Love is complicated, this much we know is true. But love is even more complicated, as Zachary Heinzerling’s brilliant new documentary “Cutie and the Boxer” illustrates, when the regular mechanics of romance (co-dependency, support, a nearly psychic transference of ideas and emotions) are housed within an artistic working relationship. Following the stratospheric ups and the depressive downs in the 40-year marriage and artistic collaboration between famed Japanese artist Ushio Shinohara and his wife, Noriko, “Cutie and the Boxer” delicately and playfully attempts to diagram how such a complex relationship functions (or doesn’t function). One of the most lively and emotionally resonant documentaries to debut this year, “Cutie and the Boxer” is a work of art in its own right.
Chances are, even if you don’t know Ushio Shinohara’s work outright, you’ve seen it before – his claim to fame was a series of jarring papier-mâché motorcycles with giant, growling faces and occasionally wild splashes of colors. (He would make these creations out of discarded cardboard he would find in various New York City dumpsters.) The other major series Shinohara is known, which gave the documentary its somewhat awkward title, is a sequence of paintings created by dipping boxing gloves into paint and then slamming them into large canvases. It’s a kind of Jackson Pollock-meets-Rocky Balboa aesthetic that is quite arresting, simultaneously both brilliant and profoundly stupid.
These are the two major paths Shinohara has gone down as an artist since making a very literal splash on the art world decades ago. What “Cutie and the Boxer” attempts to illuminate is Noriko’s involvement in Shinohara’s critical success and her own accomplishments as both an artist and a collaborator. This is accomplished in two ways – one, the movie documents their lives together as they live it today (the movie begins on his 80th birthday). They reside in a crummy apartment downtown overstuffed with junk, living closer to squalor than any artist who has flirted with global notoriety ever should. The camera placidly observes as she serves him food while he grumbles or shoves it into his mouth. She stands up for herself, and contributes not only to the day-to-day running of the house but in the larger artistic actions that involve his work. But you can’t help but feel her being marginalized, shoved into the corners of his rowdy world.
The other way that Noriko’s story is illuminated is very literal – she is working on a series of biographical illustrations charting her relationship with Ushio. Heinzerling, picking up on the almost cartoonish look of these illustrations (which are just as beautiful and profound as anything Ushio has come up with), the filmmaker has decided to animate the illustrations. These illustration sequences make up a large portion of the movie – a heartbreaking biographical aside that makes you appreciate her work (to this day), even more. Almost everything is covered – how, at age 19, Noriko moved to New York City and was both charmed and scammed by the markedly older Ushio. She ended up paying for many things – and in return she was able to luxuriate in the company of an artist who had always banked on international acclaim and stardom, something that was flirted with but never quite realized. Her parents cut her off, she became pregnant with his child, and was stuck, forced to make excuses for his abuse and alcoholism (he’s been clean for years because his body can no longer process it), all the while contributing to his work without ever getting the recognition she so deserves.
As “Cutie and the Boxer” unfolds, a gallery show of Ushio’s work is being readied for a downtown New York exhibition. But as the curator walks through their apartment, Noriko shows him some of her work too and the decision is made that a section of the exhibit will be devoted to her “Cutie” series (Cutie is her alter ego in the illustrations). Ushio gets worked up and fumes, storming around and attempting to create some bold new art. Noriko works placidly, digging deep into her own tortured personal history to come up with something gorgeous and unique. When the show is finally exhibited, her room, without a single snarling motorcycle or bruised-up canvas, is clearly the one people are drawn to – the simple personal story, gingerly drawn, of a woman who fell in love with a deeply troubled artist, and never became untangled.
For all of the fascinating art world flourishes crammed into this documentary (a woman from the Guggenheim takes a look at his work in one hilarious passage, and their art world agent is a caricature of such a professional), “Cutie and the Boxer” is really a story about love. There is no doubt, for even a moment, that these two love each other (even when Ushio grumbles that he is clearly the artistic genius of the couple), and that their decades-long relationship is one of deep understanding and caring. But the animated passages show a kind of alternate universe, one in which Noriko, freed from the burden of propping up not only Ushio and his artistic empire but also their son (who is now struggling with alcoholism just like his father), could have been free to be her own creator. Could she have gone on to reach the kind of widespread global acclaim that he so desperately dreamed of? Could she still?
As a documentary and a love story, “Cutie and the Boxer” is nothing short of breathtaking. There’s a nimbleness to the storytelling that always keeps you involved, including a small stretch comprised of archival footage of Ushio’s early days when he still was something of a sensation, and an emotional core that most documentaries sidestep entirely. It’s not mushy but it is resonantly heartfelt. At the end of the day, the couple’s relationship, clearly, is their greatest collaborative effort. [A]