Cutie and the Boxer examines artists' decades-long relationship
A documentary by Zachary Heinzerling. In English and Japanese with English subtitles. Unrated. Opens Friday, November 1, at the Vancity Theatre
Few documentaries have the powerful intimacy and uniquely confident storytelling structure of Cutie and the Boxer. A first directing effort for young Zachary Heinzerling, it examines the four-decade relationship of artists Noriko and Ushio Shinohara.
Born in Japan 21 years apart, they met in New York, where he was a rising pop-art star in Andy Warhol’s orbit. Now Ushio is 80—wiry, white-haired, and still stripping down to shorts to don boxing gloves with paint-dipped sponges attached to create the action paintings for which he is best known. He also makes cardboard sculptures of motorcycles and dinosaurs, often dipped in fluorescent colours, in their massive, if dilapidated, Brooklyn loft.
Still sweet-faced at 59, Noriko is just beginning to emerge from her husband’s shadow, mainly through comix-style drawings of herself—called Cutie and usually depicted naked, in pigtails—struggling with an alcoholic partner (mis-)named Bullie. As we see in remarkable archival footage, the now-sober Ushio battled the bottle for years while Noriko kept house and raised their U.S.-born son. The now-grown lad, also a sometime painter, appears to be severely damaged by the experience, and you have to wonder why he says so little on-camera.
The unobtrusive Heinzerling leaves it to viewers to interpret the gender politics, the value of their art, and why they have remained so impoverished. (A visit from a Guggenheim rep confirms, somewhat comically, Ushio’s tenuous but resilient standing in the fine-art world.) The beautifully designed and surprisingly good-humoured film also benefits from an unusually striking musical score from Japanese composer Yasuaki Shimizu.