By filmmaker Zachary Heinzerling
Reviewed by Karen Henry
Touching. Thought-provoking. The documentary Cutie and the Boxer weaves the struggles of modern artists with a portrayal of one talented, elderly New York couple. Within the film, issues of women’s subservience, art versus commerce, poverty, and alcoholism are all exposed.
The story is revealed as we observe the artists in their studios, and while we watch, the film’s themes gradually become apparent. The ‘boxer’ is renowned neo-Dadaist painter and sculptor Ushio Shinohara, who vividly applies paint to canvas with boxing gloves. He is a physical Jackson Pollock who also applies this aesthetic to his sculpture, which often takes the form of abstract motorcycles molded from discarded cardboard.
Ushio emigrated to New York from Japan in the 1960s to become part of the neo-Dada art scene there. When he was 40, he met Japanese art student Noriko who at 19 became his disciple, partner, and assistant. Ushio was a domineering personality who like to drink to excess. When Noriko gave birth to their child, her own artistic expression ended up on the backburner.
For the ensuing 40 years, Noriko supported and endured Ushio, who today, at the age of 80, is still an inspired and highly physical artist, still boxing his canvasses, still creating larger-than-life motorcycle sculptures, and still carting them around the world in hopes of a sale or two. Recently, Noriko quietly decided to create her own art form, drawing a graceful story pictorial of their relationship, titled Cutie and the Bully. Her illustrations allow her to relay her story of dedicated endurance and seem to provide an emotional outlet from her loving yet turbulent marriage.
Not surprisingly, art critics took notice of her work as well as his, comparing the couple to Pollock and Lee Krasner, and granting them a double art opening at hpgrp gallery in New York in 2010. Two thumbs up for this beautiful film, which won Best Directing of a US Documentary in 2013 at Sundance and will be presented as part of the Sundance Institute’s inaugural NEXT SUNDAY screenings at the Hammer Museum in Westwood on August 11. Cutie and the Boxer will have theatrical release starting August 16.