Cutie and the Boxer — Honest Portrait of Marriage and Artistry

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Zachary Heinzerling’s 80 minute debut documentary titled “Cutie and the Boxer” (2013) talks eloquently about love, marriage and art than a full length feature movie. Despite the movie’s eccentric subject matters, it can easily connect with anyone, who has sacrificed his/her creative vision for the sake of paying bills or with anyone who has struggled with a long term relationship. The subject matters of this documentary are Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, two artists, who met and married in the 1970’s after emigrating from Japan. This is the most unsentimental portrayal about marriage and it adds weight to the proverb: “Whatever you can survive will ultimately make you stronger.”

The documentary starts with Ushio celebrating his 80th birthday. He then gets ready with boxing gloves, like Jake la Motta. But, Ushio isn’t going to fight; he rather unleashes his artistic vigor by dipping his gloves inside brightly colored paints and punches his way through the wall to make a huge canvas that creates an explosion of imagery and color in real time. Ushio is also famous for making huge colorful sculptures of motorcycles (part of neo-Dadaist sculptures). However, this robust, energetic and often shirtless man is not the centre of attention, since the real artist, whom seems to be behind this energy is Noriko, Shinohara’s wife of 40 years.

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Noriko, 21 years younger than Ushio, is a comic-book artist, who has sacrificed her artistic endeavors for the sake of family. Fiscally, the Shinohara’s are suffering. They roofs are leaking and they are due for rent. Ushio brushes away the money concerns by saying that he would find some way to pay the bills. He further tells to Noriko, “The average one has to support the genius.” Through archival Television footage, we get to know that the Ushio has once been (around 1969) a rising star in the art world. He charmed the 19 year old Noriko with his wit and ultra-masculine approach to art. They got married in 1970 and have a son named Alex. Although, hailed by art critics of those times, Ushio never capitalized on his talents. He became an alcoholic, leaving Noriko to raise their son. To Noriko’s dismay, Alex, has now turned out be an alcoholic too (Noriko: “I felt guilty that I didn’t give my son a proper environment to grow up in with drunken adults hanging around him all the time.”).

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In the present day, Guggenheim Museum curator Alexandra Munroe trying to acquire one of Ushio’s boxing pieces, but still the couples live in a near poverty, looking for an art opening to make the next rent payment. Noriko also speaks of her struggles of being married to a man whose ego has long dominated her career. Noriko, now in her free time uses her paintings to depict her life with Ushio. Her new personification is named ‘Cutie’ and Ushio Ushio’s takes the name of ‘Bullie.’ Her pent-up emotions begin to flow through these paintings. ‘Cutie’ has the perky braids of Noriko, but unlike her, Cutie is fierce in the battles with her nemesis, Bullie.

Heinzerling, who has spent almost five years, on and off, shooting footage of the Shinoharas brings close the domestic intimacy, squabbling and hurt feelings of a old couple. He also slowly reveals the long-submerged rift between the couples. In one of the conversations, the forceful Ushio dismisses Steven Spielberg’s last Indiana Jones as trash and claims every artist makes his or her best work when young. Noriko catches him, asking “So why (do you) continue?” for which he has no answer.

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Heinzerling ignores to show Ushio’s fame, either in America or in his native Japan, mainly to help us understand how a talented man could eclipse and feed off from his wife’s talent. However, by the ending, Noriko begins to reckon the fact that he’s no longer the only name artist in the family. After getting a great attention for her paintings, Ushio, later at home, asks her, “Whether Cutie hates Bullie.” “Oh no, Cutie loves Bullie so much” replies Noriko. Shinohara’s rooms may be filled with splattered canvases, but in the end Herinzerling tells us that, their success, joy or failure and disappointment are universal themes within a relationship.

“Cutie and the Boxer” shows how the life of an artistic couple is harsh and hints that there is collateral damage to all this energy and creativity.

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