between the text and their commentary, between their commentary and themselves. And if Beckermann can use the barest of means to draw all this out, it’s partly because experiments such as those of Godard and Duras have given sound a distinct autonomy from the visible image — an autonomy that it did not have at the beginning of the cinema. (Indeed, this is also what makes possible the recent archival experiments of Sergei Loznitsa, with their controversial Foley manipulations.) In this way, Mutzenbacher functions as a kind of montage experiment without cutting, allowing Beckermann to demonstrate a fundamental lesson of the modern cinema: that if one only knows how to present them, it’s enough to let one’s subjects speak.
Writer: Lawrence Garcia