Monday Movie: Cutie and the Boxer
Zachary Heinzerling’s Cutie and the Boxer crams a ton of exploration and questions into its lean runtime. While sometimes deceptively whimsical and slight, it packs a wallop or two of verite and pathos. The film is a portrait of painter Ushio Shinohara and his wife, Noriko. For decades, Noriko has served as Ushio’s assistant but has creative impulses and no small amount of talent all her own. Heinzerling configures his movie into an a relatable account of domestic life with tension stemming from the couple’s perpetual lack of means (despite Ushio’s years of acclaim) and from the discord caused less by Noriko’s desire to branch out than by Ushio’s desire to maintain their forty-year status quo. The couple’s marital choreography is reminiscent of The Honeymooners up we see that Ushio’s work does not involve driving a bus but rather punching a giant canvas with boxing gloves dipped in paint.
Perhaps there are cultural or generational impulses behind Ushio’s intransigence on the issue of their respective roles. But the chief impetus is an ego and power struggle that has long been – and continues to be – carried out between the sexes. Ushio was a contemporary of Robert Rauschenberg, Any Warhol and others who continues to plug away without achieving the same level of success. When he has too much to drink, his bitterness bubbles up. His marriage, perhaps, remains the one arena in which he is consistently admired; at least, that’s how he sees it. So Noriko’s aspirations threaten his perceived status both in the art world and at home.
What makes the film sublime is Heinzerling’s disinterest in depicting Ushio as a bad guy, despite the temptations that are clearly there. Heinzerling has admiration for both Ushio and Noriko as individuals but approaches them primarily as a two-person unit first. Cutie and the Boxer is about the art world, about being broke in New York, about gender and power and a whole host of other big ticket issues. But most of all, it is a film about marriage.