Cutie and the Boxer opens with a lengthy one-take shot of 80-year-old neo-Dada visual artist Ushio Shinohara creating one of his famous 'boxing' works. He takes boxing gloves, dips them in paint, and repeatedly bashes the wall sized canvas, working from right to left, rendering the work 'complete' in just over two minutes. To the side is his wife, Noriko, who offers gentle encouragement. How Noriko participates in this process gently becomes the tension that ties this surprisingly intimate enterprise together. Ushio 'jokingly' refers to his wife as his assistant. Noriko says she is not. Her role is much more important.
There's a lot to rave about in this carefully structured film by Zachary Heinzerling. What starts as a film about art quickly becomes about a marriage. The intimacy he manages to find with his two unique and compelling stars is remarkable. Here is a forty-year marriage with enough luggage to make Chekhov blush with envy. The resentment, jealousy, loyalty and unconditional love they feel for each other is put front and centre. It's exactly what documentary should be, a surprising and revealing look into humanity.
All of that aside, it also serves as a compelling comment on art. Here's Ushio, living in New York City, celebrated as an important voice in the wave of Dadaism and artistic ideals that sprung out of the 60's and 70's. This idealism was mirrored in Noriko, and it's this world-view that has been a large influence upon their current situation: struggling to meet the rent, desperately monkey-swinging from exhibition to commission to try and hold themselves together. It's a process that is replicated, romantically, by thousands of arts graduates every year. The fact that Heinzerling, Ushio and Noriko still manage to make it look romantic, when both artists are pensioners, may say something more about us as artists than their relationship.
The supporting cast are few, but the most memorable additions are Ushio's American art agent, and a representative of the Guggenheim. Both seem unreal, like characters out of a Woody Allen film. It's through them that we see how ridiculous the Western capitalisation of contemporary art (especially, of all things, Dadaism) has become. They talk with cartoon like idiocy on Ushio's work. His agent remarks at one point: 'It's so brilliant, because he doesn't think. And you can see that. It's brilliant.'
The commercial value of Ushio and Noriko's art is a matter for subjective debate, of course. The idea that either want to be rich or successful seems to go against their core values, not only as artists, but as humans. Cuite and the Boxer hi-lights this fundamental contradiction. We want to make art, but we need money to survive. This is the internal dilemma of every artist that usual provides a life-long struggle. It certainly is for Ushio and Noriko. Regardless, both are skilled and beautiful practitioners.
The film is made all the more affecting with its rejection sentimentality. It doesn't linger on the profound, or attempt to capture anything other than these two people in their natural state. As such, it's left a deep impression. It more than deserves the Oscar nom. If you're an artist, see it.