Kelly Reichardt’s Cinema of Class Conflict

Kelly Reichardt’s Cinema of Class Conflict

Everyday Divides

Kelly Reichardt’s cinema of class conflict.


Animals abound in the films of Kelly Reichardt. Some are loyal companions, such as the titular canine of Wendy and Lucy. Others are kept in servitude by their human owners, like the oxen that pull a wagon train in Meek’s Cutoff. Usually they occupy a more ambiguous place, like the horses cared for by a ranch hand in Certain Women: They are both a commodity she manages and her only source of companionship in the barren isolation of rural Montana.

In her latest film, Showing Up, Reichardt introduces two new members to this unruly menagerie: a house cat and a pigeon. The cat belongs to Lizzy (Michelle Williams), a sculptor who has a day job as an administrative assistant at a small college. In the middle of the night, it mauls a pigeon that has somehow gotten into the bathroom, after which Lizzy unceremoniously dumps the injured bird out of the window. The next morning, her landlord, a more successful artist named Jo (Hong Chau), discovers the pigeon and insists on nursing it back to health. Jo leaves to work on her sculptures after bandaging it up, blithely foisting the bird onto a reluctant Lizzy, who’s taken a day off from work to finish up her own art. For her part, Jo seems to think of all this as a wholesome bonding exercise, but as a celebrated artist who enjoys the luxury of working on her sculptures full-time—not to mention the rent payments she collects from Lizzy—she fails to register why it might be an imposition on Lizzy’s time. Good intentions are irrelevant to the power differentials striating their relationship, which exert a quiet but constricting pressure on Lizzy’s options.

Last year saw a spate of films, from Triangle of Sadness to The Menu, that took up the topic of class conflict and the bitter resentments produced by inequality. Reichardt’s work, however, couldn’t be more different from those sensationalist exercises in wish fulfillment. Rather than indulging in Manichaean fantasies about heroes and villains, Showing Up depicts how capitalism’s hierarchies poison even minor, everyday interactions between people who more or less mean well. By setting in motion a chain of events that highlight those hierarchies, the pigeon and the cat mirror the condition of Reichardt’s human characters, who also find themselves swept up by forces beyond their control and comprehension.

Kelly Reichardt’s work can be divided into two distinct categories: period pieces that unearth the roads not taken in American history and films set in the present that dwell on the devastation left in the wake of those foreclosed possibilities. While the former films sometimes embrace a more sanguine hopefulness, the latter partake in a gritty realism that refuses to shy away from the cruelties of the modern economy. Wendy and Lucy follows a drifter named Wendy on her way to Alaska in search of a seasonal job at a fishery, and her dog, Lucy, who goes missing after Wendy is arrested for shoplifting dog food. Night Moves dials up the despair over modernity’s barbarism even further, depicting a group of activists who conclude that eco-terrorism is their only option in the face of environmental destruction.

In these contemporary films, Reichardt’s characters struggle in vain to carve out a place in a country that has no use for them. In Certain Women, a lawyer deals with a difficult client who’s trying to sue his former employer after being injured on the job. Skilled at his work but quick to anger, this client embodies the archetype of a certain kind of blue-collar masculinity, thrashing against the market’s devaluing of his abilities. He shares with Wendy this condition of being excluded from the benefits of economic progress, although her situation seems even worse: The need for work pushes her into a life on the road fraught with precarity and danger, one in which she painstakingly records the money she spends in a notebook: “HOT DOG: $1.50,” “TRAIL MIX: $3.00.”

The ruthlessness of such accounting hangs over Reichardt’s vision of contemporary America, which is governed by numbers on the scale of populations, too; as Wendy puts it, she is making her way to Alaska because “they need people.” There are simply not enough decent jobs in too many areas of the United States; the surplus workforce produced by deindustrialization and recurrent financial crises is too large for a strained economy to support. What Reichardt’s contemporary characters are up against, in other words, is nothing less than the imperious indifference of capitalism’s arithmetic. This is why Wendy’s only option to secure a livelihood is to seek new frontiers in Alaska, as a world with no room to accommodate her moves on. Her misfortune is in being in the wrong place at the wrong time, arriving at the party after the spoils of progress have already been reaped. For Reichardt, the cataclysm of history spreads unevenly, ravaging some areas while leaving others untouched, and her characters’ fates are determined largely by whether they can elude its reach.

