It is with a combined sense of shame and excitement when I admit that I had only seen one Frederick Wiseman film in its entirety prior to screening his latest gem, Boxing Gym. Shame because I could name a dozen titles of his recommended by as many people, and excitement because this film has motivated me to finally donate some time to the observational cinema of this true auteur.
Wiseman is known for documenting the normal, everyday operations of familiar public institutions. He will go in with a very small crew and shoot thousands of feet of film (still 16mm!!) over several weeks so that his subjects appear to become very comfortable and almost forget the camera’s presence. This is where the joy of the films lie, as it is rare to watch people interact so naturally onscreen that it delivers an almost voyeuristic thrill. Extensive use of a zoom lens is employed to help keep the camera person at a respectful distance, yet they still manage to record clear audio of conversations taking place in loud, busy spaces. With almost 40 feature documentaries under his belt, Wiseman has clearly established an effective method which helps him to paint the most truthful picture possible. Many will tell you that it’s impossible to put a camera on people without changing them and would prefer I use the word ‘convincing’ instead of ‘truthful,’ but I challenge them to name someone who comes closer to making this a possibility without exploiting or tricking the subject.
I like to view Wiseman’s work as near perfect little time capsules. High School (1968) felt like the closest I’ll ever come to seeing what high school was really like for my parents. Even though Boxing Gym was only filmed a couple years ago, it feels like the gym has changed very little in the last thirty. From the outside Lord’s Gym doesn’t appear to be much more than a garage, and on the inside the walls are papered with old posters and boxing paraphernalia. The owner walks around with a large cordless phone on his belt and I doubt owns nor has much use for a cell phone. Many of the gym’s training methods depicted appear to be of his own low-tech invention, such as learning rhythm by bouncing a sledgehammer off a tire repeatedly (which ends up being surprisingly hypnotic to watch). Although the film never gets into this, I think one of the reasons it was made was because this is the kind of old-school, grass roots facility that we see less and less of these days.
Wiseman finds art in the everyday and beauty in the casual relationships and sense of community created by the gym. It attracts people from all walks of life, from young kids to senior citizens and everyone in between. Even babies are permitted to come with parents who can’t get a sitter while they work out. It seems like people are there to socialize or bond over the sport as much as they are to learn it. It doesn’t concentrate on any one boxer or show any big fights or events, as it’s more about the various people who find themselves drawn to the space and its unique atmosphere. I think in a very subtle, almost subliminal way, Wiseman does romanticize his subject, as it’s hard not to fall in love with this Lord’s Gym and tell yourself would join were it not all the way down in Texas.
At first I was surprised when I noticed people walking out of the movie several times throughout the screening. Then I realized these were most likely people who had never seen a Wiseman film before and didn’t know what to expect. You need to be in the proper mindset to just sit back and let the film wash over you without looking for too much meaning or narrative. I’ll admit that one of the things that appealed to me about this film versus his others was a running length nearly half of what he usually ends up with, but now armed with a better understanding of his work, I think I’m ready to tackle Basic Training, Juvenile Court, Meat, and Domestic Violence, to name just a few.