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Laura Blum

Laura is a festival correspondent covering films and the festival circuit for She also publishes on Thalo



"Cutie and the Boxer": Wham! Pow! Boom!


Just as Japan seeks to amend its pacifist constitution, along comes a film that shows it had a belligerent force after all, until 1969. That's when avant-garde artist Ushio Shinohara hit the New York art scene with his "box paintings" using aggression he'd soon extend -- emotionally -- to his future wife. Two decades his junior, Noriko was an art student whose career would derail as she became his de facto assistant, handmaiden and mother of his child.

"The average one has to help genius," Ushio crows in Zachary Heinzerling's documentary Cutie and the Boxer. Mick Jagger's Japanese look-alike may be full of himself, but his method of blamming paint-drenched boxing gloves against massive canvases will no doubt impress the viewer as well. Together with his whimsical cardboard sculptures, Ushio's scrappy brand of action painting earned him enfant terrible stardom in Japan and the New York of fan Andy Warhol. Yet this hasn't guaranteed fortune, and these days the octogenerian dukes it out with the household piggybank.

Not that he or Noriko could entertain a different way of making a living. "Art is a demon," says Ushio, fingering another antagonist in this bright-splatting non-fiction drama. Like love itself, art is a force to struggle against, yet ultimately worthy of big sacrifice.

The film, Heinzerling's first, allows viewers to burrow into the couple's Brooklyn life as they continue making a colorful mess of creative and romantic desire. "It's hard to be two flowers in one pot," says Noriko. "Sometimes it's hard to get enough nutrients."

Chronicling 40 years of marriage has given Noriko both the subject of her "Cutie" series and eventually the nerve to assert herself with imperious, acclaim-seeking Ushio. These days her cartoon-style drawings and water colors are garnering attention as aficionados follow Cutie and Bullie's gusty relationship like a soap opera. Time has done its work, and now Noriko's alter-ego is emboldened to subdue her pugnacious, once boozy spouse.

Yet for all her spoken and sketched barbs, the silver-pigtailed artist confesses her undying passion for Ushio. "Opposites attract -- similar personalities repel and break up."

Heinzerling has not simply documented the couple's partnership and work, he has retouched them with his own master strokes. Animations pulled from Noriko's images mix with archival news footage, home movies and five years of Heinzerling's intimate camerawork to yield a portrait of the artists that's as witty, poignant and entrancing as their creations themselves. 



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