Fight club

Master documentarian Frederick Wiseman turns to the sweet science

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM Late in Boxing Gym, a pungent documentary even for Frederick Wiseman, an old-timer says something wise to his friend while lacing up. The friend doesn't see the point of analogies. Our man admits that some only work on an intellectual level, but insists that others make intuitive sense of abstraction — the right metaphor can make all the difference in getting a particular movement. It's hard to imagine that Wiseman would still be making his films if he didn't think the same held true for a motion picture sequence.

Good thing, since boxing has been made to shoulder an awful lot of Hollywood hooey. Not much has changed since Manny Farber, writing in 1949, decried fight pictures for being "tightly humorless and supersaturated with worn-out morality ... pure fantasy in so far as capturing the pulse of the beak-busting trade." Wiseman isn't interested in the trade so much as the discipline — though the big time's spectacular images are plastered around the old-school Texas club. And yet even if Boxing Gym shrugs at the competitive elements of the sport, Wiseman's squat compositions tune in the unglamorous business of keeping your dukes up when tired — the kind of matter-of-fact physical truth professional actors howl for.

By releasing Boxing Gym immediately after La Danse (2009), Wiseman ensures his own comparisons. The choreographer-dancer and trainer-boxer tandems are aligned not only in fancy footwork (Wiseman's too), but also in their mirror-stretched studios. There are differences, of course — one can't help but think of the Paris Ballet's fundraising efforts when Richard Lord, the dexterous trainer-manager of the gym, explains membership dues. Perhaps because Wiseman is not beholden to an institutional cycle of rehearsals and performances in Boxing Gym, it's the purer distillation of a kinetic education.

Watch Wiseman's films together, and you'll realize that different spaces register silence differently. The filmmaker's musical ear is richly apparent in Boxing Gym's gloved rhythms and concrete echoes, to say nothing of the entrancing pendulum swings of side-by-side workouts. As in La Danse, Wiseman emulates the concentration of his subjects, but here he also picks up on their loose camaraderie in conversations about joblessness, the joy of getting hit and, closest to the bone, the Virginia Tech killings. The gym is still a masculine space, but one in which women (and children) are a significant presence. For more on the evolution of gender and "training," one might well consult the filmmaker's own catalog: Basic Training (1971), Manoeuvre (1979), and Missile (1987). Wiseman's gym is finally a gathering place, one with atmosphere and history (and hardly any headphones) — all the more reason to see it in a movie theater.

BOXING GYM opens Wed/22 at the Roxie.

 

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