Ushio Shinohara is an art-world eccentric who specializes in cardboard sculptures of motorcycles and “boxing paintings,” huge canvases he smears with paint using foam-covered boxing gloves. Together with his wife of 39 years, Noriko, he lives in a cramped New York City loft; Noriko, whose own art career was sidelined by Ushio’s alcoholism, acts as his assistant. Sometimes they are visited by their Americanized son, an alcoholic like his father. The family has lived hand-to-mouth for decades; on the morning of Ushio’s 80th birthday, Noriko informs him that their utilities are about to be shut off.
Cutie And The Boxer, a documentary profile of the Shinoharas by director/cinematographer Zachary Heinzerling, is at its best when it focuses on its subjects as people rather than artists. Early on, Heinzerling’s handheld camera investigates their strange, co-dependent world with intrusive close-ups. His tendency to focus on Noriko’s long, beautiful gray hair—flapping in the wind, being combed, or bound into braids—eroticizes it, perhaps unconsciously. The overwhelming impression is one of extreme physical—and therefore psychological—intimacy with a profoundly broken couple who have endured out of stubbornness and emotional need. When Noriko rushes to open the door for Ushio, Heinzerling’s camera follows close behind down a series of dimly lit staircases; the scene perfectly encapsulates Noriko’s dependence on her husband.
Unfortunately, Cutie And The Boxer feels the need to contextualize—and possibly valorize—the Shinoharas as artists, which detracts from its portrayal of them as a couple. Snoozy animated interludes—a staple of contemporary artist docs—depict their early years together using imagery from Noriko’s artwork. Footage of Ushio at work in the ’60s and ’70s provides less insight into his artistic persona than the many self-aggrandizing statements he makes directly to the camera or the tired expression Noriko wears at his gallery openings and art sales. The only truly potent bit of archival footage that Heinzerling digs up is a videotape of the couple hosting friends in the ’80s; Ushio gets naked from the waist down while Noriko looks on in a drunken stupor. Though Noriko describes their relationship as being like “two flowers in one pot,” with only enough room for one of them to blossom as an artist, the truth seems to be sadder, less romantic, and more relatable.