It’s not just obscure Japanese and Chinese films we watch – we go to obscure British and American ones too.
CUTIE AND THE BOXER [Director: Zachary Heinzerling] is a fly-on-the-wall type documentary shot in New York in 2013 about Art and Marriage. And self-sacrifice. The Boxer is 80 year old Japanese artist Ushio. Cutie is Noriko, his wife of about thirty years whom he met when he was in his fifties and she was in her late twenties.
Rotten Tomatoes gives it five stars. I wouldn’t actually go that far but as fly-on-the-wall things go, I thought it was tremendously well done. Hard to credit there was a camera crew there in the room with them.
He loves her I think – in his own way – although I felt he took her for granted for much of their earlier lives. She mothered him and skivvied for him and sex was clearly a large part of his attraction to her – maybe for her too – and when his art didn’t sell and he drowned in drink and later, alcoholism she was the one who sacrificed her own artistic ambitions to keep him afloat.
The film follows a few months in their lives as he attempts to sell his work, first of all to the Guggenheim and then in a one-man Gallery show. He calls himself the Boxer because he paints by putting on a pair of boxing gloves, dipping them in coloured paint and then punching a big blank canvas, leaving large splodges of coloured paint, Jackson Pollock-style as the completed work. ‘It only takes a minute’, he says. ’Two-and – a half minutes!’ she corrects him [while the Guggenheim lady stands, looking on]. Meanwhile, she decides to mount her own show of cartoon drawings which illustrate the highs and lows [mainly lows, I thought] of their marriage and in fact the film culminates in the gallery show with her work in one room and his in another room.
God only knows what kept them together. I guess at some point she decided that being with him was more interesting than any artistic career she may or may not have had. They seemed to have a very limited command of English despite having lived in New York for thirty years and spoke only Japanese to one another – so the whole thing is in subtitles.
So, it’s about art and life and there isn’t enough of that in the cinema, either in fiction or in fact.
BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK [Director: Richard Press]. Not so sure about this one but it certainly has positive, albeit American reviews.
Another documentary about artistic life in New York it is filmed entirely in B&W and follows [another] eighty-year old artist, photographer Bill Cunningham, around the city. Unmarried, ‘cos he loves his work too much’ [?] Bill takes photographs of clothes for the New York Times. His speciality is street fashion and I must say, he is good at it. To get the shots he gets you have to be out there; on the pavements, down on the subway lines, at the right parties but more than that, you need an eye.
He doesn’t seem particularly celebrity-conscious nor does he favour women over men. An interesting clothes combination worn by a man is as photographable on a man as a model.
He is clearly no-ones fool. He went to Harvard and although he appears to be a simple soul I think he has disciplined himself to a quite extraordinary degree – and really that is what this film is about. Purity of purpose. He lives in a rented apartment, seems to have no close relationships, hardly ever seems to eat and not once in the entire film goes to the loo. He gets around New York on a bike and if he has money, spends it apparently on cameras and film.
He leads a life that is perfect for him, not for everyone, not for me and he has simplified that life until nothing interferes with his vocation.
You could see in both of these, the lack of a BBC in the US. In the UK they would have both been made by BBC 4 and found an audience. But in America, they are financed independently and marketed in cinemas where they can only hope to find an audience who will pay to see them. We are so lucky.