The fifth of the five movies nominated for the Oscar as the best feature-length documentary I got around to seeing (streamed on Netflix) is “Cutie and the Boxer,” directed by Zachary Heinzerling, in which most of the dialogue is in Japanese, though the couple of aging artists boxing painter Ushio Shinohara and his wife Noriko have lived in New York City for more than 40 years. (They celebrate his 80th birthday and she is 22 years his junior.) Sometimes, I realized that Norkio was speaking English, but it was also subtitled for good reasons.
At the start, Ushio is making one of his boxing paintings, in which he dips boxing gloves with sponges in paint and wallops a canvas repeatedly. Paint drips down from the points of impact. It does not get in his eyes only because he wears goggles.
At first his wife, Noriko, is introduced as his assistant. Though he is more famous, soon enough we see that she is an artist, a more representational one, making caricatures of herself (as Cutie) and her husband (as the Boxer) and their relationship that contains a lot of antagonism on her part. Noriko later says that Cutie dominates Boxer much more than she has been able to control their relationship.
For many years, Ushio was a drunkard, and there is abundant home movie footage to show that. He and his work were also documented from time to time on both Japanese and American tv.
Soon after they were married in 1969, soon after she came to NYC from Tokyo, Noriko became pregnant and had to struggle to raise their son, Alex, who has grown up to be a painter and an alcoholic like his father (who can no longer drink alcohol, having an averse physical reaction to it). I like his neo-expressionist portraits more than the artworks of either of his parents, btw. In addition to his boxing paintings, Ushio also makes garishly painted motorcycles and fanciful dinosaurs out of cardboard and other found materials.
Eventually, Noriko gets a room (in which she covers the walls with a Cutie and Boxer cartoon. (I don’t know what else to call it: it is not linear but has multiple components that are not marked off like cells in a comic strip are.)
A curator from the Guggenheim Museum comes and is pretty fatuous in her quest for something by Ushio of historic import. Much later, the Shinohara wonder what has happened with her project of acquiring something and getting them some money. Though acclaimed and exhibited, Ushio’s work is not things many people want to live with.
I wonder where his confidence that he is an artist and that what he does is “art.” Despite her carping and expressed resentment at being treated as an unpaid assistant and unpaid servant, Noriko never seems to question or to have questioned that Ushio is an important artist, a “genius” even With age, she is asserting the validity of her own art, art that is heavily determined by her views and fantasies of her marriage (it is definitely “representational” art! though Cutie and the Boxer are fictionalized versions of Ushio and Noriko).
I especially liked the animations of some of Noriko’s drawings. And was relieved that she was getting some recognition at last, not without support from Ushio. (She competes with him; he never seems to compete with her, though certainly his work has been made possible by her domestic labors over the decades.) IMHO Ushio has less craft than either his son or his wife, though I admire his doggedness at making what he and some of the NYC art establishment regard as “art.” (The question of “art” in “modern art” is entertainingly central to “Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?” (2006) and “My Kid Could Paint That” (2007), and though I eventually warmed to “Cutie and the Boxer,” I’d still say that “Exit through the Gift Shop” (2010) is the best recent documentary about a guerilla artist).
(“20 Feet from Stardom” won the documentary feature Oscar. The other nominees were
The Dirty War
The Act of Killing.)