Although Brooklyn-based artists Ushio and Noriko Shinohara may not be the first pair that come to mind when one is asked to name famous artist couples, charming observational docu “Cutie and the Boxer” should certainly garner them greater recognition. Capturing colorful lives dedicated to artistic practices that have so far garnered scant financial success, multihyphenate debut helmer Zachary Heinzerling’s five-years-in-the-making pic is a warts-and-all portrait of love, sacrifice and the creative spirit, which should please auds who frequent the alternative exhibition circuit of cinematheques and art museums, before it segues to broadcast and other home formats.
Archival news footage, homemovies and Noriko’s autobiographical “Cutie” drawings help sketch the couple’s complicated backstory. Pugnacious Ushio was already a member of the avant-garde in Japan and renowned for his boxing paintings before he came to New York City in 1969. There he achieved an initial success and mixed with artists including Andy Warhol. A hilarious photo shows Warhol and Ushio sitting next to one of Warhol’s giant soup cans.
In 1972, then-19-year-old art student Noriko headed to New York, where she fell in love and married the domineering, alcoholic Ushio, who was 21 years her senior. Within six months, she became pregnant. Although she struggled to be a good mother to their son Alex, he suffered from their impoverished living conditions and the constant presence of drunken adults.
Now after 40 years of marriage, during which Noriko suffered many disappointments, frustrations and lost opportunities as she assisted her demanding, attention-grabbing hubby, she is gaining recognition for her cartoon-like drawings and paintings, which serve as therapy and wish fulfillment. Inspired by the challenges of her marriage, the series depicts the relationship of Cutie and Bullie, with the Cutie character ultimately taming her rambunctious partner. Helmer Heinzerling animates some of the diary-like drawings, allowing audiences to experience Noriko’s past struggles in a non-recriminatory sort of way.
Scenes of Noriko and Ushio’s daily lives in their crowded, ramshackle living-and-studio space play out quietly, with the occasional barbed exchange that will resonate with other long-married couples. Alex, now an artist himself, sometimes lurks in the background, providing an undercurrent of something more disturbing, since he, too, obviously has a drinking problem. The self-portrait painting he shows his mother makes him look even more like a tortured soul.
Witnessing Ushio create his boxing paintings provides the film’s most exciting moments, with the artist literally punching a canvas with boxing gloves topped with foam sponges soaked in paint. Heinzerling sends up Ushio’s technique with a bring-down-the-house, slow motion end-credits sequence.
Intimate lensing by Heinzerling captures the opposites-attract personalities of his subjects. The striking score by avant-garde sax man Yasuaki Shimizu is a big plus.