Thursday, March 24, 2011
Since Boxing Gym is a movie about boxing, and since I saw it right after I saw The Fighter, the logical thing to do would be to try to work out a comparison between the two. Alas, the biggest link I can find between them is how aptly named they both are. Where The Fighter is a movie about a man who has to fight with his family and his opponents, Boxing Gym is a movie about nothing less and possibly nothing more than a boxing gym.
For three months, veteran director Frederick Wiseman filmed the everyday goings on in small uncommercial Austin, Texas boxing gym, and this is what he found. It's a movie that's more unusual for what it doesn't have than what it does; no voiceover, no interviews, no story, no conventional structure, no characters, no buildup to some grand event, no fancy editing, no imposed or easily discernible message. There is precious little actual boxing in the film-- we are only shown a few short sparring session between gym members. Instead, the movie is filled with scenes of people training; they jog, stretch, do pushups and various other body strengthening exercises, hit tires with hammers, throw heavy balls around, jump rope, play leapfrog, practice their jabs, uppercuts, and hooks, punch speed bags, punch heavy bags, punch double end bags, shadow box, and punch the gloved mitts of various trainers.
All of these exercises are repeated, and shots of one person exhausting himself while hitting various things can last over a minute. What Wiseman ends up with is a film that comes from reality--nothing artificial is forced into the self-contained world of the gym--and is very real. But not entirely. Whether or not it's Wiseman's intention, his reality is transformed ever so slightly by his cinema; the various workouts are distilled into their sweaty leathery essence. The training eventually becomes mesmerizing, the sound of things being hit becomes rhythmic and musical, and the boxers' routine starts to look like a ritual. Above all we notice their discipline, their intense concentration, and their almost religious devotion. And the fact that the last film Weisman did was La Danse, a study of the Paris Opera Ballet, reinforces what's already obvious; boxing is dance. Just take a look at that one patiently sustained shot where only the players feet are framed as they bounce around, Muhammad Ali style, in their own loosely choreographed ballet.
It would, however, be a waste not to show the human side of this spectacle, and Wiseman obliges us by including some excellent scenes where he captures, with astounding naturalness, the interactions of various locals. I wish we had a few more of these encounters. As it is, we can't really follow any particular particular member, as the only person who makes multiple appearances is the gym's owner, Richard Lord--a grizzled fellow who may not be very sharp, but is kindly, helpful, and knows his stuff. Nevertheless, what we do get is pretty great. One man says he plays marimba in a band, and joyously demonstrates the dance that goes along with the songs he plays. Two boys make small talk, and one says how much he loves the buzz of getting hit in the jaw. Two young men talk about their military training, and one mentions that he hopes to get deployed eventually. Two older men talk about the currently unfolding Virginia tech massacre; one of them has a relative who was caught up in it.
If any of these last three conversations makes it seem like Boxing Gym is a study of the violence that's soaked into American society, that could not be further from the truth. The movie is actually surprisingly bloodless. If anything, the gym is a refuge from the violence outside; violence that can be found in the schools, on the streets, abroad, or (to a lesser extent) in the stadiums where actual matches take place. When one kid comes in with a bruised eye to learn how to fight, he's quickly told that boxing is not for revenge but for defense. (Paraphrasing) "Everyone here stays away from fights because they want to save their fists for the ring. Some people come in here looking for trouble, but they realize pretty soon that this place isn't for them." Another kid is also warned against fighting street-style. Mothers leave their babies next to the equipment to sleep happily while they train. That's another thing; there's complete gender and racial equality in here. We're told that one 68 year old woman can hit the speed bag better than anyone else.
Too bloodless, then? No matter how supporting the community in this gym is, you can't just gloss over the fact that boxing is a violent sport. It's possible that Boxing Gym is just a little too appealing for the middle-aged art house crowd. The one punch to the face that there is in this move--not exactly delivered with Tyson-level force--managed to elicit a couple gasps from audience members. But I think that Wiseman avoids all violence here not because he wants to distance us from boxing's aggressiveness, but because that's for a different movie entirely. It's not like Wiseman hasn't done brutal and painful before. His first and most famous film, Titicut Follies (1967), showed the terrible conditions of a Massachusetts mental hospital, which were apparently so nasty that the film was banned, and institutions like the one it depicted closed down. His 1971 movie Basic Training was the inspiration for the extended basic training section of Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, right down to the attempted suicide by one of the soldiers (Kubrick requested the 35 mm film strip from Wiseman and didn't give it back until months later). But when it comes to boxing, we have all the brutality we need. We can get instant gratification from all those fast flying punches on TV or in award winning movies. For anyone who wants to get their gratification by looking more closely than they ever thought possible at the preparation, patience, and joy that go into the sport, this movie is essential.
P. S. Wiseman, who's now 81 years old, may only have one truly well-known movie with Titicut Follies, but he's one of America's most respected directors. Taken from a Village Voice article on Boxing Gym: "I was recently sitting with a group of French directors, and at a certain point the conversation turned to Fred Wiseman," critic Kent Jones wrote eight years ago in Film Comment. "Without hesitation, everyone agreed that he was probably America's greatest living filmmaker..."--not to mention the world-champion practitioner of the form the French call cinema verité. Most of his 39 films have fewer than 100 votes on imdb, but they all look absolutely fascinating. Institutions that have gotten the Wiseman treatment include a slaughterhouse (Meat) a welfare office (Welfare) a Niemen Marcus store in Texas (The Store) and a high school (High School I and High School II).