Earlier this month I got the chance to see Zachary Heinzerling’s debut documentary feature, “Cutie and the Boxer,” in an open courtyard in Brooklyn. The film is about Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, two artists who have been living in New York City since the early 1970s. Ushio became known during the Japanese Avant-Garde movement for his action paintings, the most famous of which he paints with boxing gloves. Noriko, two decades his junior and his wife of forty years, has only recently begun to garner success in the art world for her loosely autobiographical “Cutie” comics. The two have, to put it lightly, a contentious relationship even after all these years.
This particular outdoor screening was presented by Rooftop Films, who not only organized a Q&A with Heinzerling and the Shinoharas, but also arranged for Ushio to make one of his boxing paintings that night, for the audience. I chatted with Heinzerling two days later, so naturally we began by talking about that particularly unique evening.
It wasn't one of his best boxing paintings but it didn't really matter because it was weird to see him do that in that setting. The bizarreness factor was good. It seemed to go well.
FILM.COM: Has he performed the boxing painting for an audience before?
ZACHARY HEINZERLING: He doesn't do it very often. It's very much a performance. He did one at Sundance, and this is the only other one he's done for the promotion of the film. He just loves attention so much that he would do it whenever asked. I think Noriko's the one that's more concerned about "how does this affect his stature as an artist to be performing in a space that's not necessarily meant for art or something." He's only aware of that now because he's in his 80s. I think when he was young he would do this anywhere, any time anyone asked him. I love it when he does it, but you don't want to overplay it.
When you start filming five years ago, did you know if you’d get the chance to film him making a boxing painting?
From the first day I filmed he did an action painting. It was part of the intrigue. Everything he did was cinematic, in a way. He never keeps his face still. There's nothing ever that he's doing that seems boring. Even the way he helps Noriko cook is really funny. His character is in everything he does. He's either sleeping or working. There's just always a performance with him. That's obviously really attractive for a film.
There was never any doubt that I would have enough there with him, though his character is really kind of one-dimensional. Even Noriko feels like she rarely reaches the core of Ushio because he's always a performance. And I'm not sure I ever did in the footage that I shot of him. I interviewed him for like 15 hours. He'll never give you beneath his show. The only part in the film in which you see behind the mask is that archival footage, and you see his vulnerabilities which were pretty impossible for me to film.
Whereas with Noriko you could sense that her facade wasn't quite as strong and there was a way to chip at what she had decided was her identity. She's using this idea that she's a victim - and she is a victim in a lot of ways but she really pushes that victimization forward as soon as you meet her. It's very much like "Ushio ruined my life" from the beginning.
Which is interesting, but then what's the real story here? How much of this is an exaggeration? How much are you playing the victim because you feel like you don't really have any identity of your own or that you never really did anything in your life to deserve a voice as an artist? What do you really have to say? Her using Ushio is what she has to say, complaining is what she has to say. So there was a lot more from a journalistic perspective, there was much more to her character. And it was always much more the character than the art that was interesting.
At one point in the film Ushio says "You throw yourself away to be an artist" For him the only thing that matters is the art, whereas for Noriko the art is inspired by the rest of her life. Do you think he really believes that?
It's weird translating that because you could see that as a real pessimistic statement, but the idea that any selfishness or care about things outside of art or material possessions - that is the self that he's throwing away. You can only be concerned with this idea of perfection. I always saw the boxing painting as almost religious in some ways. He's trying to approach the sublime or something. It's his form of transcendence, getting past everyday life or something. Just constantly seeking his idea of what is perfection.
For Noriko it's all the imperfections, all of the issues she's dealing with and all the guts of her problems that make up her art. He just tries to push all of that aside and doesn't really care about any of it. He's never concerned with the past. But I think you question that with him, and you don't really question Noriko's art because it feels very grounded. You don't have to make some leap.
They're very opposite in so many different ways, too, which is so attractive. He's making giant motorcycles and boxing but he's this gentle, small man who could never ride a motorcycle and would never box anyone. And then she has to be extra-feminine with everything she's doing, those pigtails. You can classify them visually so easily, which is interesting too.
It seems at times as if he doesn't think her work is what art should be. That art needs to be divorced from your private life, and that things like love shouldn't be involved in your art. He doesn’t think the word “love” shouldn't be in the name of their joint gallery show. Do you think he takes her work seriously?
Yeah. It's a good question. He says that she's grown up now, that she has a much stronger voice and that she has something to say and that he feels her energy and power. He uses those very simple terms to describe it. But I'm not sure whether he actually considers it worthy of whatever criteria he would use. It's tough. I think he's appeasing her in some ways. Even with [their joint gallery show] he said that he was jealous. You could sense a bit of - I don't know if it was jealousy or just having an issue with things changing. I don't think it's changed him, I just think that there's a pressure for him to adjust. I'm not really sure he's adjusting, though.
He has said many times that he looks at Noriko and her art in a different way, but there's something about it that seems a little inauthentic to me, and that his character isn't one that would ever really change. And Noriko, when asked the same question would say that no, he absolute has not changed. “He definitely doesn't consider me or my work in the same quality as his.”
You were filming them over the course of five years. The film has sort of an arc in terms of their relationship but it’s not as if there’s a drastic shift in his attitude toward her from beginning to end. It feels like their relationship has been very similar for a very long time. As you were filming them, do you think you saw anything change?
