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Defector At The Movies

Indie Cinema Is Now Genre Cinema

Kelly Reichardt directing Michelle Williams on Showing Up
Allyson Riggs, Courtesy of A24

There’s a new Kelly Reichardt movie out. Did you hear? It’s called Showing Up and it’s about a very moderately successful ceramicist who is full of doubt. It follows her through her humdrum life as a working artist, which persists thanks to an invisible motor that keeps her going despite no overwhelming external pressures either way, except for the tap-tap-tap of the quotidian. You didn’t know about it? Oh, you don’t know who Kelly Reichardt even is? Reichardt is that independent filmmaker Michelle Williams keeps working with. She’s the one who did that Cow movie before the pandemic hit—the one got a lot of press because of the cow’s beauty (leave it to A24 to wring some quirk out of a bovine character). Reichardt is the one who did Certain Women, that Montana triptych with Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern. That was her biggest success (it cost $2 million and made $1.5 million). Before that she did that eco-thriller with Jesse Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning called Night Moves. That’s her one kind-of-obvious genre film.

Showing Up is Reichardt’s eighth feature. She has been directing and writing and editing her own work since the ‘90s. She has a Guggenheim. She’s been nominated for the Golden Lion at Venice and the Golden Bear at Berlin. She has a lifetime achievement award from Locarno. Every time Reichardt makes a new film it’s an event for critics and academics. But not much beyond that. “I never had the idea that filmmaking was going to sustain me,” she said last year. “I just always think: I get to go make a film? That’s cool.”

As much as I want more people to see Reichardt’s films, to know who she is, and for her to have the kind of job security that, say, Christopher Nolan has, there’s something really nice about watching Showing Up without all the noise around it; without the huge marketing push steering you towards thoughts about a film you haven’t even seen yet (I still can’t keep the Parasite poster from supplanting the rest of the film’s imagery in my head); without everyone on social media turning its marketing materials into memes (I know it’s a huge movie but Barbie day was a lot); without everyone questioning whether the director has disappointed them personally (poor Ari Aster); without that director being ranked against their peers (poor Ari Aster).

But there is also something incredibly frustrating about a filmmaker like Reichardt, who is exceptional at what she does and has been doing it for three decades, saying, “I just assume every film I make will be the last.” I think of fellow indie filmmakers like Debra Granik and Eliza Hittman and Alice Wu and Janicza Bravo, and I wonder if they feel the same way. And even though they may jokingly say it, I don’t see a director like Aster (despite the box office bomb that was Beau Is Afraid) or Robert Eggers (despite his penchant for period black and white) or David Lowery (who likes to throw bed sheets over his lead actors) really thinking this way. Or being made to feel this way, rather. There’s too much heft around them. But where does it come from?

The difference between all of these filmmakers seems to not solely be gender, but also genre. To support my point, I will use Aster, just because his new film, Beau Is Afraid, about a clinical mama’s boy riddled with anxiety, came out around the same time as Showing Up (and they are both A24 films). While Reichardt is 59, Aster is 36. He has only made three features but he’s already an established brand. That is because his first, Hereditary, released in 2018 (a year after Get Out), not only fell within the newly trendy elevated horror genre, it also did well at the box office ($70 million in profits). Aster had only made two shorts when he pitched Hereditary—which is clearly a horror movie – to A24 as a family drama. But A24 knew what they had, which is why they gave the film their widest release ever. Aster is the psycho-folk-horror dude, and that fits like a glove into A24’s hipster ethos.

Fundamentally, Reichardt’s and Aster’s films aren’t that different, insofar as they are character studies packed with psychological implications. The gap can be found in Aster’s flashy style—overtly symbolic set design and jump-scare trauma and occultists, for instance—and the high concept hook of a thrilling horror with a huge spoiler, all of which can be maximized to market him to an increasingly bored public. I gasped at the sudden decapitation in Hereditary in the same way I gasped at the housewife in Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles forgetting to switch on a light, but guess which is the easier word-of-mouth sell? Two of A24’s top 10 films are by Aster, and with the company and the media primed to highlight everything that makes an Aster film an Aster film, his signature coded flourishes have become so familiar that people are already accusing him of being a hack.

The problem with Aster then is not so much him or his films—though I prefer Reichardt’s—but the cultural ecosystem. Vulgar auteurism has given way to capital auteurism. Capitalism takes a film like Aster’s—and a person like Aster—and breaks it down into its constituent parts and sells them off one by one. As much as A24 is a production company and distributor, for instance, it is also American cinema’s premiere lifestyle brand and, within that, it behooves them to paint Aster with the same brush. While this alone is troubling for how reductive it is, I can’t imagine the mindset doesn’t also find its way into the filmmaking itself. This is the kind of thinking that makes, for instance, the stunt casting in Alex Garland’s Men attractive (remember all those Rory Kinnears?). Flamboyant moves like this lead to the highest concept film—all genres, all the time; all references, all the time—in A24’s roster, Everything Everywhere All At Once, which I absolutely loved, don’t get me wrong, but is the closest indie cinema has ever come to a mainstream superhero movie. That it is the most lucrative and awarded of A24’s films no doubt encourages filmmakers to wear everything on their sleeve in order to create their own muscular brand, so that a company like A24 can sell it.