If Reichardt’s present-day characters suffer from a kind of belatedness, then those in her historical films arrive unseasonably early. First Cow tells the story of a pair of male friends, Cookie and King Lu, who meet by chance in the lush wilderness of the Oregon Territory. When they learn that a rich businessman has imported the first cow into the area, they hatch a plan to milk it clandestinely, under cover of nightfall, to make “oily cakes,” which they sell to huge success. Briefly, Cookie and King Lu appear poised to get away with it. “History isn’t here yet. It’s coming, but we got here early this time,” King Lu says, explaining why they need to act fast to seize their fortune. But he and Cookie are far from immune to the misalignments that haunt Reichardt’s characters. To begin with, their very mode of existing is out of sync with the world around them. The easy intimacy they fall into, living together in the same home and bound by a fierce loyalty, is strikingly alien to what goes on in their surroundings.

Cookie, in particular, is a man out of his time in a frontier setting defined by a brutal masculinity. The first thing we see him do is set an upside-down salamander right, for no reason other than his inherent kindness. That core of beatific goodness remains miraculously unsullied by the constant cruelty meted out both around him and on him; Cookie seems to enjoy an almost magical exemption from the gravitational pull that drags everyone else into the gutters of abasement. And those rare occasions when Cookie’s kindness is reciprocated—such as the moment when he is sheltered by a stranger while being pursued by the cow owner’s men—are even more striking: Reichardt leaves their mystery intact, as if this antiquarian fantasy world were governed by a set of laws no less impenetrable and bizarre than those of a Studio Ghibli film.

Meek’s Cutoff also attends to the strange saplings that struggled to take root in the early days of the United States. The film fictionalizes a real incident from 1845: A wagon train of settlers, led by a hapless guide named Stephen Meek, gets lost in a barren stretch of Oregon. In this beautiful but hostile frontier, where even the water turns out to be poisonous, the men and women of the caravan negotiate the hierarchies that underpin their nascent community. As if a solvent has eaten through the veneer of civilization, the building blocks of their incipient social order stand revealed—and look momentarily, thrillingly open to being reconstructed in a more egalitarian configuration. As the women attempt to exert some agency over their fate, a bubbling conflict over the wagon train’s direction eventually explodes into a confrontation charged with the promise of revolutionary violence.

But like First Cow’s Cookie and King Lu, the women on this ill-begotten journey have come too early. The possibility of freedom they glimpse is only a temporary aberration. Meek’s solemn pronouncement toward the film’s end suggests something even darker: that the story of the caravan, and also the civilization that will spring from it, “was written long before we got here.” The fear that society’s course has been fixed in advance becomes even more pronounced in Reichardt’s contemporary films, which reverberate unceasingly with the sound of individual agency shattering against the indifference of world-historical forces. The fate of the dazed exiles and discarded castoffs who stumble through Reichardt’s films, whether they inhabit the past or the present, is to be shipwrecked on the shoals of an inhospitable historical moment, when the environments in which they might have flourished either no longer exist or have yet to come into being. Like arriving on a subway platform just as the train is pulling away, the miasma of futility that pervades Reichardt’s work stems from the disjunction between the world’s forward momentum and an individual’s inability to arrest it.

Showing Up deepens Reichardt’s portrait of the calcified inequalities that took hold after the alternative possibilities depicted in her historical films were extinguished. As an administrative assistant, Lizzy is near the bottom of the rigid hierarchies that structure academia, with her skills wasted on designing flyers for more celebrated artists and her wages redirected in the form of rent back to one of those artists. Jo peers down at her from atop the pyramid of social status and class. While Lizzy rushes to prepare her new work for a modest gallery showing, Jo is working on a set of bigger and more prestigious exhibits, one of which will take place at the college where Lizzy works.

