Generally, movies teach us about love through the lens of intense emotions. It is a sequence of dreams that crave a happy ending. It is ever young, even if only at heart. But when the story is told through the vantage of long-fought experience, the depth that memories provide to love stories remove allusions of longing. Instead, they offer something a bit more bare bones than fairytale. The plot does not ask if it is romance. In fact, it does not aim to speculate. Instead, it positions its audience to be mesmerized by reality. And from that shift in perspective comes the appreciation of love's inner beauty, or the debate around it.
"Cutie and the Boxer" is such a story. Narrated by one partner, revealing the tapestry of the other. Structured within a crowded, rundown Brooklyn apartment were tension sparks and affection is nuanced, this is a story about sacrifice and the perceptions around it. And the way in which some paints plummet into a canvas only to convulse and collide with itself before splattering on the floor, while others glide and trace before distilling in water.
It is rare with documentary that an evocative narrative on love, be it a sobered one, as in this case, can dazzle the screen. But that is what makes Zachary Heinzerling's debut as film director so welcoming. "If I were to make another documentary, it would be really hard to do something like this, because you can't readily find that [chemistry],"he suggests acknowledging the inherit wonder that chases through the story. With "Cutie and the Boxer," Heinzerling offers a peek into the 40-year relationship between the artist Ushio Shinohara and his wife Noriko, who has put her ambitions as an artist on a back burner, yielding to her husband's needs.
Noriko Shinohara guides the story, as she vents for personal reconciliation with the consequences of her 19-year-old self falling in love with then 41-year-old Ushio. An artist in her own right, she does so through a series of monochromatic watercolor paintings that allows her story its own stage. "Her art is the reason the film was made. It has a lot of the backstory of their relationship, but also the way she reconstructs the past is the way she views the past and is the essential drama for the film," Heinzerling offers how the film moved beyond the standard of documentary storytelling. The resulting comic series provides the documentary with its title, and also a knock of perspective for her husband who asks, perhaps for the first time in their long connection, if she even loves him.
"Cutie hate Bullie?" he bashfully asks, allowing his feelings to hang.
"No, Cutie loves Bullie so much," she replies without missing a beat, demonstrating nonchalance and confidence.
He laughs in comfort.
Allowing the life an artist to remove the same burdens of romance that weighs down upon love, "Cutie and the Boxer" shows how Ushio, the bull, has survived, having to work harder to support himself in old age than he did at his peak, in the years spanning the 1960s to the 1980s, as a rebellious and under-appreciated Japanese artist known for his performance art paintings where he boxed color onto large scale canvases and his sculptures. Having moved to New York in 1979 on a Rockefeller grant from Tokyo, he is more appreciated as a Neo-Dada artist in his former home than in New York. Though he does have work in the collection of the city's Museum of Modern Art.
True to the bad boy energy that made his works so exciting, most of his life was about parties and drinking and art, leaving the significance of his wife and son, Alexander, to remain. Everything that is left unsaid, everything beyond that which made him a ripe personality in the art world, serves as the canvas for this film. Where Noriko's life had been her husband's story, the film documents her process of owning the thread within that which was always hers. The documentary allows for her Cutie and Bullie works to exist as animations, dancing like thoughts and memories throughout the story.
The charm of the movie is a balance between in the two obscure artists and the vibrancy and volatility of their works. The assemblage of the last year of footage of a multi-year undertaking for Heinzerling, the film is immense not only for the personality of its protagonists, but also for the finely crafted storytelling. It is easy to see that this film would garner the 2013 Directing Award for U.S. Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival. For as niche as its subjects, Heinzerling has achieved a project, through his eye as director and photographer, that will easily delight a mass audience.
See it starting today at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.