Filmmaker Zachary Heinzerling met multimedia artist Ushio Shinohara at an open studio in the Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Shinohara had gained some notoriety in the 1980s making sculptures from reclaimed cardboard and practicing a painting method with boxing gloves he called action painting, the roots of which could be traced back to the abstract expressionist movement. "I shot Ushio for three or four hours and he was immediately entertaining, a showman," Heinzerling says. "He did action painting for us and did a motorcycle sculpture in 15 minutes. He was referencing books he was [featured] in when he was in his 20s."
After some successful associations in his native Japan, Shinohara, now 81, moved to Soho in the early 1980s and there enjoyed the most press of his career. Despite a dearth of attention from the media since then, his creative energy has not waned.
Action painting begins like a gimmick. Shinohara's wife, Noriko, laces up his gloves and in regular intervals he dips his sponge-loaded gloves in buckets of paint. As Shinohara bangs out splattered squares of color on a giant canvas with his fists, you see this gimmick morph into a fight with the medium. The battle happens regularly and the winner is up for grabs. With Shinohara, much is laid bare in little time. After his first shoot with Shinohara, Heinzerling recalls, "We had this amazing insight into an artist we didn't know much about. And all this happened as Noriko chimed in from the wings."
Heinzerling realized that what he had was a relationship film. He considered making a film about their careers but, "I was more interested in how their personalities butted up against each other and blended together. It's about the way they love, rather than what love is to them." But both Noriko and Ushio are artists and the two have complex relationships with their work, which means when you watch Cutie and the Boxer, you're watching a film about more than one relationship. "From the git-go we knew that the more traditional style of investigating the history of their art wouldn't fit a treatment of these artists," Heinzerling explains.
Noriko manages Ushio but "isn't his assistant, but sometimes helps," as she explains in the film. The distinction is important because she has her own work and she assigns her husband some blame for her lack of prominence in the art field. She refuses the role of amanuensis as if it would be degrading. Before you begin to think there's a clear victim here, remember the action painting. Heinzerling's greatest accomplishment in Cutie and the Boxer is resisting our expectations of how love and relationships should look.
Precisely who is meant to win when these gloves are on?
Noriko and Ushio met when she was 19 and he was 40; he was getting press for making art out of found materials, and she was in art school. She got pregnant quickly, estranging her some from her work. He drank to forget his frustrations with success. Now in her 60s, she's begun a new series—a cathartic retelling of her love affair with Ushio. The protagonist of her illustrations is Cutie, and Cutie's lover/anchor is Bullie. For Cutie and the Boxer, love and resentment are chronic bedfellows.
"It's impossible to explain these relationships," Heinzerling confesses. "There's no real answer to the question 'Why are they still together?' It's a combination—them meeting, dependency, but also this spirit that's evoked when artistic personalities combine to create something new. They revel in the struggle. Their life is a struggle, and it's going to keep them going and keep them young. It's definitely a love-hate relationship."
Side by side, Ushio and Noriko didn't wait for Heinzerling to ask questions, which the director suggests took matters partly out of his hands. "They interviewed each other, which accomplished more than if each artist had his or her own questions." It also fills out the dynamic between the two, which is a system of levers and pulleys so involved it seems to be advancing as you watch. What isn't clear is how these two lovebirds avoided softening with age. "Beauty in its forms has an uglier side," Heinzerling notes. "The scars are as important to show as the love."
Ushio and Noriko are feisty and fierce and their love is often uncomfortable, but it's a driving force. "They live this very unique lifestyle where they expend a lot of effort and artistry in every aspect of life," Heinzerling says. "It's about the way they love, rather than what love is to them." And as Heinzerling describes, their actions can't match the clearly packaged expressions they produce for a living—the axiom "art imitates life" is only a half-truth here. Anyway, for Ushio, "Action is art," and action is a thing in perpetual motion.
The working paradigm looks like balance when Noriko is peacefully painting Cutie, and Ushio is violently bending found metals, but when they can't pay rent, Noriko henpecks, and Ushio responds, "She's average, I'm a genius." How anyone could create in such seemingly hostile conditions is a miracle, but this couple doesn't know when to concede. Heinzerling seemed to take strength from that. "I had ways of convincing myself to continue with the project even if, after years of work, it could turn out to be nothing," he admits. "I'm sure there are doc filmmakers who relate to that; you're following someone in the hopes this magic story will emerge." Cutie and the Boxer ends with a joint art show featuring work by both Ushio and Noriko. It's exposure they need, but it also feels like a trophy they earned for surviving the cage match at home.
"You come up with your own formula of how to keep going," Heinzerling says. "Ushio's convinced himself he's destined for this. Art is a devil, a demon that sucks you in and you have to give up worldly things to be a part of it." And just as you're thinking everyone in Cutie and the Boxer is in a prison cell too familiar to leave, you realize Heinzerling is finding the couple at a new phase: "Noriko just turned 60 and she's just decided to be confident in herself as an artist. Her art was always viewed in relation to her husband—and it is with Cutie—but it's a comment, a statement that comes from a grounded place."
Ultimately the key to their turmoil and affection is revealed in the film's climax: a wailing, drunken sob of exhaustion uttered decades ago. "There is something admirable about [Ushio's] pure connection between his beliefs and action," Heinzerling explains. "People can take that inspiration or question it, but for him it works and he is so energetic and dedicated, especially for an 81-year-old who hasn't had much in life. He has this appetite to create and show his work and teach and talk and entertain and he's nonstop, so this method works for him and keeps him going. There's something to say for that."
Zachary Heinzerling. Photo: E. J. McLeavey-Fisher
Cutie and the Boxer opens in theaters August 16 through RADiUS-TWC.
Sara Vizcarrando is editrix of the release calendar at Rotten Tomatoes; a film studies instructor; and a blogger for http://movieswithbutter.