'Cutie and the Boxer' showcases one artistic couple's functional dysfunction
FILM At least since Grey Gardens in 1975 provided a peek at mother-and daughter eccentrics living in squalor — distinguished from your average crazy cat ladies by being closely related to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis — there's been a documentary subgenre devoted to, well, weirdos. Errol Morris and Werner Herzog have devoted a sizable chunk of their output to them, those people who might make you nervous or annoyed if they lived next door but are fascinating to gawk at for 90 minutes or so. Like Cate Blanchett's fictional wack job in Blue Jasmine, their dysfunctionality is entertaining at a safe distance.
The protagonists in Zachary Heinzerling's Cutie and the Boxer aren't nuts, but they've been together over four decades without their problems really changing or getting any better. Ushio "Gyu-Chan" Shinohara was a somewhat notorious artist in Japan's fertile avant-garde scene of the 1960s — we see footage of him sporting a Mohawk early in that decade, non-conformity already in full flower. His "neo-Dadaist" work already consisted largely of grotesque pop-art sculptures made out of found junk and large-scale canvases that, in a variation on Pollock's action painting, he executed by battering paint onto them with boxing gloves. (When he finishes one, he raises his aims in triumph, like Rocky Balboa.)
In 1969 this wild man decided he needed a bigger stage, so he moved to New York. An early 1970s TV documentary excerpted here calls him perhaps "the most famous of the poor and struggling artists in the city," noting that while his often outsized work gets a lot of attention, people seldom actually want to buy it. This is a situation that, we soon learn, hasn't altered much since.
Gyu-Chan was 41 when he met wife Noriko, a 19-year-old art student also from Japan. She was swept up in the "purity" of his art and lifestyle; within six months she was pregnant with their only child, Alex (also a talented visual artist). In hindsight, she flatly tells us "I should have married a guy who made a secure living and took responsibility for what he did."
We first meet the duo on his 80th birthday. It's hardly a conventionally comfortable old age — in a tone so weary it can hardly be classified as nagging, Noriko reminds him that they're late with the rent on their fairly large yet cluttered Brooklyn apartment-studio, and the utilities are about to be cut off for lack of payment. You get the feeling all this is business-as usual, and that the cheerful, oblivious, still-energetic Ushio would've been out on the street years ago if not for her insistence that he actually make some money once in a while.
It's a classic dysfunctional-yet-still maintaining marital dynamic: the easygoing, charming, eternal bad boy herded about as successfully as a cat on a leash by the long-suffering wife. He no longer drinks — having stopped on doctor's orders just a few years ago — but he's still a manboy making junk-art mock motorcycles and pounding large canvases ... and not making much money. His reputation remains incongruously far greater than his means, even if we see a Guggenheim representative ponder making a purchase of one of his "historical" pieces.