It would be a shame if those not in the habit of watching documentaries about visual artists stayed away from Cutie and the Boxer. This Oscar-nominated first film from first-time director Zachary Heinzerling tells a story to which just about anyone can relate. The film examines the lives of Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, two Brooklyn-based artists who've been married for 40 years. There's plenty of familiar struggle here — to fulfill artistic visions, to make the rent, and in 80-year-old Ushio's case, to regain his early stature as an artist while in the twilight of his career. But this is not a typical struggling artist story. A meditation on marriage, long-term relationships and personal identity, Cutie and the Boxer quietly generates the kind of emotional range typically reserved for narrative films.
Heinzerling shot the film over five years but spent the first three waiting for the Shinoharas to forget about his presence and make possible the kind of fly-on-the-wall footage he wanted. The brash Ushio was a member of New York's early '70s pop art avant-garde, and was known for an action-painting technique in which he punches his canvas with paint-filled boxing gloves. The more introverted Noriko was a wide-eyed 19-year-old art student just arrived in New York when she came under Ushio's spell. Twenty-one years his junior, she became his de facto assistant as well as his wife, and neglected her own art in the bargain. Noriko finally finds her own voice as an artist through comics-style drawings and paintings depicting the couple's history together through thinly veiled characters named Cutie and Bullie. Much to Ushio's chagrin, it is Noriko's journey of self-discovery that finally takes over the film.
Cutie and the Boxer uses animation to bring Noriko's drawings to life, and a minimalist score by experimental composer Yasuaki Shimizu strikes a fitting note of melancholy. All these elements lead back to the still-evolving personal relationship at the center of the film. The Shinoharas' story is funny and sad and universal. Their unlikely presence at the upcoming Oscars may provide one of few reasons to stick with the inevitably overlong broadcast.