“American Gothic” in DUMBO: Cutie and the Boxer

08/14/2013 4:00 AM |

Cutie and the Boxer
Directed by Zachary Heizerling

This movie’s about many things—art, family, the American dream—but, as its title suggests, it’s primarily about a relationship: the marriage between DUMBO-based artist couple Noriko and Ushio Shinohara. Introduced to us on the morning of Ushio’s 80th birthday, he and his wife trade a series of stinging jabs that come off as weirdly affectionate. “You are so pitiful,” she chuckles. “Don’t get mugged on your way home,” he calls as she leaves his studio, before confiding to the camera, “The average one has to support the genius.” He clearly considers himself the genius, though his career has taken a nosedive since his gnarly cardboard sculptures and post-Pollock action paintings—made by punching long canvases with paint-soaked gloves—fell out of favor. Now his few hard-earned sales support them both.

Ushio’s work is übermacho to the point of verging on satire, while Noriko’s is very feminine. Director Heizerling animates her precise, comic-like paintings—a semi-autobiographical series titled “Cutie and the Bullie”—to tell the couple’s history, splicing in home videos and vintage news profiles of Ushio. Their son, also an artist, is most conspicuous by his awkward near-absence, an apparent casualty of his parents’ careers. Their dingy and cluttered loft is a far richer character, externalizing decades of literal and symbolic baggage. Reclining in lawn chairs on their Jay Street rooftop as trains rumble over the glowing Manhattan Bridge, Noriko and Ushio resemble a bohemian update of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.”

Heizerling conveys the tensions between Noriko and Ushio very economically while emphasizing their interdependence. When they’re not arguing or pausing for a moment of unexpected affection, they’re in their studios: he banging away at his canvases and bolting together giant cardboard motorcycles; she carefully painting the next passage in her revenge fantasy. Likening the pair to flowers sharing a pot, Noriko explains that when things are bad—as they seem at the film’s start—they are dire, but when their fortunes improve, they both thrive.

The beautifully shot and sensitively edited documentary builds toward a heightened moment of shared triumph. Noriko is far more candid and comes across as more genuine, which can give the impression that she is Cutie and the Boxer’s hero. But the intellectual, emotional and aesthetic bout the film portrays suggests she and Ushio are pushing—rather than punching—each other.

Opens August 16