"Cutie and the Boxer" is a movie that makes you feel less like a spectator than a guest, a friend welcomed into the home of an odd and fascinating couple. Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, both from Japan, met in New York in 1973 — he was a 41-year-old painter and sculptor and she was a 19-year-old student — and have lived there together pretty much ever since. Their marriage is the subject of Zachary Heinzerling’s clear-eyed and touching documentary, which uses their work as background for exploring a complex, sometimes volatile relationship.
|‘CUTIE AND THE BOXER’
Opens today at Kahala 8
Or maybe it’s the other way around. This is a portrait of two talented, charismatic artists of strikingly different styles and sensibilities who happen to be married to each other. Their years together supply a frame around the art, which properly occupies the foreground: Ushio’s abstract paintings and fantastical cardboard figures; Noriko’s ink-washed, cartoonlike drawings.
But as you shuttle between their cluttered living space and the vast studio across the street, art and life are joined in a continuous loop. Heinzerling is an artist, too. The window he has opened onto the lives of his subjects is a powerful and beautiful visual artifact in its own right.
In the 1960s Ushio Shinohara was something of a bad boy in the Japanese art world. His signature technique, which he developed in those days and still practices, is a pugilistic form of action painting, in which he punches paint onto the canvas with boxing gloves fitted with foam rubber pads. The resulting paintings, which uncannily retain some of the aggressive energy of their making, have brought him a measure of fame, but not a lot of money. "Cutie and the Boxer" includes clips from a 1979 documentary depicting the life of a passionate, frequently drunk middle-aged enfant terrible who is very much at home in the New York of graffiti, punk rock and urban malaise.
Noriko, along with their young son, Alex, hovers around the edges of the earlier film and the home movies that supplement Heinzerling’s observations of the present. Although she had talent and ambitions of her own, she looks back on that period as a time when she receded professionally into her husband’s shadow, cleaning up after the boozy late-night gatherings, taking care of Alex and serving as Ushio’s tireless and unpaid assistant.
Her resentments, as well as her enduring affection and loyalty, blossom in the form of a series of drawings, a memoiristic graphic novel whose main characters, Cutie and Bullie, are stylized versions of herself and her husband. She works on their story as Ushio makes new boxing-glove paintings and completes a giant cardboard motorcycle sculpture, and Heinzerling captures the complex dynamic of their parallel projects.
They are mutually supportive and constructively critical, but their competitiveness is unmistakable. Ushio jokingly accuses Noriko of being jealous of the attention he gets from gallerists and curators, but there is envy on his face when the spotlight falls on her.
The great virtue of "Cutie and the Boxer" is that it refuses to simplify the relationship at its center, or to take a side in the Shinoharas’ marital drama and creative rivalry. Their marriage has clearly not been easy, and there is lingering sorrow and frustration, as well as persistent money trouble. But there is also warmth and steadfastness, and the exhilarating sense that, even after more than four decades, this lifetime collaboration is still a work in progress.
Review by A.O. Scott, New York Times