Cutie and the Boxer

Studio: Radius/TWC
Directed by Zachary Heinzerling

Aug 16, 2013 Web Exclusive
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Relationships between two artists are common, and, in heterosexual couples, even more commonly reflect the gender inequities of the environment in which they create. In addition to any marital issues comes the inevitable competition for funds, recognition, and fame, providing ample opportunity for tension and grudge-bearing. There are countless examples in the art world, from Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner to Jacques Demy and Agnès Varda. This complicated dynamic is the subject of Zachary Heinzerling's Cutie and the Boxer.

The eponymous couple in question is Noriko and Ushio Shinohara, Japanese modernist artists who moved to New York in the 1960s to pursue greater artistic opportunities and freedoms. They have lived and worked from their expansive Brooklyn lofts for the better part of a few decades, during which Noriko's work was often overshadowed by Ushio's, the more commercially recognized of the two. Ushio's art, ranging from large-scale sculptures to action paintings, has been exhibited at museums as great as The Guggenheim, Pompidou, and Metropolitan Museum, while Noriko often took the backseat, whether to raise their son or provide stabilizing moral support for the family.

Heinzerling's film shows the tenuous relationship between the couple, as Ushio continually strives for commercial acceptance and Noriko battles for a byline. The details of their marriage become increasingly entangled with their professional quests, as it's suggested that his alcoholism is partially to blame for each of their arrested developments, him with fame and her with output. Even with Ushio's prominently placed exhibitions the two struggle to pay rent, at one point with Ushio forced to travel to Japan just to sell a piece to make some quick cash.

What makes this such a moving portrait is the incredibly tender way Heinzerling showcases life's processes, both creative and interpersonal.  Ushio, the boxer, comes to be seen as an incredibly fragile figure, one whose past actions may have caught up with him. Noriko, on the other hand, fights to get face time with the collectors and curators who visit her husband. Her animated surrogate, Cutie, comes through in a semi-autobiographical exhibition that comes, unsurprisingly, somewhat on the coattails of one of her husband's larger exhibition.

It's a good film that doesn't quite allow itself to be great, mostly because of its too-brief 82 minute runtime, a rare complaint. Heinzerling affectionately draws you in to this intimate little tale but doesn't grant you a desired emotional payoff, namely the reactions to the Shinohara's joint exhibit. Still, Cutie and the Boxer is a heartfelt tale about complex characters and creative drive, one that aptly incorporates the artist's work into a structural framework. In the end, you care about Ushio and Noriko and want them both to succeed.

Author rating: 6.5/10

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Average reader rating: 10/10


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