Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—Cutie and the Boxer (2013) ****

R, 82 min.
Director/Writer: Zachary Heinzerling
Featuring: Noriko Shinohara, Ushio Shinohara, Alex Shinohara

One of the 2014 Oscar nominees for Feature Documentary, “Cutie and the Boxer” is a surprising grand romance. It tells the story of the 40-year relationship between Ushio Shinohara, the well known if under appreciated “boxing” artist, and his wife Noriko. Ushio became famous in Japan for his unique radical style of painting, which involved donning boxing gloves with sponges tied to the fists and punching his paint onto the canvas. Ushio immigrated to the United States to try his wares in New York City. Adding cardboard-based sculpturing to his repertoire, the reputation of his unique style was well known in the art world, but he never had much luck with sales.

Noriko’s story is told through her own artistic creation, a line art character she calls Cutie and her lover Bullie. The characters are obviously autobiographical and have only recently come to light, as Noriko spent much of her life serving Ushio as his assistant. She came to New York to study art and met Ushio, who is an alcoholic. Between his drinking binges and using Noriko for her family’s money, Ushio was a difficult man to live with. After the birth of a child, Noriko put her dreams on hold to try to raise the boy as best she could in an environment of drinking and philosophizing artists that was not very family friendly.

Studying the couple today, filmmaker Zachary Heinzerling, has discovered two artists who have been through battle together, pretty much with each other, but they’ve settled into their lives of near poverty conditions, trying to make rent and keep the lights on while scrounging to find exhibitors and buyers for Ushio’s work. The main event of the film is a new exhibit in which Noriko will finally show her work along with Ushio’s. This newfound attention gives Noriko an independence she’s never had the freedom to experience but has always dreamed of. The couple is seasoned, so despite the changing roles, their love stays strong.

As it began, the film seemed a fine portrait of these two people, but nothing special. As the events build, however, Heinzerling takes us deeper into their actual artwork and their story becomes richer, as does their turbulent but solid love for each other. I liked her artwork better than his, although his sculptures are quite amazing. Watching him work is one of the more fascinating elements of the movie. Seeing how he judges himself as he works his paintings, which seem random at first, is a window into what it is to be a tortured artist.

It is perhaps their son who is the most tortured, however. We see him twice. The first time he seems to have showed up just to get drunk on his parents’ wine. The second time he shows the filmmakers a couple of his own paintings. They are the best of the bunch.

“Cutie and the Boxer” begins like a good but fairly standard documentary, featuring a subject that is possibly more important to the filmmaker than the audience. However, Heinzerling does such a good job in painting his own portrait of these two artists that when all is said and done, we’ve forgotten that we were even watching a documentary. It blossoms into this wonderful love story between two people who have fought through a life together, most of it on his terms, but in their twilight years they’ve found a way to balance the relationship. It’s truly a wonderful picture.

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