Sunday, November 14, 2010

Boxing Gym
(from Boxing Gym/Zipporah Films, 2010)

One irritating visual cliché in films is the foot shot. This is the shot that shows a character’s feet at ground level, usually in motion. In his new documentary Boxing Gym, Frederick Wiseman takes this dead image and re-births it. Uma Thurman’s moving feet in Tarantino’s brawl-fests are shown to tag some supposed dramatic energy on to her characters; the moving feet of boxers in Wiseman’s brawl-fest are shown because these characters move like dancers. They parry around a punching bag with the left foot in front, followed by the right foot. They do a tap dance in the ring while they threaten to punch each other’s lights out. It may be self-evident that this film has much in common with Wiseman’s La Danse, from last year. But that film was actually about ballet. This film is about a dance with violence, or rather, pseudo-violence making constant contact with the real thing.
            Perhaps the protagonist of the film is Richard Lord, the manager of the boxing gym of the title, in Austin, Texas. Most of the people who come in and out of the gym are locals from all social classes and ethnicities. Men only have the slightest edge on women in attendance, and many of the regular participants are married or divorced working people over forty years old. There is apparently even a 68-year old woman who can “…hit the punching bag better than any one else,” according to Lord. But although Lord presides over all the operations in the gym, he tries to stay out of the way. The protagonist may also be the young man who rides in from Houston, casually boasting of needing to “take things up a notch.” It may be Eric, whose daughter, we are informed, attends Virginia Tech and is wounded in the fateful shooting that occurred there, some time near the end of the film. Characters such as these—victims and proponents of violence real and staged—are among the huge cast of characters, but they are the one’s Wiseman gently guides our attention to. Otherwise, he doesn’t intrude; a barely registered agreement between Richard Lord and his camera.
            But despite its pre-occupations, it would be a grave mistake to recognize Boxing Gym as a romantic film, or even more tepidly, a film with a message. Boxing Gym is a work built on physicality, deriving its rhythms from people’s bodies rather than a narrative or a meaning. The film is not ruled by any theme, insofar as there is one. It is ruled by spectacular images like the one of five boxers, warming up in the ring by doing a frog-leap exercise; four crouch down, the fifth propels himself over each of their backs with his hands until he reaches the front of the chain, at which point the new last man stands and propels himself to the front of the chain, where he crouches down…and so forth. All this amounts to nothing more than a fascination with the way images move across the screen. Wiseman is one of the few filmmakers today to concern himself with such a basic objective. This approach takes more guts than in takes to punch a man across the cheek.
(from Boxing Gym/Zipporah Films, 2010)
            So while on one level, this particular dance from the eighty-year old Wiseman is a work of deep concern, even stating that goes far overboard. His films are in one sense public service announcements, and in another sense vast, observational tapestries. They are in one sense deeply personal and in another sense staggeringly holistic. We can’t ever be sure. They are so cool, so presentational (not representational), that they can hardly even be written about. This is not to say that Wiseman never shows his hand; Boxing Gym takes on an unpredictable structure in which nearly two-thirds of the film are spent in the close quarters of the gym before we are shown wide shots of the surrounding city in the middle of the day. Wiseman knows when he has to pull back and take a long view of the surroundings. No film can do without a context. But Wiseman’s context is, literally, a long view, nothing more. There is no romance or metaphor in those Austin buildings. Only room for sparring.