Love and art can’t be quantified. People have vastly different definitions of both heady concepts. What one person might see as either could be mistaken for madness or masochism by another. With his tremendously moving and gracious documentary Cutie and the Boxer, Zachary Henzerling looks at a pair of New York City based artists, their work, their passion, and the love that has kept them together for 39 years through some of the hardest frustrations, setbacks, and personal vices.
80 year old Ushio “Bullie” Shinohara came to SoHo via Tokyo in the 1960s and quickly became the toast of the city’s avant-garde community. His paintings (which start with him punching canvases with sponge wrapped boxing gloves) and his enormous cardboard sculptures have garnered lots of attention over the decades, but as Henzerling joins him, they haven’t exactly been earning him a lot of money as of late in spite of some high profile gallery showcases. His wife, Noriko, has her own artistic pursuits, gearing up for the largest exhibition of her paining ever: a look at living with Bullie, their love, and their difficulties.
Few films could actually convey what it’s like to actually struggle and give one’s life over to art as completely as Ushio and Noriko have. They’re behind on their rent by months. There’s a kind of unspoken tension that comes out in the way they sarcastically flirt with one another. Ushio over the course of the film begins to find himself frustrated with pieces he’s grown unhappy with. Noriko clearly has a hard time not only reliving Bullie’s former alcoholism and his often inattentive hard-partying nature, but the open drinking and problems of her son Alex. These pains are real and dealt with respectfully and sans embellishment. Both Ushio and Noriko agreed long ago that their art would sometimes lead to great suffering, but they have accepted it. They deal with it in healthier ways now, both of them old pros that are fascinating to follow at this point in their careers.
But possibly even more beautiful is Henzerling’s focus on the kind of love that’s unwavering and indisputable. Despite their problems as individuals, it’s apparent right from the outset in dinner table conversations about Ushio’s birthday or his dislike of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that these two were made for each other. No matter the hardship they have endured and the frustrations they face (or even at times their mutual jealousy for each other’s work), they always end up back on a mutually agreeable page. She thinks he never accepts enough money for his work and is sometimes too precious about what he agrees to sell, but she still backs him up when faced with an arrogant art buyer who won’t take no for an answer. He finds beauty in her sketches, drawings, and paintings about their lives (many of which become stunningly animated asides to fill in the backstory of Noriko’s personal experiences amid the madness of the NYC art scene and raising a child with little tangible assistance), but he also clearly thinks her work hits too close to home for him to be objective about it. But there’s always love in everything they do.
Henzerling gets right to the heart of what makes an artist: pure love for what they do. The relationship in his film informs the artwork that they make; both people getting out of both sides of their lives exactly what they put into it. There really hasn’t been another film about artists this funny, stirring, and at times tragic that hasn’t resorted to some form of artistic embellishment. The film even serves as an artistic achievement in its own right thanks to spectacular editing and cinematography that feel like a big screen experience instead of a standard documentary on a small canvas. I doubt there ever could be again. Bullie and Noriko are indeed special cases. Few artists could have careers for over 40 years, but both have done that. The fact that they have remained together for almost as long was an even harder challenge. It’s admirable and as heartwrenching to behold as it sounds.