Cutie And The Boxer Reviews
Directed, shot and co-produced by Zachary Heinzerling...and full disclosure, co-produced by a friend of mine for 25 years, Lydia Dean Pilcher, CUTIE AND THE BOXER is a strange hybrid of a documentary, playing more like a stunningly shot feature film but with the layers and hard truths of the best real-life portraits. Despite my existing relationship with the producer, I have no trouble in being honest and objective here.
It's ostensibly the story of 80-year-old struggling artist, Ushio Shinohara, who paints like a man 1/4 his age. Best known for his "Boxer" works, in which he dons boxing gloves, dips them in paint and punches the hell out of a giant canvas, Ushio is a larger-than-life personality whose drive for success is singular and focused. There's a LOT of ego packed into such a tiny frame.
His marriage to Noriko Sinohara, a woman 20 years his junior, however, overwhelms any singular examination of Ushio and his work. Relegated to second banana most of her life, but a wonderful artist in her own right, Noriko discovers her voice over the course of the film. Her "CUTIE" works depict her alter-ego, a nude, pig-tailed young girl who finds her way through a crazy world. It's a classic A STAR IS BORN story, with Ushio's star fading while Noriko's is on the rise. Unwilling or unable to cede the spotlight to a woman he's treated more like a secretary, Ushio does everything in his powers to hold onto his place in the art world.
It's a well-matched fight, complete with an always- compelling amount of bickering, quiet moments of, not so much love, as respect and tolerance. In a world of singular-minded self-involvement, the film gently asks you to contemplate a place for love in it. Heinzerling asks a lot of his audience. Always "on", Ushio is a tough read. Instead of showing his true self, he performs through much of the film. Late in the game, however, Heinzerling stuns us with archival footage which completely changes our view of this passionate yet tortured soul.
This is a hybrid film with its lovely animated sequences and beautifully composed shots. The title sequence is one unbroken shot of Ushio creating one of his works, and the use of sound makes it quite a visceral experience. This is a film that is fully alive and in tune with its subjects. Ushio is the loud "Roar" while Noriko is the quiet, stealthy sleeper. The last images of two people boxing is a great capper to what comes before.
This is a complicated film, not easy to sum up with pithy descriptions. It seems simple on the surface, yet it stuck with me long after the end credits rolled. The journey of an artist is something I hold near and dear to my heart. I can relate to Ushio's determination, while at the same time marvel at Noriko's inspiring discoveries. Is there a way for two talented artists to co-exist? After all of their decades of marriage, one would think there is, but the war just beneath the surface of this smart, fascinating, compelling film makes you wonder.
My favorite part of the film is the slow motion paint-ladened boxing match between the couple at the end of the film. There's something so poetic about this sequence and really ties the film together, grounding it in the beauty and messiness of art. Acclaimed at last year's Sundance and recognized as a nominee at the 86th Academy Awards, "Cutie And The Boxer" sets out to present something unique by way of the couple's art but their personal struggles end up front and center. At a short 82 minutes long and designed as more of a character study, this couple and their squabbles are tolerable in small doses. You wonder why the couple is still together, but then you realize a universal truth about relationships and the struggles of human nature and monogamy, no matter how much you love someone, you are never going to get along with them all the time. This is summed up by an innocent conversation between the two regarding their pseudo-characters in Noriko's paintings: "Cutie hates Bullie?" "No, Cutie loves Bullie so much."
Beautiful and sweet, Cutie and the Boxer is a powerful story about love even when love is difficult. It's nothing that will change your life, but if you're looking for an uplifting documentary and a story about romance in old age, this might be the one for you.
"Cutie and the Boxer" is a fascinating fly-on-the-wall documentary that chooses one married couple as a means of answering those very questions. Noriko and Ushio Shinohara are a Japanese couple who have been married for 40 years. They aren't quite equals. He's an abstract artist who hasn't exactly made himself a household name. Noriko seems to function, more or less, as a dutiful housewife. She cooks, she cleans and she complains about his expensive trips to show off art that don't yield much money. He throws off her complains with "Hey, it's something."
Ushio's art - which he creates by punching a canvas with paint-dipped boxing gloves - is popular but, he admits, nothing that anyone really wants to buy (watching him create the piece is more fun than the actual result). He also sculpts large grotesque and colorful sculptures of motorcycles that look cool in a museum but aren't anything that anyone wants in their home.
Noriko exists, more or less, off in the corner of Ushio's life. She tolerates his attempts to supplement a living making art that no one will pay money for. Oh, he makes a little, but we can see that his meager income has forced them into a cramped living space in Brooklyn, with spaces filled by his art and other assorted clutter. She complains about the cost, then later he comes home and slaps money on the table with a "so there" satisfaction.
The most wonderful thing about "Cutie and the Boxer" is the way in which it simply leaves us alone to observe Noriko and Ushio. This is a movie completely devoid of talking heads. We learn about them through their experience with each other and some flashback information that shows us how they met that gives us a template of how they got where they are. They met in New York City, in 1969. Noriko was a 19 year old art student; Ushio was 40 and making avant-garde art. It was a good plan but then real life burst in the door. They got married and circumstances forced her to be housewife and supporter of a struggling artist who would spend the next 40 years in a state of professional stalemate.
Presently, we see Noriko struggling to recapture her dream, drawing a series of cartoons called "Cutie and Bullie" which depict her life with Noriko through cherubic characters that are half-autobiographical and half-pornographic. Their bond is touching, but we wonder what keeps them going. As the movie opens, they have cake together Ushio woofs it down and gets frosting on his face. Noriko tells him to wipe it off but he ignores her. "I don't listen to you," he tells her. "That is how I stay young."
It is that kind of connective resistance that keeps them together. They are contentious, combative, competitive, yet somehow strangely affectionate. There are moments that the camera captures that no screenwriter could invent. Take a moment late in the film when Ushio finishes one of his paintings. He asks Noriko what she thinks. "It's not good", she says. Then the camera lingers on Ushio's face, he's hurt and a little upset, but he never tells his wife. The scene shifts to sometime later and we can still see the pain on his face.
Their competitive nature exists all through their marriage. That's especially true at they draw to an upcoming art exhibition in a New York gallery in which they will both be showing off their work. "Art is a demon that drags you along," Ushio says. "It's something you can't stop even if you should." What he doesn't admit is that their respective artistic visions are the glue that binds their marriage together.