Directed by: Zachary Heinzerling.
Cutie and Boxer belongs in a category with many recent documentaries about artists – like Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry or Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present (among many others) in that it offers an insight into the work of an important contemporary artist. But Cutie and the Boxer is also somewhat different as well. Because while Ushio Shinohara is acknowledged as important by many in the art world – he has no trouble getting numerous gallery shows, and even has the Guggeinheim interested in purchasing his work – simply being acknowledged as important has not translated into many recent sales. He and his wife Noriko can barely pay their rent. And Noriko herself makes the documentary different as well – she’s an artist in her own right, but a much less celebrated one. She has been working on the story of her life with Ushio through art – which is not an overly flattering picture of Ushio – but fewer people seem to care. Ushio himself refers to her as “just his assistant” when it comes to her art – and says “the average one has to help the genius”. When he says that, you understand why her art doesn’t paint an overly flattering picture of him. Cutie and the Boxer ends up being a rare artist centric documentary – one that isn’t just in awe of the artist at its center. It is also a portrait of real working artists – the ones who live for months on not very much money, and have to sell what they produce.
Watching the movie I came to understand two things about Ushio Shinohara’s art – one the reason why it is considered important, and two, why it doesn’t really sell that well. He seems to specialize in two different kinds of art. He “paints” with boxing gloves, which he dips into paint, and then punches his wall sized canvases, moving from right to left. There is an undeniable energy to the art – and yet, it is also impossible to deny that all the painting look pretty much the same – the only variation being the colors. He has been at this for 50 years. The paintings are striking – and yet I also understand why no one would buy them. Would you want a wall sized canvas with a punch of boxing glove sized punches in paint on them? Where would you hang such a painting? And is it something you would want to look at every day? His other art are sculptures, of all sizes ranging from huge to quite small – almost all of which seem to be of demented motorcycles. The same question remains about them – would you want one of these in your house? What the hell would you do with it? It’s admirable that Shinohara has stuck with his art for so long. He almost certainly could produce more commercial art – but he has his vision, and he’s sticking to it, consequences be damned.
Noriko’s story is even more fascinating than her husband’s. She is 20 years younger than he is, and when she moved to New York, from Japan, as an impressionable 19 year old woman she was immediately drawn to Ushio and his art – was flattered by the attention, and quickly fell in love with him. Now, 40 years later, you can tell she still loves Ushio – but that love has been tempered a little bit. He was a drunk for most of his life – was not a very good provider or father to their son, who seems to be struggling with the same issues his father did in what little time we see him. Her own art is very different from her husbands – and could make a beautiful graphic novel if that’s the direction she wanted to go with it. Even if Ushio seems to be dismissive of her work, he doesn’t seem to mind that she portrays him as a drunken brute in it. He knows who he was.
Ultimately what emerges is a portrait of a complex marriage – one in which both partners love each other, support each other, are competitive with each other, and even at times are jealous of each other. Their marriage has not been one long, happy run – but it has survived. It reminded me of a way of the answer George Harrison’s widow gives in the Martin Scorsese documentary on the former Beatle: When asked what the secret of a long marriage is, she answered simply: “Not getting divorced”. It was true in that documentary, and it’s true here as well. It has not been an easy life or marriage for either Ushio or Noriko – but they haven’t gotten divorced yet.