By: Henry J. Fromage (Three Beers) –
Cutie and the Boxer was a bit of a surprising pick for the 2014 Oscar Best Documentary Feature race, but critics have been hailing it for most of the year. Of course, this has been one hell of a year for documentary film.
Ummm… for the most part.
It’s about Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, two avant garde artists who have been struggling to make ends meet with their art in New York City for the duration of their 40 year marriage. Now, just as Ushio turns 80, he’s getting a bit more exposure, and Noriko is emerging from beneath his shadow as a serious artist in her own right.
First-time director Zachary Heinzerling, besides shooting and directing one of the best-looking documentaries of the year, found a very interesting subject in these two artists. This documentary touches on everything from the struggles and pain of making a living as an artist to the ravages of alcoholism on current and successive generations to the trials and tribulations of a long-term marriage, all filtered through the unique perspective of these two highly creative individuals.
Ushio, as you may have guessed, is The Boxer
Heinzerling keeps things interesting by pulling together an array of secondary sources, from home video to what must be recreations to Noriko’s bizarre Cutie cartoons brought to life via animation, all set to a beautiful jazz-infused score by Yasuaki Shimizu.
What I found most interesting about the film, though, was the question of why these artists never found success, or were at least able to make a stable living after so long devoted to their art and so established a reputation. One interaction in particular in the film gives a peek perhaps as to why- when a representative of the Guggenheim comes to check out Ushio’s work for a possible purchase, the way she treats them makes it clear that she doesn’t see people, or artists even- she sees commodities first and foremost. Like another documentary nominee this year, 20 Feet from Stardom, Cutie and the Boxer make it clear that even in art, money is the first concern.
Noriko’s traditional Japanese-inspired comic pop art is interesting to behold, but it becomes perhaps a bit too strange when animated, and the animated interludes are pretty frequent.
If these popped up in your dreams, I think it would be safe to call them nightmares
The film is a bit meandering at times, but at 82 minutes, you can’t complain too much there. A greater concern is how the film feels a bit more massaged at points than you’d like a documentary to be. One scene intercutting their young son taking a bath by himself and them getting drunk with friends in another room is either a recreation or clever use of two different home videos, but regardless produces a message that is more than a sum of its parts- a bit of a no-no in my book when it comes to non-fiction. Also, you have to wonder a bit why after 40 years, it’s now, when the documentary crew is here, that Noriko gets her big art break.
While not without a few narrative concerns, this documentary is a moving, gorgeously rendered, and interesting look not only at two intriguing artists, but at what exactly it means to give your life to art.
Take a Drink: whenever insults get tossed around
Take a Drink: when it’s artin’ time
Take a Drink: whenever poverty rears its head
Take a Drink: for the cat
Take a Drink: ROAR!
Do a Shot: for the ugliness of alcoholism (fuck, this is inappropriate, eh?)