Cutie and the Boxer
Dir: Zachary Heinzerling
It’s rare for a documentary to so fully infiltrate a pair of lives that they come across as narrative characters; revealing a little about their drives, failures, and personal wounds, while admitting far more with the harsh honesty of their eyes and the power lying dormant in what they refuse to admit. In Cutie and the Boxer, Director Zachary Heinzerling follows two dysfunctional artists, Noriko Shinohara (Cutie) and her husband Ushio (The Boxer), as they prepare for a Brooklyn based art exhibition that will reinvigorate their expression at the tail-end of long careers.
Ushio is called ‘the Boxer’ as a result of his trademark painting style; punching a fixed canvas with sponges of paint in a flurry of creative athleticism. We first see Ushio as he emerges from his bedroom in the morning, a tired and cranky 80-year-old, soon to become ‘the Boxer’, his ageless artistic force, as he proceeds to pound his work with colour. What should be a pathetic spectacle, a geriatric swinging his paint covered arms, comes across as confident and powerful. Heinzerling’s film shows us what happens when free expression meets infirmity and refuses to yield, and what costs a lifetime of this expression can accrue.
Noriko’s ‘Cutie’, the adorable pig-tailed wife of Ushio, presents a wonderfully timed parallel story of her oppression under Ushio, and her long awaited retaliation. She plans on finally exhibiting some of her art, appropriately cute and yet gruesome cartoonish paintings of her past, in the same exhibition as her husband. Her emotional openness does well to play off the closed Boxer, each subtle accusation she makes or painting she exhibits bouncing off Ushio’s face to reveal muted tones of acceptance, regret, and appreciation. Noriko’s work, animated for the film, becomes a link back to their past as struggling new-wave artists in the sixties, showing how Ushio’s unstoppable artistic fervour is both the reason she loves him and the reason for her lifelong anguish. One of the most interesting characters is an emotionally damaged Alex, the couple’s neglected, alcoholic son who has weathered the fallout of his father’s wild life. We first see him stumbling into the scene, leeching of his parents’ wine, the couple painfully aware of their own failed responsibilities. Alex’s own artwork, a new breed of painting revealed near the end, implies the continued struggle with the need to create.
Heinzerling treats the couple’s art with neutrality rather than overt praise; the Boxer’s work occasionally coming across as overly brash or even samey, and neither artist managing to sell especially well. Without the qualitative statement, the director is free to question the artistic motive. The couple isn’t creating for an end result. Just as when Ushio starts painting as he is making hamburger patties, these people are simply creating because it is impossible for them not to. Their artistic integrity weathers the documentary’s intense observation, unlike the other figures of New York’s art scene met throughout, who hypocritically pose, flatter, and fawn while elevating themselves far from the destructive artistic drug to which the title characters are addicted.
It’s a curious little film that isn’t going to ignite the art world, and despite the occasionally misleading combinations of old footage, Cutie and the Boxer is worth seeking out online for most of us unable to catch such a story on the cinema screen.