You can’t sell Reichardt like this. Try to sum up Reichardt and it’s ... not easy. “She is known for her minimalist films closely associated with slow cinema, many of which deal with working-class characters in small, rural communities.” OK, Wikipedia, sure, that is a very broad strokes definition of her work. But that is part of the issue. You can’t really get more detailed than that (slow cinema’s a stretch) because then you are just describing each film individually, because there are no real obvious trademarks. Reichardt’s films are like novels (she works with novelist Jon Raymond). If you opened a book to a random page and started reading, it might kind of make sense, but not really. That’s what would happen if you tried to sell Reichardt like one does poor Aster. Which is not to say his films are not like novels. But they are genre films with conspicuous reference points, which can be teased out. Reichardt is like Australian literary genius Gerald Murnane—you kind of just have to read it. And if you read enough you get to know the voice, while the work around it evolves over time, but not in any predictable way (“Keep in mind, I don’t have my finger on any pulse,” Reichardt told The Guardian). With Aster, you take a psychological horror film, add a Moviefone plug here, a Kaufman-esque twirl there, some Coen brothers homages on top, and you can be tricked into thinking: “OK, I got it.”

I don’t want to make this a whole white-dude thing but when you really look at it, it starts to look like a bit of a white-dude thing. You see the Safdies making a tiny psychodrama in 2014 and then they do a crime thriller with Robert Pattinson in 2017 for $2 million, double their money, and suddenly, a year later, they are releasing an Adam Sandler crime movie for $19 million. And then you look at, for example, Zola by Janicza Bravo, my favorite film of 2020—high concept, very flashy, made its money back—and you wonder: Where’s all the flurry around her? Where are all the exciting expensive deals and huge star talent flocking to her? Where is all the conversation about her? If your argument is that predominantly white male executives are banking on white male creators because they are more successful, I have three words for you: David Robert Mitchell. This is the guy who made the admittedly awesome and elevated low-budget horror film It Follows, and then followed it up with ... Under the Silver Lake (an $8 million neo-noir disaster starring Andrew Garfield which didn’t even make back half its money). And yet he is currently in pre-production on a J.J. Abrams-produced feature with Anne Hathaway attached. I would neither bank on those execs making their money back, or on that film being anywhere near as accomplished as Reichardt’s last eight. Which is fine. Mitchell should be allowed to fail. But Bravo should also be allowed to succeed. And so should Reichardt.

The exception to this boys’ club is, of course, Greta Gerwig. Gerwig is the lone woman among the top 10 highest grossing A24 directors for Lady Bird. Quick caveat: I have a bit of a history with Gerwig because I profiled her nearly two decades ago (2009, when she co-directed her first film, Nights and Weekends, which we have all tacitly agreed to pretend doesn’t exist) and at that point she was just a kind of strange New York playwright whose parents still wanted her to be a lawyer and who wasn’t entirely convinced she had a future in film. I expected her to write more and more weird stuff. And she did. She met Noah Baumbach, and they wrote weird stuff together and he directed it (Frances Ha, Mistress America). I maintain that those two are at their best working together—she as the writer, he as the director. I don’t want to say she became a filmmaker because Baumbach gave her clout, but I assume her association with a white male director who survived (and thrived) the ‘90s indie boom didn’t hurt her transition from his co-writer to solo director.

There’s nothing wrong with Lady Bird. It’s just a fairly standard female coming-of-age film. While less standard, Little Women falls into the same genre. As a friend of mine noted, these are recognizable “girly” films. Which is not to dismiss them. What that description does, unlike, say, “a road movie without the road, a love story without the love, and a crime story without the crime” (River of Grass, Reichardt, 1994), is make such films easy to categorize as the works of a young female director, and therefore easy to market. It sort of reminds me of Sofia Coppola, who has a well-established brand as a female filmmaker who makes aesthetically hyper-feminized films that are perennially about becoming (she also seems keenly aware of her own cachet, currently selling shirts brandishing her own titles). While Gerwig may not be in the retail market yet (or, well ...) staying in this “girly” lane has afforded her mainstream success in the form of a budget of $100 million and the girliest subject of all: Barbie. Sure, Barbie will probably be as good as a Barbie movie can possibly be, but I can’t stop thinking about that strangely uncategorizable young woman I met, and how ultimately limiting it is to shove all of those idiosyncrasies into a hot pink heel by Mattel. (She co-writes Disney’s live-action Snow White musical next.)

Pushing indie filmmakers to go to categorical extremes—from extremely stylized to extremely referential to extremely gendered, for example—and to reconfigure genres to pump out work which is then marketable as merch and fodder for social media memes, trains audiences to expect specific things. At a certain point, it was enough for a woman to make a film starring Will Oldham and scored by Yo La Tengo about two old friends reuniting for a camping trip (Old Joy, 2006, which made a $100,000 profit), or a film about a young woman and her dog trying to make their way to Alaska (Wendy and Lucy, 2008, which made $1.4 million on a $300,000 budget). These films were never the most popular in the world, but their existence didn’t feel so precarious. And their quiet meditation always played like a feature, rather than the bug it now appears to be. The barrage of bells and whistles emanating from arthouse studios makes even a straightforward heist film like How to Blow Up a Pipeline (notably distributed by Neon) seem like a refreshing antidote. Being engaging doesn’t have to mean being distracting. And while art can bank on recognizability, that doesn’t always have to outweigh discovery. It reminds me of an artist character in Showing Up who sees a bunch of art students, either dancing or posing or miming, and says, “I can’t figure out what class this is, but I REALLY want to join it.”

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