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Entries in Cutie and the Boxer [2013] (1)

Wednesday
Sep182013

Cutie and the Boxer (2013)

Art Therapy

Our romantic notions of the artist's life tends to fall into one of two popular narratives: the starving genius who finds fame and wealth and then implodes, or the starving genius who toils in anonymity and is only appreciated after death. The movies are a spectacular playground on which these larger-than-life ideas run free, offering those of us who aren't as bold or disturbed as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jackson Pollock a taste of truly turbulent existence from the safest distance imaginable. The best artist-profile movies also give the casual (read: unappreciative) observer a chance to see the hard work that goes into pieces at once beautiful, challenging, and inscrutable.

Zachary Heinzerling's graceful and tragic documentary, Cutie and the Boxer, gives us a third window through which to consider creative people and, indeed, art itself. His thesis is a possibility I'd never considered before: that an artist can be prolific, famous, and nearly destitute in his or her lifetime.* Sure, we've seen news stories about actors or musicians who've lost everything to hard times or poor money management, but the case of Ushio and Noriko Shinohara is one of creators who never had money to lose--despite decades of self-promotion and dilligence.

The film chronicles Ushio's rise to semi-fame in the 1960s as a Japanese transplant who got pulled into the "Is it Art?" orbit of Andy Warhol's rock-star-artist scene. One of his signature gimmicks was strapping on boxing gloves with giant sponges on the end, dipping them in paint, and then shadow-fighting his way across massive, wall-sized canvases. The result was often a two-part masterstroke: an explosion of colorful abstract expressionism, as well as a few minutes of performance-art footage that served as a commercial for his legend.

Ushio was already forty by the time he met nineteen-year-old Noriko, who also arrived in the Big Apple with dreams of making it big as an artist. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your opinion of destiny), Ushio was one of the first people she met; his charming, domineering, alcohol-fueled personality struck Noriko as worldly and exciting, and a single night of passion led to a lifetime of codependent turmoil.

Filmed largely in their New York studio, Cutie and the Boxer follows the couple's struggle to make a name for themselves in their twilight years. Ushio persists in building massive cardboard-motorcycle sculptures and "boxer" paintings, even though they never became the moneymaker he'd envisioned forty years ago. Meanwhile, Noriko begins working on the titular graphic-novel tapestry, which comes to life in the film as an animated history of the couple's rocky relationship. As Noriko gets deeper into her drawings, unearthing decades-old anger that has, until now, only manifested itself as passive-aggressive jokes at her husband's expense, we begin to see how utterly these artists' fates are tied to not only each other, but also to the service of creation itself.

Ushio and Noriko's living space and the storage loft they rent across the street are packed with drawings, rolled-up canvases, sculptures, and the worn, stained instruments that translate feelings into media. Neither has a traditional day job, and they spend literally every waking hour making art that may or may not sell. Again, it's a romantic idea, but their ability to eat and pay rent is a constant topic of contention--made heavier by Ushio's belief that they should be far more well-off in their golden years hanging over every bitter syllable.

It's a testament to Heinzerling's direction that Cutie and the Boxer feels at once un-crafted and like one of Ushio's canvases: a seemingly dismissible surface work that hides great deliberation and meaning in the overlapping patterns of its splatters. His camera picks up the nuanced color reactions in his subjects' relationship; soon, what began as a cute high-concept art movie becomes a bottomless box box of sadness and secrets that allows deeper insight into each artist's motives--which turn out to be no so pure in one case.

The film plays as though Ushio and Noriko decided on their own to employ camera and sound crews at what just so happened to be a crucial turning point in their lives. Yes, initially, the animated sequences felt a bit gimmicky, but they are key to understanding both artists--especially since each all but refuses to talk in detail about the past with each other (either out of embarrassment, anger, or a strong desire to forget--likely the trifecta). Composer Yasuaki Shimizu also deserves a lot of credit for perfectly underscoring the impact of these sad vignettes, masterfully sprinting down that fine line between emotional honesty and manipulation.

I can't recommend this film highly enough. Whatever you think of their art, there's no denying that the crown jewel of the Shinoharas' lives' work may be their relationship itself. Heinzerling becomes the couple's third collaborator, providing the finishing touch to four decades of turbulent sketching. Colorful, messy, and challenging to those who will never know the true depth of its context, Cutie and the Boxer transcends its medium to become something greater than a mix of personality, paint and celluloid.

Chicagoans! You can catch Cutie and the Boxer on the big screen, starting this Friday, at the Music Box Theatre on Southport.