Zachary Heinzerling’s documentary debut may not pack the political punch of most trending hard-issue docs, but Cutie and the Boxer holds its own with a fervid story of enduring the anguish of living with love and art. While becoming friends and living with the eccentric, acclaimed action artist Ushio Shinohara and his talented and loyal wife, Noriko, Heinzerling discovered a very tragic love story within their dedication to the lifestyle of married artists. Despite reasonable notoriety within the art world and fame back in his homeland of Japan, Ushio has remained a struggling New York artist, dragging Noriko and their son through years of alcoholism and noncommercial production. Thanks to their playful sense of humor and a great appreciation for the unique lives they’ve led, the Shinoharas’ tale is a hilarious and heart-wrenching journey of long lasting marriage and necessity for creative output.
Ushio and Noriko live in a modest apartment in NYC, but the majority of their time is spent in their cavernous art studio in which they’ve stowed away unsold work from over the years like imaginative squirrels awaiting the perfect day to draw them out. They’ve been there for decades, painting and constructing in parallel since they first met each other. Heinzerling finds them in their golden years, but they remain in youthful spirit, playfully insulting each other as a deep bedrock of love and respect lays under the surface. Ushio still strips down to boxing shorts and straps on goggles and gloves to punch out large scale paintings while Noriko stews in her own nook of the studio, carefully illustrating a highly personal tragi-comic based on her life with her sometimes unappreciative husband. She’s been the key parent to their son, the reliable one, who’s work remains largely unnoticed by the public because of her immense personal sacrifices for her family.
There is a disconnect between Ushio and Noriko’s chosen mediums. Ushio acts within the physicality of his creativity, instinctively punching out pieces or hastily swathing sculptures, while Noriko on the other hand, uses her artwork to emote, resolutely laying out her life in a subtle, but funny palette of greys. While a representative from the Guggenheim visits to scope out a potential purchase for their permanent collection, Noriko’s work is completely overlooked, and when a friendly gallery owner suggests having a show of Ushio’s newest work, Noriko has to press him to consider showing her’s as well. Not long after, for the first time in their lives, they found themselves preparing a joint exhibition, publicly in juxtaposition of not only each other’s aesthetic preferences, but their fundamental artistic ideology.
The vast majority of our time with the Shinoharas takes place in the present, but Heinzerling employs sprinklings of archival footage of Ushio from his peak of notoriety, as well as intimate home video snippets that flesh out their history together. He pairs these with beautifully adapted animations of Noriko’s Cutie series to give depth to their relationship, highlighting the many struggles they’ve endured. In these clips, Ushio’s bout with alcohol is laid bare, and the challenges of parenting under such circumstances become increasingly evident. There is an underlying theme of generational transmission in both artistic ability (Ushio’s parents were involved with art and his own son is a talented painter in his own right) and alcoholism (his son appears several times throughout the film, almost always intoxicated or well on his way), once again dabbling in darker subject matter than the overall film really feels.
Finding a perfect balance between the gravity of substance abuse, the comedy that propagates from the Shinoharas, and the love that binds them together, this debut docu-feature sets the bar high for non-fiction character studies early this year. With dazzling vérité images that captures the authenticity of this vivacious couple, Cutie and the Boxer has beaten a traditional telling of the tortured artist into a beautiful reconnaissance of what it means to be invested in relationships and how they can transform a person not only as a partner in life, but also in art. Keep a watchful eye on Zachary Heinzerling. He’s one to watch.
Reviewed on January 23rd at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival – US DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION Programme. 81 Min