Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Cutie and the Boxer

Director Zachary Heinzerling packs a lot of meat into his 82-minute directing debut, the biographical documentary “Cutie and the Boxer,” about the Japanese action painter Ushio Shinohara and his wife Noriko, herself an accomplished illustrator eager for her share of the spotlight.

Ushio, who immigrated from Tokyo to New York in the sixties, had his 15 minutes of fame in the early 70’s (there’s a clip of him and Andy Warhol posing beside one of the pop artist’s famed soup cans) with his boxing paintings, made by punching the canvas from right to left for a minute or two with oversize paint-covered boxing gloves. When the hard-drinking Ushio met the pretty Noriko, over twenty years his junior, soon after her arrival in New York, he asked her to live with him, promising studio space and entrée into the art world in exchange for the stipend checks her parents sent her from Japan.

For the past forty years, Noriko has served as Ushio’s unpaid assistant, archivist, and agent. She liaises with the museums, who tend to want Ushio’s early works (in one scene, a Guggenheim official asks about a large piece that had appeared in Art in America; Noriko takes her out of Ushio’s earshot and explains that he gave that piece to a friend while drunk), and the galleries, who hope to sell his new, more sculptural stuff (including a gigantic motorcycle constructed of cardboard). To the traditional Ushio, this is as it should be (“The average one serves the genius”). All the while, Noriko – a feminist who quotes Virginia Woolf’s prescription that all a woman artist needs is a little money and a room of her own - has been creating her own brilliant series of drawings entitled “Cutie and Bullie,” about the disenchantments of her marriage to Ushio. (She offers a dense-looking interviewer the perfect analogy of two flowers in one pot, fighting for the same nutrients and sunlight.) 

Heinzerling offers a lot to chew on here: a rich portrayal of a uniquely symbiotic relationship; a look at the harsh reality of commerce at the low end of high art, when the limelight has faded and pieces must be sold at steep discounts to keep the rent paid and the utilities on; some beautifully framed cityscapes; and a couple of painful glimpses at Ushio’s and Noriko’s son Alex, often an afterthought in his youth, who has inherited some of his father’s artistic talent and, unfortunately, all of his alcoholism (in one scene, he sneaks away from the dinner table to raid the fridge for wine, which he chugs like water). The film closes with a joint exhibition by Ushio and Noriko – she finally gets that room of her own – and, though he claims not to like being one half of an important artist couple, I believe Ushio does finally realize that, as Noriko tells the gallerist, “There is more than one artist in this house!”

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