A friend of mine who’s a poet once told me that she’d never date another writer. If I remember the conversation right, it had a lot to do with sharing too many neuroses and concerns with someone, which would become intolerable; it would be impossible to escape an atmosphere of work. The man she eventually married, one of my old roommates, is not a writer.
Some people in the same profession can make these kinds of relationships work, though. Novelists Michael Chabon & Ayelet Waldman or Zadie Smith & Nick Laird, for instance; ditto comic book pros like Matt Fraction & Kelly Sue DeConnick or Jimmy Palmiotti & Amanda Conner. In the art world, the biggies I can think of are Alfred Stieglitz & Georgia O’Keeffe, Lee Krasner & Jackson Pollock, and Frida Kahlo & Diego Rivera. (Caveat: some of these relationships are more dysfunctional than others.)
In Zachary Heinzerling’s documentary Cutie and the Boxer, the focus is Ushio & Noriko Shinohara, two older New York artists who still struggle to pay the bills, still create, and still love each other.
[This review originally ran as part of our 2013 Tribeca Film Festival coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with the limited theatrical release of the film.]
Cutie and the Boxer
Director: Zachary Heinzerling
Release Date: August 16th, 2013 (limited)
Ushio Shinohara moved to New York from Japan during the late 1960s. His best known art consists of sculptures made of discarded cardboard — Harleys, dinosaurs, other machines, all the materials found on the street and dragged back to his studio — and action paintings in which he straps on boxing gloves saturated with paint and beats up some canvas. The opening credits of Cutie and the Boxer capture Ushio in action making art, which is surprisingly hypnotic. (Part of that is thanks to Yasuaki Shimizu’s score.) He’s 80 years old but still hits the canvas with enough force to send splatters of paint up high for a minute or two. Think of it as Kirby crackle gone neo-dada. At the end of this display, Ushio poses like he’s just floored Sonny Liston.
As we learn from her art, Noriko was only 19 when she first moved to the city. She instantly sought out Ushio, who was in his 40s at the time, and the two shacked up pretty immediately. She was young and he needed the money. Noriko’s an artist in her own right, but there are times that Ushio thinks of her merely as an assistant or appendage to his own career. Much of their life together is chronicled in a new series of autobiographic watercolors that Noriko’s working on called Cutie and Bullie — she’s Cutie, he’s Bullie, and between them things aren’t always great. Cutie says in broken English, “I’m naked because I’m so poor.”
Rather than create a standard documentary profile on two artists, Heinzerling approaches the material in a hybrid form. Part of Cutie and the Boxer is done verite style, with the camera simply catching Ushio and Noriko going through their routines and setting up new art shows. There’s a sense that the camera isn’t even there in the apartment as they eat dinner and worry about bills. This fly-on-the-wall quality breaks occasionally, however. Sometimes the two of them will get into a discussion with each other that functions as if they’re also addressing an unspoken question from off camera. It’s surprisingly compelling since both artists are interesting and vastly contrasting people to observe.
There are two notable breaks from verite, however. Cutie and the Boxer also grabs snippets from previous documentaries on Ushio as well as the couple’s home videos and family photographs. The previous Ushio docs reveal the creative side of the couple while the personal videos and photos reveal a home life that’s precarious and recklessly bohemian. Their son pops in and out of the film, and he seems extremely withdrawn and private. He’s also working on art like his parents. The most fascinating break from verite, however, comes from animated versions of Noriko’s Cutie and Bullie series, which is everything that needs to be known about the contours of this relationship told through art.
Noriko succinctly identifies the difficulties of two creative people in the same field being in a relationship together: it’s like two flowers in the same pot. In order to flourish, each artists will need their own sense of space and identity, but when two artists share so much time together and so much space, there’s the possibility of stifling the other person, whether it’s intentional or not. One half of the couple may be more successful than the other, or may feel jealousy over a lack of recognition; sometimes artistic identities get mixed or dominated. If they had enough money and enough fame, maybe two separate flowers would be okay in such close proximity, but being an artist in New York isn’t easy, and it isn’t getting any easier either.
Given her own experience moving to New York and essentially supporting Ushio for a time, it makes sense that Noriko would make this observation about a single pot and two plants. She’s much younger than he is, and she even put her art career on hold in order to raise their son. Ushio’s roots were allowed to take up a lot of soil, and Noriko had to tend to his business rather than allow herself to grow. She’s tolerated this with such grace, but there is understandable frustration to her grace, which might be why her Cutie and Bullie series is so rife with emotion and so compelling.
I think this just points to another reason why my poet friend never wanted to date or marry another writer. It’s nice for a person to be able to have a pot of one’s own and to be financially self-sufficient as well. It’s hard enough being one struggling artist in a relationship. Two struggling artists can be misery; not just struggling but starving. One home video of a drunk Ushio reveals the suffering of the artist and the noble absurdity of the struggling creative-type: there is greatness in the work, there is acclaim for the work, but behind all that greatness is just the penniless creator and the anxiety of rent and groceries looming over the hungover dawn.
But at least there’s Noriko.
Despite their differences and whatever effects their relationship had on Noriko’s work, there’s something to these experiences that have allowed them both to come into their own as artists and as people. Ushio could continue to be Ushio, and even aspire to open new facets of himself. Noriko was always herself, and though she may have been in the shadow of Ushio, it’s there in the shade that she found her voice and her own artistic identity. Somehow we’ve gotten to know each of them, as if throughout the film some subtle narrative structure developed simply by observation. The little interactions flesh out the full story of this fascinating relationship.
As Ushio and Noriko prepare for a new gallery show, Ushio discusses titles and how he doesn’t want anything pretentious. Instead, he looks for inspiration in an issue of Jack Kirby’s Devil Dinosuar, and there he finds the name. It’s a bestial one, it’s primal, it’s what he’s all about. Noriko gets a say in the name as well, and, like their relationship, what she adds to it is wholly her own. It’s difficult for two flowers to share the same pot, but it’s miraculous when they cause each other to bloom.