I missed my chance to see Cutie and the Boxer on Saturday. It was a late show and I needed to get home to let my dogs out. I was also exhausted. Self-care is important for getting through the grind of a film festival. So I skipped out on my scheduled showing and queued up for the Sunday showing. This did two things for me. First, it put me in much more comfortable seats. My scheduled viewing was at the venue with the most uncomfortable seats which sounds petty, but after sitting through fourteen movies at that point, this was not to be discounted. Second, it freed up some time for me to squeeze in one more movie than I had scheduled. I had heard some buzz from my festival friends about Cutie and the Boxer and it sounded more fun than the film I was scheduled to see. In retrospect, I'm glad I made the choice to see it. It was a charming, funny movie.
Cutie and the Boxer (2013, directed by Zachary Heinzerling) is a snapshot in the lives of Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, two artists on the fringes of the New York art scene, never really successful, but able to string a life for themselves together as quasi-outsiders. Although this is a film that is drenched in art, this is not a film about art. Not really. Art is almost background noise. It's the water in the fishbowl. At most, it surfaces as a metaphor. Instead, this film takes a keen look at the relationship between Ushio and Noriko, occasionally using art to delineate that relationship. It's significant that we are introduced to the mundane lives they live before we ever see any of their art. The film opens with Ushio's eightieth birthday, and that scene, filled with loving bickering, sets the tone of the movie. Like most couples who have lasted and remained friends, Ushio and Noriko seem more like a comedy team than husband and wife. They know each other too well to have any illusions and they like each other so well that the barbs they hurl at each other are pointed but not hurtful. Ushio, formerly an alcoholic, is twenty years older than Noriko, but they've reached an age when that distinction is more and more meaningless. There's biography here, of course. There are images of Ushio hanging out with Andy Warhol, there's footage of him making his first boxing paintings in Japan, there's the inevitable home movie footage. That's all well and good, but I think more of their relationship is illuminated by Noriko's cartoons, which the film animates at points during its running time. The star of her cartoons is Cutie, an avatar for the artist herself, drawing in an expressionistic style that derives in equal measure from De Kooning and Lynda Barry. This is where she vents her frustrations with her life and with her marriage. They are rarely complimentary of Ushio, whose avatar is a character called "Bullie." Noriko isn't very complimentary of the couple's son, Alex, in her cartoons, either, nor is this movie, which is catching him in the throes of alcoholism.
While this isn't a movie specifically about art, it is still a movie about a life with art, and most of Ushio and Noriko's activities are dedicated to art, whether it's making it or selling it. They're surprisingly mercenary about the business of art, but they've been clinging to fringes of the art world for so long that neither of them can afford to be idealists. Landlords don't care if you've got a show coming up when the check was due last week. It's fun watching the matter of fact way that they pick out sculptures for Ushio to sell on a trip to Japan, for instance, and even more fun listening to Noriko tell a woman from the Guggenheim that the painting she wants to buy from them was given to a friend while Ushio was "a little drunk." Ushio is definitely the big dog of the two, but when he goes to Japan, Noriko flourishes. There's a shock of recognition for me in this scene, actually. I find myself most productive as an artist when my partner is absent. Parners and spouses are rarely muses and the everyday task of negotiating a relationship is sometimes the enemy of art. This is clearly the case here. When Noriko tells Ushio that his newest painting is "no good," you can see the value she has to him, though, because she's absolutely right and he knows it. Again, they have no illusions. He reworks the painting.
The film has a plot, I guess, as Ushio and Noriko prepare a joint exhibition in which Noriko's "Cutie" drawings have their own space at last. The process by which they prepare is as chaotic as the way they live. Their home and studio space sometimes makes the couple look like post-apocalyptic squatters. The scenes of Ushio creating art are a kind of chaos, too. One of his primary means of creating art is to dunk some boxing gloves in paint and punch the canvas. Ushio is a so-called "action painter," and the results he gets are often startling. He also creates huge sculptures of motorcycles out of found materials--mostly cardboard scrounged from dumpsters--that strike me as the sort of thing you would get if Dali, Oldenberg, and Robert Williams got smashed on tequila and decided to collaborate. There's a subtle statement on the nature of contemporary art in the way it is presented when it is at home with the Shinoharas and when you put it in a gallery. When it's in their home or studio, it's all of a piece with the chaos of their lives, but when it's in a vast gallery space, showcased amid blinding walls and track lighting, it's transformed.
This film gets the nod for my favorite credit sequence in a long while, too: both Uriko and Noriko are laced into paint-soaked boxing gloves and they go at each other in a kind of elegiac slow motion. It's one of the most beautiful things I've seen in any movie in a while.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the fact that both Ushio and Noriko were at the screening, and in person, they have that same quality of comedy about them. The True/False organizers arranged to have Ushio give a demonstration of his boxing painting in a parking lot around the corner from the theater, which turned into one of the festival's most talked-about highlights.