In terms of running time (a mere 91 minutes), “Boxing Gym” reps a featherweight effort for Frederick Wiseman, the verite documentarian whose studies of human institutions often stretch past three hours. But the film, set in and around Lord’s Boxing Gym in Austin, Texas, proves plenty beefy in visual content, as it lingers on the dynamic training exercises of athletes from all age groups and walks of life. Adhering to the auteur’s trademark fly-on-the-wall style, pic favors portraiture over narrative and thus faces familiar critical and commercial limitations. Yet for those in Wiseman’s corner, “Boxing Gym” goes the distance.
The docu’s unwavering focus on repetitive and sometimes violent physical drills gives it a surface similarity to Wiseman’s Vietnam-era classic “Basic Training” (1971). So, too, “Boxing Gym,” shot in 2007, recalls the director’s previous film, “La Danse,” in its fascination with the intense discipline and balletic grace of athletes.
Per usual in films from the 80-year-old Wiseman’s monumental oeuvre, the viewer learns an enormous amount from “Boxing Gym,” but not at all in the conventional documentary manner. The film contains no interviews, unless one counts what the boxers and trainers say to one another; voiceovers and intertitles are likewise absent. In place of such tropes are images that put the audience in close contact with the boxers’ routines — hitting punching bags, lifting weights, doing sit-ups, throwing medicine balls, jumping rope, shadow boxing and sparring.
Wiseman’s repeated use of similar or identical drills throughout the film helps characterize boxing as a sport of seemingly endless physical conditioning, and the viewer can’t help but wonder how he or she would fare in this exacting environment. Philosophies of boxing, many expressed by the gym’s owner and founder, Richard Lord, seem to extend to athletic endeavors of any kind, if not to life itself. Dues must be paid, Lord maintains. A strong body enables a strong mind; rhythm is essential to speed and endurance; toughness and friendliness are not diametrically opposed.
Even apparently incidental conversation supports the film’s slowly emerging themes, as when a discussion of the shootings at Virginia Tech allows the gym’s controlled, sanctioned violence to appear healthy and cathartic by contrast — or at least debatably so. Images of a boxing mother’s baby observing the gym’s pounding action from a stroller seat hint at the indoctrination of young people within this occasionally brutal milieu.
Like many of Wiseman’s 35 other feature-length documentaries, “Boxing Gym” will appear tedious to some and riveting to others. Once again editing the film himself, the helmer — in the spirit of his subjects — adopts rhythms that are more consistent than fluctuating, this at the risk of monotony. The prevalence of loud time buzzers on the soundtrack is at once maddening and essential to capturing the strictly regimented nature of the gym.
Lord’s clientele ranges from an Internet billionaire to plumbers and students, but no one character in the film emerges as more prominent than another, the better for Wiseman to posit the gym itself as protagonist. Sound recording (by Wiseman) is sharp, while the handheld shooting of sparring action — in the director’s longtime format of 16mm — points to some fancy footwork on the part of d.p. John Davey.