Film Review – Cutie and the Boxer
Cutie and the Boxer
Cutie and the Boxer is an observation about the lives of Noriko and Ushio Shinohara, two Japanese-American artists who have been married for forty years. They share an intensity for expressing themselves creatively and want to share this with the world. From Woody Allen‘s writer characters in almost every film to Fellini’s self-portrait in 8 ½, artists in film have a proud heritage. Yet in looking at the artists in this documentary, though the lifestyle and passion is clear, the sense of who they are as individuals is still a mystery.
Ushio is the elder and more established of the two. He has made a career out of boxing paint onto a canvas and making motorcycles out of cardboard with bizarre figures on them. Noriko is younger than her husband by nineteen years, and has always taken a backseat to him. She has, however, found time to paint over the years, but is now channeling her work into a graphic novel that looks at her life with her husband, titled Cutie and Bullie.
Both are devoted to art beyond anything else, which makes for tension between them, but also an understanding of what they want from life. Noriko acts like an assistant to Ushio in many ways, and Ushio considers her a lesser talent. For Ushio, it is only art that matters, and the intensity in that belief defines much of what he does. Noriko is similar, but she also sees more clearly that being devoted to art above all else has brought with it problems, including an unstable home life (Ushio was a drinker for years and left them struggling financially their whole lives).
In observing his subjects, director Zachary Heinzerling has a fly on the wall approach. He watches them at work or just being at home, having voiceovers fill in some of the details on what they are thinking. Later, he intermixes the scenes with Noriko Shinohara’s drawings of Cutie and Bullie in animated form, as well as showing the two artists’ early years, with old home movies and news reports. This approach works well in terms of the pacing and getting across what the years together have done to these two, for better and worse.
Yet Heinzerling also gets claustrophobic with the camera. He uses close-ups with too much regularity and takes time for random scenes of walking and swimming with no voiceover, so little is learned from them. The overall time spent with these two subjects leaves a sense that we have just scratched the surface. Most of what we see simply reinforces that which we already have a sense of as far as who these two are, even if it is well done.
Looking at their two faces, Ushio and Noriko both convey the sense of tiredness in dealing with the world they have chosen. Yet the film also shows that they are entrenched in their work. The love that is still there is both between them and with their art. We mix these moments with the mundane, like washing the cat and making dinner, so that we have a full picture of their lives; yet, in the end, there is little to really think over and chew on. While we see that art and being together has cost them a lot, both make it clear that they would do it again. It leaves you wanting to see more of why that is. There is a wonderful sequence of Ushio in a home movie that gets into the tortured aspects of being an artist. The animation of Cutie and Bullie does the same for Noriko, really getting into her head and showing the demons of her past. We also get small nuggets about their child’s life. But these end up being teases that give us some, but not all, of the story.
Heinzerling’s composition is strong as far as getting into the day-to-day life of these two artistic people, but the full-on, in-depth look is just out of reach. It feels like glimpses into their life that, while interesting, are just glimpses. We are left wanting more.