I think that they did. I think that what changed is that they were more vocal about something that had already existed. Certainly Noriko was more vocal about her need for space in their relationship and her need to be viewed not necessarily equally but with similar respect to Ushio. And with Ushio I don't think he had ever really been asked these questions. He had to express some opinion about it which he rarely if ever had to before.
He's said this in Q&As too. He sees their relationship differently now because of the film. The film showed him why Noriko has stayed with him, or why Noriko loves him. The film has showed him a lot about Noriko that he didn't necessarily think about before.
It isn't necessarily the film. It's the process of making the film. Noriko would have to tell Ushio, she would have to make up some reason why I was coming to see him when I wouldn't even be shooting him. "Why is Zach paying attention to Noriko so much?" But definitely the process of filming made them consider things that they hadn't in a long time.
It's interesting now too because we're doing press for the film, Ushio has actually been vocal about the fact that he thinks Noriko deserves as much attention from the Japanese press for the film as he does -which I don't think he ever would have felt that way before. Noriko is very vocal about it. She's taken ownership over the film. She had a real chip on her shoulder from her experiences being second class, and it's come full circle. It's odd to me because I didn't think Ushio would really care but it seems that he does more than I expected.
The film started out essentially as a short documentary about Ushio's artwork. I didn't really know if there was much to talk about in their relationship beyond what was on the surface. We were just more attracted to Ushio at first. We had this idea that he was an authentic artist and he lived this romantic life. When you think of New York and what defines New York culturally, it's that period of downtown artists in the 1970s and he was still living like that and it was very cool. Noriko was interesting but for different reasons and ones that definitely would take longer to uncover.
I didn't think it was interesting enough just as a film about Ushio or with the footage of their art that I'd filmed. I'd filmed a few of these dinner scenes that were really interesting but it wasn't good enough. The joint show that happened was bringing up all these new conversations and their relationship became this really complicated thing. I felt that if I could approach defining it, even though I would never define it, that approach would be interesting enough. It would feel unique in a documentary film because it's rare that you can really have drama like that and not have to create it.
I think my favorite thing that Noriko said at Saturday’s Q&A had to do with you, and whether you understood their relationship. Effectively she made the argument that you couldn’t know why they were still together when you met them because you were only 24 years old at the time. She felt that you needed to grow up to really get how that kind of love works. Now, five years later, do you think you understand their relationship?
Only as a result of spending time with them do I understand it more now. I almost thought at the beginning I could just show how odd they were, how bizarre they were to me. That would be enough. The further and further the project went on the more and more human they became and the more human their story became. I could relate to it or talk about things like: "Well Ushio is dependent on Noriko for really obvious reasons."
It's a little harder to understand why Noriko is dependent upon Ushio but after talking to a lot of their friends and seeing footage of Noriko, young in the corner holding a kid, very very shy and then seeing her today…. she went through a change, and not when I was filming. This 19 year old showed up in New York and was consumed by this person's world, and everything that she knows about here is a product of him. If that's your existence for most of your life you have an attachment to that too, and it's not so easy to break off. There was a moment early on when she could have left and she told me she could have divorced him and that he came begging back for her to stay and she had a kid....
I can make this point: the fact that it wasn't romantic made it more human and made it more real and that was ok. Early on I had this idea that if it's going to be a love story or a relationship story then we need some intimacy or we need something to see why these people are together. Then five years later I have what I have. It's ok for it to be this dependency, and people will understand that. It's not a typical romance. People always ask where the intimacy is in the film.
You thought it was going to be a more traditional artist documentary at first. I wonder what you mean by that, other than maybe a PBS-style biography. And do you think that in in order to make a more honest documentary, you need to do what you did.
More traditional in that it would have focused on things that are based in history, or easier to define, or that their art would be more the subject of the film. I thought that they wouldn't be happy with the film because it wasn't about their art, and as artists they wanted to promote the film. I had so much footage about Ushio's art and when people see the film they don't really think of Ushio as an important artist today. You could make a claim that he's kind of a misunderstood and he deserves a lot more attention than he does and that's not really in the film at all.
Could I only have done it in retrospect, create a non-traditional form of artist documentary? I think the point is that it’s not an art doc. It sucks having this genre of documentary to be in and then you get categorized that it's this film about artists, and that our core audience is really the art world. I don't know that our core audience should be the art world. We mock the art world. People in the art world don't know who the subjects are. I could have hired two actors to play roles of these two passionate struggling - in any form of art or whatever they did and live in this cave and live this bizarre lifestyle - to me I didn't even really see it as a documentary.
People are always concerned about how they're doing now and that wasn't ever the intention of the film either. If you were to see any feature film like "A Separation" or something and you were like "well what happened to the daughter?" You don't think about that after the film.
It's not principally about their art, but by animating her stuff and including the boxing painting in the opening credits you did still to an extent make a film about their work.
It's not not about their art. The art is what they do and it shows their personality. But the counter to that is that she's a writer, she's making comic books that depict her past. It's like American splendor, using the comics as window. If she were to write essays I would have just used those essays as voiceover or something, to see what her past was like.
Then you get this twist, that it's not exactly the past. And for Ushio his art isn't the kind that you really analyze. You don't need to sit there and think about whether you like it or not. You might, but it's not about that. That made it almost easier to concentrate on other aspects and not get bogged down in judgment or analysis with either of their artwork. If I had just shown her comics as literal comics I think you would have played the analytical role more but it's not really art, it's not archival footage.
"Cutie and the Boxer" opens in theaters on Friday, August 16.