The life of a “pure artist” is an endlessly fascinating subject. For most, the prospect of a life committed to authentic expression, a life separate from the practical needs of the ordinary working adult, is a dream that was crushed by the first student loan payment. In the 1970’s, New York City’s lower east side was a hotbed for bohemian artist bums; they lived in abandoned lofts, wore leather jackets, and said, “Fuck the man, I just wanna make art, man.” This moment in history, of which Ushio Shinohara (the Boxer) was a part of, remains the ideal that brings many young creative types to New York. But times have changed. New York, for one thing, is very expensive now. As one character says in Frances Ha, “the only people who can afford to be artists in New York are rich.” Furthermore, the lofts that once made perfect live/work spaces for industrious artists are now occupied by silk shirt-wearing stockbrokers. Cutie and the Boxer is a charming and poignant portrait of two holdouts from a different time.
Since the 1970’s, Ushio Shinohara and his wife Noriko (Cutie) have lived as starving artists. Their loft is overflowing with paintings, sculptures, art supplies and books, but they are poor. Early in the film an archival documentary tells us that historically Ushio’s works are widely admired but rarely bought; collectors often say, “That’s a wonderful image, but not my taste.” Ushio’s art is grotesque and bizarre, ranging from giant sculptures made from discarded cardboard to intense “action” paintings made using paint-soaked boxing gloves. He’s most famous for the latter, and it’s easy to see why, as the frenetic energy with which they’re made is a thrill to watch.
Ushio’s wife, Noriko (Cutie) is a brilliant artist herself, but she has been persistently stuck in Ushio’s shadow. To make matters worse, her husband’s reckless and adolescent lifestyle has made disaster management her primary responsibility. Noriko has been Ushio’s “assistant” for too long and her effort to emerge from his shadow makes up the film’s major arc. In an early scene, Ushio has an opening at a swanky SoHo gallery. While Ushio hams it up with the event’s attendees, Noriko watches pensively from a distance. This adequately sums up their relationship: Noriko fully supports and encourages Ushio, but years of financial and emotional struggle have made her less enthusiastic. This scene also demonstrates the film’s go-for-the-gut aesthetic, which consistently portrays Noriko as a tragic hero. The title may signal both of them, but the film’s perspective is clearly hers.
Cutie and the Boxer works so well because of director Zachary Heinzerling’s clear affection for his subjects. Heinzerling shot it himself, and through the absence of a proper crew the film attains the feeling of a home movie without looking like one. Noriko and Ushio are a documentarian’s dream – they’re eccentric, and theatrical – but Heinzerling looks past Ushio’s showmanship to Noriko’s quiet melancholy. The film, then, becomes about the harsh reality behind the bohemian ideal. While Ushio entertained artist friends with drunken aphorisms about the “artist’s burden,” Noriko was in the other room, feeding the baby or washing the dishes.
There’s a powerful scene towards the end of Cutie and the Boxer in which Ushio is preparing for an upcoming show. The forthcoming opening will also feature Noriko, which prods the tension that runs underneath their marriage (When Ushio sees Noriko’s area in the exhibition he’s forced to admit how impressive it is, and he’s not skilled at hiding his jealousy). For Ushio, this threat sparks a frantic effort to create new work in time for the opening. He goes to work on a giant abstract painting in which layers and layers of colors overlap each other. Heinzerling brilliantly captures the intense energy Ushio puts into this work; at one point he appears to be on the brink of tears. Noriko comes home to find her husband analyzing what he’s done. “Hard to say what this is,” he says, “if it’s good or bad or finished or unfinished.” After a beat, Noriko bluntly concludes, “I don’t think it’s good.” Ushio is visibly disappointed, but he immediately goes back to work. Their relationship is competitive but constructive; Ushio wants nothing more than to please his wife.
Visually, Cutie and the Boxer’s vibrant color pallet deftly translates Ushio’s striking action paintings (which perfectly fit inside the film’s widescreen frame) as well as the muted melancholy of Noriko’s work. The real revelation is Heinzerling’s narrative use of Noriko’s drawings, which are bluntly autobiographical and thus offer the film a profoundly personal visualization of the couple’s rocky past. These drawings (which the film illuminates through animation) portray a bitter perspective on Ushio’s alcoholism, perpetual financial stresses, and poor parenting. Her bitterness often feels like hatred, which Ushio addresses by timidly asking, “Cutie hate Bully?” To this, Noriko laughs and assures him, “Cutie loves Bully so much.” It’s a sweet moment, and somehow we believe her.
Their life has not been easy, and Ushio has not always been the best husband or father. But such is the life of the pure artist, for whom art comes first. Noriko knew this going in, and their subsequent struggles haven’t affected her love and dedication to her husband. I’m no marriage counselor, but I would venture to say that resentment is fairly common in marriages lasting several decades. The difference is that Noriko – unafraid to speak her mind – expresses her resentment directly through her art. For this openness, Ushio and Noriko represent a somewhat ideal marriage. Noriko’s art is essentially a public indictment of Ushio’s reckless behavior, to which Ushio’s only response is, “Cutie hate Bully?” “Cutie loves Bully so much.”
8 out of 10