Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Art/artists/relationships/success: Zachary Heinzerling's doc, CUTIE AND THE BOXER

The art world (or maybe the senior section of same) will most likely have heard of the subjects of this new documentary, CUTIE AND THE BOXER: husband/wife artists Ushio and Noriko Shinohara from Japan, who have now lived & worked here in New York City for decades. Movie-goers like me and you, however, probably won't, but once we've seen this very odd movie about the very odd pair, we'll remember 'em for sure.

The filmmaker, Zachary Heinzerling (shown at right), whose first directorial effort this is, brings us as close to these people as he evidently saw fit or could do within the confines of his chosen style -- which is to keep himself as far out of the picture as possible so that we get just these two artists, occasionally their grown son (who appears to be an alcoholic, just like his dad), a few friends in archival footage, and once in awhile an art dealer, gallery owner or museum VIP. Mostly though, it's the twosome: Ushio (below, left), who, during the course of the filming, celebrates his 80th birthday, and Noriko (below, right), who met her husband when she was only 19 (he was then 41) and has stuck with him, through thin and then thinner, ever since.

Heinzerling's movie is a relatively riveting 82 minutes of present-day footage, interspersed with some from the archives and supplemented with animation involving Noriko's charming, funny and quite telling line drawings (below) depicting the relationship of her alter ego, Cutie, and her husband's, Bullie. Noriko's art (not to mention her life) takes us as deeply into events and feelings as we're able to go, given the filmmaker's insistence on simply filming and not asking any questions that might broaden or deepen things.

It becomes clear rather quickly that Ushio is an asshole -- one of those entitled male "artists" whose needs and desires preclude everything and everyone else. The archival footage here nails this, but then, so does the current footage. This guy, according to what the filmmaker shows us, at least, has hardly grown, learned and/or changed in the last half century. His art ain't bad -- though he makes some interesting sculptures, he's perhaps best known for his paint-boxing style, in which he pummels the canvas with paint from the boxing gloves he's wearing. Hey, if Pollack could drip, then Shinohara can punch!

I have to say that Bullie's punched painting looks about as good as at least half of the rest of the "Modern Art" that I've encountered in my lifetime. You might wonder about how much time has gone into planning things such as composition and overall design, yet the end result's not half bad. Still, during some of the newsreel/news-show footage we see (from the 1960s, I believe), the narrator tells us that in the U.S., at least, "Most of his pieces have never sold." Seems like things haven't changed that much these days.

Even so, Noriko stands by her man, cooking and cleaning for him and acting as helper and critic. "Opposties attracts," she explains at one point, " while similarities repel." Guess so. But it is nice to see a little Japanese feminism come to the fore, as she and her subject, Cutie, learn to stand up for themselves.

According to the press release, Mr. Heinzerling spent some five years working on this documentary. While some of his footage is specific, funny and/or sad, some of it also repetitive, even at a final length of only 82 minutes. I wish the filmmaker might have found a way to go deeper into this marriage, prodding a little bit, even if this meant that his movie didn't always look like the "narrative film" he says he wanted to achieve in the press notes. Even if this would have meant more of a viewpoint showing from the filmmaker and less honesty from his subjects, simply having the camera (below) trained on them for so long dispenses with some of that "honesty" anyway. And then there's that supposed eastern inscrutability that might account for why his subjects wouldn't or couldn't open up more for their director.

In any case, Cutie and the Boxer is definitely worth seeing. From Radius TWC, the movie opens this Friday, August 16, here in New York City at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, and in Los Angeles at Landmark's NuArt. To see all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters, click here.

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