There’s something gorgeous about a documentary on a notable art couple that can transcend not only their celebrity but also their art to offer a profoundly beautiful statement about the complexity of a long-lasting relationship. Cutie and the Boxer, by first-time director Zachary Heinzerling is that documentary. Noriko Shinohara met Ushio Shinohara when she was 20 and he was 40, way back sometime around 1972, after he had settled in New York City. She was an aspiring artist, and he had already achieved a degree of fame that would later merit documenting on film for a network television special in 1979.
Ushio made a name for himself as an aggressive, rowdy artist during an era when such attitudes actually made some in the establishment uncomfortable. He was punk before Malcolm McLaren was out of grammar school. In 1960s Tokyo, with a Mohawk cut, Ushio began painting large canvases by jabbing at them with boxing gloves dripping in paint. Though he never finished art school, he was quite inspired by Dada and co-founded an art group deemed “Neo Dada” (references).
Though he was once a notable figure, those times are now long past. Even though serious New York galleries, including the Guggenheim, show an interest in his work, Ushio can hardly sell his pieces. It’s a mix of the grotesque aspect of his work (he often hears, “I like it but it’s not my taste”), cumbersome product (a 20-foot long motorcycle/dinosaur made of cardboard) and plain laziness to do anything with the finished work. Meanwhile, Noriko continues to paint her cartoonish figures of Cutie and Bully in scenes inspired by her life with Ushio that never achieve exhibition.
Bringing some of Noriko’s paintings to life via minimal animation by Chris Monaco, the film reveals a rather troubling past for this couple. Despite his drunken ways, she falls for him not long after their first meeting. “He will change his ways,” she dreams. Even after they have a child together, he carries on with friends, drinking late into the night and waking up on the kitchen floor. Though at the time the film was shot, Ushio has quit his drinking ways (Noriko says it’s because he became allergic to alcohol in his later days, when he found himself gasping for breath after drinking), their son Alex, an aspiring artist himself, has also taken to drink. He first appears on camera for a heart-breaking moment to shuffle around in the background of his parent’s home to sneak a glass of wine. He guzzles it like water, his mother notes with frustration.
Lest you feel sorry for these people, stick with it, for the film culminates with a mutual exhibit that not only compliments the relationship, but invites a profound revelation. It is part bold, unfiltered film-making by Heinzerling and part self-actualization on the part of the couple. Despite some pretty, sentimental instrumental backing music by Yasuaki Shimizu, Heinzerling does little to romanticize these people. Least of all does he raise these people up as idols to aspire to. His complex portrait comes from a fearless candid quality that remains true to the relationship. He deservedly won the Directing Award at this year’s Sundance film festival (winners list) for a film with a transcendental quality rarely seen from young, first-time filmmakers.
Ushio’s art mattered once and now he cannot seem to find anything else to do but carry on expressing himself with it. At 80 years of age, his partying ways are long past him. He knows little about maintaining a home and pays overdue rent with whatever money he can sell his pieces for, though Noriko chides him to stop short-changing the value of his art.
In some ways these people cannot live without their art, but it’s Noriko who offers the next level of their existence together that should prove life-affirming to those who have ever experienced those precious, unique bumps in the road of a long-term relationship. The art becomes a mere prop to tell this story of a couple who have grown old together and cannot be without the other. It’s beyond romance, it’s their lot in life, and they make the best of it. It’s moving to see love break through despite the adversity this couple has been through. That it’s tied to Noriko’s belated success as an artist is a mere bonus. What matters is that such a thing can carry on not so much through compromise but a life-bond acceptance that these two people are so tightly wound together because they have found a place together.
Cutie and the Boxer runs 82 minutes and is rated R (for nude art images [eye roll], maturing teens will do well to see it). It’s currently opening in limited release across the U.S. (see some screening dates). It opened in South Florida at O Cinema in Miami this past Friday (see other dates). It will later make an appearance in Miami Beach at Miami Beach Cinematheque, starting Friday, Oct. 4.