Ushio Shinohara is an artist who has been living and working in New York City since 1969. He is famous for his "boxing paintings," during which he takes boxing gloves with sponges attached to the front, dips them in paint, and slams them onto a large and lengthy canvas, and creates sculptures out of cardboard and other junk, many of which are motorcycles. He met his wife, Noriko, when she was 19 and he was 40, shortly after she also arrived in New York City with an intent to become an artist herself. Instead, she married Ushio, and stuck by him, raising their newborn son Alex, despite Ushio's alcoholism and ego preventing her from achieving her own dreams. Today, Ushio is sober (thanks to a mysterious allergy that prevents him from drinking), and as he prepares himself for another round of gallery shows and travel in order to help pay the rent, Noriko is ready to create something of her own.
Cutie and the Boxer is an unusual documentary, embodying many of the ideas that Noriko and Ushio have about art and creation. Director Zachary Heinzerling offers little in the way of traditional narrative other than their separate struggle for satisfaction in expression, while also conveying who they are as parents, as a married couple, and as opposing personalities. Many of their conversations are profoundly uncomfortable, with Ushio's stubbornness prompting Noriko to hint at very old wounds (or, perhaps more painful, Noriko's acceptance of some of his more frustrating comments as the way of the world). However, these moments exist right around the corner from warmth and understanding, and both the good times and bad give Heinzerling an opportunity to see how these moments impact their work.
Although the picture focuses on Noriko, who sets about creating a comic titled "Cutie and Bullie", based on her experiences with Ushio, Heinzerling fills in the older artist with vintage film clips and photographs. Heinzerling contrasts the self-assured arrogance of Ushio's youth with his more mellow older self, who laments that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull can't hold a candle to Jaws. Conversely, most of our insight into Noriko's past is through her current artwork, which Heinzerling turns into animated sequences (with care to protect the integrity of Noriko's cartoon caricatures). We are even shown some of their son Alex's artwork, which is bursting with neon colors, elaborate backgrounds, and exaggerated cartoon characters -- a distinct counterpoint to the sullen, shy man seen at the dinner table, who has unfortunately inherited his father's alcoholism.
Other than the background on Ushio's career and the story of "Cutie and Bullie", most of Cutie and the Boxer is contemplative, with both artists wrapped up in thoughts about their own work. Noriko comments that her Cutie paintings started out being very close to her own story, but eventually developed more of their own life. Meanwhile, Ushio tries to rejuvenate his creative juices by painting in a fresh style for an art gallery opening. ("I don't think it's very good," comments Noriko.) Heinzerling also captures the awkward mix between commerce and culture in a scene where an obnoxious Guggenheim art buyer drops by to watch Ushio paint and won't stop bowing to both of them, as well as Ushio's uncomfortable, somewhat dismissive glances at "Cutie and Bullie", which he is afraid is making fun of him. "Cutie hates Bullie?" he asks. "No, Cutie loves Bullie so much," she replies, somewhat sarcastically.
As the film winds down, it arrives at more of an ellipses than a period, an open-ended note of satisfaction, but not finality. Through his observation of Ushio's past and Noriko's present, Heinzerling crafts a picture of the way two artists use their very different processes of expression to arrive at a similar state of emotional catharsis. At times, their dual, dueling creative process feels like it's not going to end well, but there's an unspoken understanding about the nature of creating -- the emotional similarity between Ushio's punches and Noriko's vengeful "Bullie" reveals them as equals, not opposites.
Cutie and the Boxer retains its original poster art on home video, a photo taken in the aftermath of the film's lovely closing credit sequence, in which Ushio and Nomiko paint-box one another. The one-disc release comes in a standard Viva Elite Blu-Ray case, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
It's hard to pin down this 1.85:1 1080p AVC presentation. Aside from the vintage documentary and home video footage, which has all the quirks of analog tape, the bulk of the film is gorgeous in HD, with lovely saturation of vivid pastel colors and a wealth of detail. However, some of the early footage exhibits a slightly shallow depth of field, even in wide shots, leaving portions of the background out of focus, and there are at least a couple of lengthy segments where color density is out of whack, with skin tones becoming orange or bronze and popping out above flat, crushed blacks. One shot in particular, of the Shinohara's black cat in front of a black background, is particularly startling in its complete lack of detail outside of the cat's eyes and mouth.
A 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track (mostly Japanese, with some brief snippets of English from the Shinoharas and their occasional English-speaking guest) is mainly devoted to the film's score, which sounds wonderful. The uncompressed audio manages to capture some of the aesthetics of the room it was recorded in, and the result is a nice sense of expansion as the sound fills an invisible room somewhere. It's a thematically fitting touch that subconsciously reminds the viewer of the artists recording the music. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and English and Spanish subtitles are also provided.
A couple of short extra features are included, all in HD. The lengthiest is the vintage documentary "Shinohara: The Last Artist" (23:17), which can be seen in snippets throughout the feature. This is mostly fascinating as a time capsule of the 1970s, which fills in the look and feel of the art scene at that time, and provides a look at some of Shinohara's other works. This is followed by two shorter featurettes: a very funny (but all-too-brief) "Q&A at the Sundance Film Festival" (8:06), where the Shinoharas are practically like a double act, and "Action is Art: A Study of Ushio Shinohara's Boxing Painting" (3:39), a hypnotic slow-motion clip of Shinohara creating one of his works on a sheet of glass.
The disc wraps up with a reel of deleted scenes (9:26). Much of this footage remains in the film in altered context, but one brief segment in which Noriko asks Ushio if he had any complaints about her is cutting and funny.
A trailer for 20 Feet From Stardom plays before the main menu. No trailer for Cutie and the Boxer is included.
Cutie and the Boxer is a wonderful, if somewhat free-form documentary about the process of creating art. Both Ushio and Noriko Shinohara are wonderful subjects, and their chemistry (and anger) make them fascinating to watch. Highly recommended.
Please check out my other DVDTalk DVD, Blu-Ray and theatrical reviews and/or follow me on Twitter.