Documentary Review: CUTIE AND THE BOXER (directed by Zachary Heinzerling)

by Jason Rohrer on August 1, 2013

in Film

PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS AN OLD MAN

The connection between artist and starvation has rarely received such a quietly violent treatment as it does in Cutie and the Boxer.  If young artists were made to sit and watch this documentary once a year at school, we’d have more accounting majors and less mediocre art.  And though financial poverty is one of director Jason Rohrer’s Stage and Cinema Documentary review of Zachary Heinzerling’s “Cutie and the Boxer”- RADiUS-TWC and The Weinstein CompanyZachary Heinzerling’s prime motifs here, the two artists in this picture are starved not only for food; they are denied nutrients such as communion with their larger community, and with their home cultures.  They’ve made a choice to live outside the mainstream, and such bravery has its price.  They have not found the sort of success that allows them to move out of a mean Brooklyn loft.  Their marriage has been racked by alcoholism and subjugation and the desperate question of where to get the rent.  It still is.  And while it’s easy enough to get romantic about hand-to-mouth artists when they’re young, these aren’t.

Ushio Shinohara turns 80 years old before our eyes; his wife Noriko, 21 years his junior, mutedly henpecks him about the bills, about the way he eats her meals, about his terrible skills at being a husband.  The husband describes a harmonic view Jason Rohrer’s Stage and Cinema Documentary review of Zachary Heinzerling’s “Cutie and the Boxer”- RADiUS-TWC and The Weinstein Companyof himself as the genius and his wife as the unexceptional assistant, but the film does not easily agree.  He’s still making much the same art he made as a young man; she’s drawing and painting new stuff after forty years of keeping her husband’s house.  The relevance of Mr. Shinohara’s kitschy motorcycle sculptures, and of his “boxing paintings” made by punching a canvas with soaked rags, may look tenuous compared with the marginalized existence that made their creation possible.  It can seem especially selfish given the suppressed potential of his wife, likely the more interesting artist all along.

A volatile figure in postwar Tokyo’s avant-garde scene, Mr. Shinohara (Gyu-chan to his fans) spent almost twenty years as one of Japan’s angry young men, rejecting tradition to participate in performance art, happenings, and regular exhibitions of his impetuous, sensationalist work.  He still has the enthusiasm of a child, and it’s infectious.  A resident of New York City since 1969, and out of the public eye for Jason Rohrer’s Stage and Cinema Documentary review of Zachary Heinzerling’s “Cutie and the Boxer”- RADiUS-TWC and The Weinstein Companymost of the years since, he still gets excited about the occasional gallery show of his work.  When the buyer for a major museum comes to look at his stuff, the viewer gets excited with him; but every artist will tell you ahead of time how most of these promises pay off.  In the years chronicled, Gyu-chan only sells one piece, and he has to go to such lengths to do it that one wonders whether there can have been profit to the trip.  Watching an 80 year old man cram a battered suitcase with fragile-looking paper sculptures is not among the happy things I’ve watched on film.  When he gets back, the youthful triumph on his face as he hands his wife the cash is a joy to behold.  She counts the money, reminding him that it really isn’t very much; and he tries to be okay with that.  And so do I.

Noriko has lived with Gyu-chan since she came to New York as a 19 year old art student and immediately got pregnant by this artist in his forties; their marriage has endured much, and according to the movie it’s largely because of her resilience.  This quality does not read as uniformly admirable, and some may read Noriko’s loyalty to the relationship as a pure domestic tragedy.  Others will be inspired by this portrait of a longstanding love affair-as-negotiation.  In either case, Mr. Jason Rohrer’s Stage and Cinema Documentary review of Zachary Heinzerling’s “Cutie and the Boxer”- RADiUS-TWC and The Weinstein CompanyHeinzerling’s unobtrusively judgmental camera delivers an artful narrative of disappointment and survival.

Well-documented in the video record (home movies, press pieces) of the couple’s decades together, Gyu-chan’s maudlin drunkenness only recently came to a stop due to a medical condition.  This gift has freed up time for him and his caregiver, and Cutie and the Boxer records a prolific time for both artists.  But a visit from their thirty-something son Alex, who compulsively gulps all the liquor in the house, raises questions of original sin not easily answered by cardboard motorcycles.

Ms. Shinohara’s English is imperfect enough that its inclusion in her visual art invests it with an outsider feel; her husband’s English isn’t great, either, despite his long residence in America.  The detail reflects the insular nature of this enduring Jason Rohrer’s Stage and Cinema Documentary review of Zachary Heinzerling’s “Cutie and the Boxer”- RADiUS-TWC and The Weinstein Companyrelationship, and emphasizes the couple’s isolation from the world beyond their home and studios.  This claustrophobia is echoed in Mr. Heinzerling’s shots of their domestic and work spaces – windows almost never enter the frame – though he provides a lovely visual foil in the clarity and expansiveness of his urban exteriors when the couple make their sojourns into the outer reality of people with jobs, money, and futures.  With this debut feature, winner of the documentary directing award at this year’s Sundance festival, Mr. Heinzerling assures himself of attention for his next.  Clever, talented, and young, he is the artist most likely to benefit from this picture.

photos by Erik Jonsson, Patrick Burns and Zachary Heinzerling
courtesy of The Weinstein Company

Cutie and the Boxer
Ex-Lion Tamer Presents A Cine Mosaic Production
released by RADiUS-TWC
82 mins, USA, no rating
opens August 16, 2013 in limited release
for more information, visit http://www.cutieandtheboxer.com

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