Say this for Frederick Wiseman: No one is ever going to accuse one of his documentaries of being fake, or a hoax. Wiseman’s latest film, Boxing Gym, adheres to the same vérité principles he’s been following since the ’60s. He settles into one place—in this case, an Austin, Texas gym where amateurs, pros, and hobbyists of all ages and ethnicities practice footwork and jabs—and just takes in the action and conversations, without trying to guide the action or even ask any questions.
In keeping with its subject matter, Boxing Gym is a little faster-paced and dynamic than some of Wiseman’s other films about public institutions. It’s much shorter, with more camera moves and quick cuts. But there’s no narrative, and though Wiseman spends a lot of time observing the gym’s owner and manager, Richard Lord, he doesn’t stick long enough with Lord—or anyone else, for that matter—to turn Boxing Gym into a character sketch. The movie isn’t all that aestheticized, either. Boxing Gym is shot on film, and it features more than a few beautiful shots, but whenever anything looks too good, Wiseman cuts away quickly. Anything that smacks of a director imposing a point of view on the material, Wiseman avoids.
As such, viewers’ interest in Boxing Gym will likely wax and wane, depending on their interest in martial arts. There’s a lot of footage of athletes skipping rope and socking heavy-bags here, and not enough of the downtime, when they sit around and talk technique, chat about their kids, tell anecdotes about what they do when they aren’t working out, or pontificate about how dangerous the world is becoming. Still, anyone who’s spent any time around gym-rats will appreciate how well Wiseman captures that peculiar mix of geekiness and sweaty determination that marks those who use brute physicality as an escape from the grind of everyday life. And in a way, Wiseman’s intimate-but-unrevealing approach suits the culture he’s observing. People walk in the door, pay their $50 monthly fee, and get as much action as they can before the round-timer goes beep.