In one of the final scenes of Zachary Heinzerling's documentary, Cutie and the Boxer, the 80-year-old artist Ushio Shinohara looks over a book of his works entitled Love is a Roarrrr!!. He likes the final word, but says he doesn't understand why it's preceded by a comparison to love. "Who put 'love is'?" Ushio asks his wife, another artist, named Noriko. She points to herself. "Why? Because I think so: Love is a roar. I found out by experience in my life. Love is a roar."
This moment epitomizes Heinzerling's Cutie and the Boxer, where these descriptions are understood as the allegorical nicknames of married artists. Known as the "boxing painter," Ushio would strap paint dispensers to boxing gloves and hurl his fists at the canvas. Though Ushio was a rising talent in the 1970s New York art world, he never acquired the success that he envisioned. After marrying Ushio, Noriko stopped painting.
This documentary traces their marriage over four, difficult decades, finishing with Ushio preparing for a new show and Noriko working on an extensive mural, an earnest effort to seek recognition in her own right, not just as a de facto assistant for her husband.
Noriko's work combines mythological and semi-autobiographical accounts of the relationship between "Cutie" and "Bullie." Parts of her work are animated within the film, interspersed with archival footage. It's a winding and candid story about their love, dependence and resentment, family, art, and sacrifice. As her art carefully tells the back-story of their relationship, Ushio's painting is all about the visceral. His punch of the canvas is a fight between art and creative impulses.
Thanks to beautiful filming and editing, the scenes of domesticity are no less visual or feeling. Their modest apartment and cluttered studio spaces play host to bickering and drunken evenings, with tearful breakdowns about suffering for art. Throughout, the pair resiliently faces money issues and unfulfilled promises from museums. Tangled in a group of his friends, Ushio cries, "You throw yourself away to be an artist."
Heinzerling masterfully walks the line of exposing, without seeming exploitative. These are vulnerable, creative souls who have devoted themselves to art and tried to love each other as well. Of Noriko's mural series, she says she never likes Hollywood endings and this documentary doesn't let her down.
[images via Radius TWC]
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