Among the truer cliches out there is "behind every great man is a great woman." It's also the most backhanded of compliments. The increasingly dated implication is that staying behind a man is, in some way, necessary for the world to exalt in his greatness. "Cutie and the Boxer," the spectacular new documentary from Zachary Heinzerling, is about one woman's realization that being a mere support system for her husband is not a fulfilling life. More excitingly, she does something about it.
Nokiro was a 19-year-old art student from a wealthy family when she came to New York in the late 1960s/early 1970s. She met fellow ex-pat Ushio Shinohara and quickly fell in love with his total dedication to art. He was a well-regarded pop artist and action painter, known for strapping on boxing gloves dipped in paint and fighting his canvases. The two quickly hooked up and Noriko idealistic dreams of a creative life side-by-side with this whirlwind were soon put aside when she got pregnant. Once her parents cut her off she was living in squalor with a hard-drinking husband twenty years her senior.
Man, this sounds really depressing. The movie isn't. That's because Noriko and Ushio, while forever worried about paying the rent, are active and, in their own way, caring. They have miseries but they face them.
Ushio isn't an abusive husband - not even verbally. (In fact, she gets far more zings in, now that he's 80 years old.) What he is, really, is just Exhibit A of the Patriarchy - someone who expects his wife to be the maid and the chef and the assistant. An optimist would call him a dying breed.
As Noriko enters her sixties, she's ready to pick up the paintbrush and commit to her art again. (Indeed, we learn most of this backstory through her illustration, which tells a slightly exaggerated version of her marriage.) It isn't, however, a quick panacea. Her son, glimpsed only briefly, is an alcoholic, much like her husband was until recently. (Ushio at 80 is still spry, and able to perform "boxing paintings" with regularity.)
As the husband and wife work toward their first tandem show, Heinzerling gets us inside their chaotic studio and grubby DUMBO apartment. We meet their cartoonish dealer and the obnoxious buyers. The artists bicker, and the resentments are real, but they are not angry. There is a palpable and obvious two-way love affair. But Ushio's dismissal of Noriko's art is heartbreaking. He doesn't say it to her face, but when she's not in sight he scoffs at the notion of her being the Lee Krasner to his Jackson Pollock.
Among "Cutie and the Boxer"'s greatest triumphs is this refusal to color within typical emotional lines. When showing her illustrations to a friend Noriko speaks about how she hates Hollywood endings. Heinzerling does what he can to honor her wish.
There are an awful lot of documentaries about artists, but the best ones differentiate themselves from mere biography. Thomas Riedelsheimer's "Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time" is an amazing investigation about process and Andrew Neel's "Alice Neel" zeroes in on how an artist's life and its inherent troubles can resonate throughout a family. "Cutie and the Boxer" has the best of both worlds.
Some of the staged painting sequences are exquisitely shot, as are some lucky grabbed moments. Among them, a tired Ushio eating lunch beneath a strikingly mirrored self-portrait, may get you gasping. Yasuaki Shimizu's original score in simple and ethereal without being another Philip Glass clone.
The emotions the Shinoharas' story inspire are all over the road. It is at times triumphant and warm, then sad and even enraging. Eventually you stop wishing his attitude would change and simply worry "is she happy?" Luckily, Noriko Shinohara is an extraordinary enough woman that, in time, we realize we don't need to worry about her at all.
SCORE: 9.5 / 10