Review: Cutie and the Boxer


Cutie and the Boxer

Are the sacrifices involved in making great art worthwhile? That's one of the questions posed by Cutie and the Boxer, the debut documentary from Zachary Heinzerling about two artists and how they work ... and how they live together as husband and wife, as they've done for nearly 40 years.

Ushio Shinohara is an internationally acclaimed artist whose "boxing" paintings and motorcycle-themed sculptures were considered an integral part of the Pop Art influence in Japan in the 1960s. Now it's the 2010s, and Ushio has been living in New York since at least 1970 -- that's when he met his wife, Noriko an aspiring artist more than 20 years his junior. Ushio has just turned 80, and the couple are living with their son in a small New York apartment that has seen better days, trying to figure out how to pay the rent and utilities.

The documentary doesn't rely on spoken or written narration to get us up to speed. The audience has to pay attention and learn who these people are, and where, and when, from watching them onscreen. This draws us closer into the lives of the Shinoharas.

As the documentary progresses, we watch both artists struggle with their work -- both from an artistic point of view, and as a way to earn the money they need. Ushio is the more fiery personality and the better-known artist, but the real creative joy I found in the film is watching Noriko's talent bloom.

Noriko is drawing a narrative based on her early relationship with Ushio, featuring two characters: Cutie and Bullie. The filmmakers animate her illustrations to recount the couple's history, which is often rocky and even violent. At the same time, the Cutie artwork is giving Noriko strength in many ways.

"The average one has to support the genius," Ushio says at the beginning of the film, when Noriko is assisting him with one of his boxing paintings. Cutie and the Boxer shows us that Noriko is far from average in many ways -- by the last scene of the film, a different dynamic prevails. Two art shows are covered in the movie, and lets the audience compare the changes in Noriko and Ushio's behavior between the two.

All I know about the Shinoharas, I learned from Cutie and the Boxer, so I have no idea how accurate a portrayal it is of the artists. Heinzerling manages to paint us his own picture, figuratively speaking, of a long-married couple and their often-prickly relationship dynamic, and how it works for them ... and it does seem to work for them, both emotionally and artistically.

The documentary unobtrusively and effectively lets us see how passion -- for better or worse -- affects art. You don't need to be an artist yourself -- or a spouse -- to find the portrayals in Cutie and the Boxer compelling.

Austin connections: Heinzerling is a graduate of The University of Texas in Austin.