Meanwhile, Jo fails at her basic duties as a landlord, constantly procrastinating on having Lizzy’s broken water heater repaired; by way of an excuse, she points out that “I have two shows, which is insane!” And when Lizzy must forfeit a rare day off to take care of the injured pigeon, the disparity between them takes on an even sharper cast. While Lizzy attends to the bird, Jo is preparing her installations for one of her upcoming shows. When Lizzy tries to call her after the pigeon’s condition worsens, Jo deliberately ignores her to continue working. Lizzy’s time is taken up by a trip to the vet, which also costs her money. Jo tells Lizzy she can deduct it from her next rent payment, but for Lizzy, finding herself at the mercy of her landlord’s whims only makes matters worse.

The mismatch between Lizzy and Jo is mirrored by their different personalities. Lizzy is sullen and withdrawn; when a student asks her for some coffee from her office’s supply, Lizzy replies curtly, “This isn’t a cafeteria.” Jo’s magnetic exuberance, on the other hand, is easy to love, attracting the college faculty and her fellow artists to a party that Lizzy is conspicuously left out of. It’s hard to tell whether Jo’s greater success is a product of that exuberance or vice versa—and that ambiguity infuses the film with an undercurrent of angst. Like First Cow’s Cookie, Lizzy is propelled by an inner drive that is admirably impervious to the signals (or lack thereof) she receives from the external world; she makes art not in pursuit of recognition but because expressing herself is a necessity. But when her subordination to Jo is ratified at every turn, it becomes progressively more difficult to ignore the suspicion that Jo’s superior position is simply the expression of some natural order.

These simmering resentments burst into the open after Lizzy, in search of a bathroom at the college equipped with a shower—because Jo still hasn’t fixed her hot water—stumbles onto Jo’s exhibit and its towering, brightly colored installations. Their vivacity blooms effortlessly, in contrast to the decidedly unobtrusive figurines that we see Lizzy toil over painstakingly. Lizzy’s work is beautiful, but delicate and fragile; smallness is both its status and its subject, as if the women they depict were begging forgiveness for the space they take up. As Lizzy stands, still unshowered, in the shadow of Jo’s commanding sculptures, these frighteningly concrete validations of her own perceived unworthiness bring on a paroxysm of humiliation.

In Showing Up’s final scenes, the competing strains of defeat and possibility that unspool across Reichardt’s films are left suspended in a delicate counterpoint, as they are throughout her work. After a series of escalating conflicts between Lizzy and Jo, the gallery show that Lizzy has been working on over the course of the film is finally set to open. The opening party brings together the people from the various strands of Lizzy’s life, including her divorced parents and troubled brother, who threaten to upend the event with their bickering. Lizzy begins to spin out with anxiety—fretting over her family, over a cheese plate, over the damage that one of her pieces suffered in the kiln—before Jo shows up in a gesture of support for Lizzy’s big moment. She has brought the pigeon with her—now healed and comfortably nestled in its shoebox—as a token of goodwill. But when the pigeon is set loose in the gallery, Lizzy’s brother manages to grab it and set it free outside. Jo and Lizzy watch as the bird takes off into the sky and then decide to walk to a nearby store to get some cigarettes.

The contrivances required to bring about this sudden and not entirely convincing reconciliation raise the unsettling prospect that Reichardt decided to engineer a happy ending. The pigeon’s return to nature is like a miraculous prison break from the inescapable antagonisms of everyday life. This suspiciously neat conclusion only underscores how foreign the prospect of harmony and equality is to the world we in fact inhabit, whose obstacles do not dissolve quite so easily. Even if Lizzy and Jo have been brought together by the bird, their newfound reconciliation seems temporary. In the film’s concluding shot, a gently soaring camera puts them on the same visual plane as they walk away. They finally appear to be on an equal footing—but only for the duration of the shot. In the end, perhaps only the pigeon is truly free.

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