Sundance 2013 brought the lady goods in a big way. Fifty percent of the festival's featured films were directed by female directors this year, a stunning leap to full parity for the first time ever at the festival, and a miraculous chasm jumper when compared with the reported disparity in Hollywood (only seven percent of directors registered with the director’s guild are female). But we’ll come back to that some other day.
One of the best female stories of this year's festival was artist Noriko Shinohara’s (aka “Cutie”) , told with energy and humor by director Zachary Heinzerling, who earned a well-deserved Directing Award for U.S. Documentary on Saturday night at the Sundance Awards Ceremony. Cutie and the Boxer reveals the domestic and artistic lives of Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, two Japanese artists making the long and arduous artists’ journey in New York City.
Noriko, a privileged and well-off Japanese art student, comes to New York in the early '70s to study art. When she wanders into Ushio’s studio one day, her fate is sealed. Ushio invites her to come “paint” in his studio (Cutie says: "His bed is so dirty, and there's no sheet, but he's a great artist"). It doesn’t take long before Noriko’s role becomes a familiar one: “Free Secretary, free assistant, free chef,” she says to him at one point in the film, 40 years after their relationship starts. “You only stay with me because you’re poor and you need me,” she says. Ushio looks at the camera and grins.
Ushio and Noriko’s stories are inextricably entwined, but Heinzerling seems to dwell on the latter's more self-aware point of view. Whereas Ushio--still adorably hyperactive and pugilistic at 80--strikes the canvas bare-chested wearing paint-soaked boxing gloves, Noriko works more reflectively in a small space. Ushio eschews self-reflection, and his art is based in energetic spurts of freneticism, while Noriko observes and analyzes. This contrast highlights the dynamic between the designation Ushio gives himself (only half-jokingly) as “the real genius” in the household and Noriko’s role as “the assistant”.
In a hopeful and rather inspiring turn, though, Noriko begins to find what she feels is her true artistic voice when she creates her alter-ego, Cutie (who is always naked, because she's poor, though her nude figure also references the nude female figure found on oh-so-many an artist's canvas). In her series Cutie and Bullie, a memoir of sorts about her 40-year marriage to the often impoverished alcoholic Ushio, brought to life in her figure Bullie, she begins to tell the truth about the life an artist/wife lives. She plans carefully for the day a gallerist will visit her husband's studio to discuss an upcoming show. After he views Ushio’s pieces, Noriko says, “I have some work I’d like to show you. Would you come to my studio?” The gallerist loves her work and agrees to give her a show, saying, “I’ll put Ushio in the main room and I’ll give you the back room.” Noriko glows with the success, teasingly asking Ushio, "You jealous?"
Brilliantly, Heinzerling doesn't editorialize or offer simple conclusions about the couple’s complex relationship. We often don’t know what Ushio is really thinking, because he doesn’t disclose too much. Words reside in Noriko’s domain, and her Cutie series tells her story with both text and images, sometimes brought to life in funny and poignant animations in the film. One scene, in which the couple works quietly in the same space, but across the room from each other, shows that their fraught and turbulent marriage also has a basis in real companionship and shared values. The contrast between the early years of their marriage, documented in Super 8 footage taken by a friend in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and their later years is striking, and shows the arc of their relationship without any direct commentary.
Heinzerling uses a light but energetic hand in putting together some absolutely brilliant footage. One scene, in Ushio’s studio with his dealer Ethan Cohen and an acquisitionist from the Guggenheim, comes off like a hilarious scene from a Woody Allen film. The two dealers speak in loud condescending voices about the art to the artists, as if to make sure the native Japanese speakers, Ushio and Noriko, can understand the complicated world of art acquisition. The artists have been scraping together cash to pay their rent and utilities, and bailing water from a leaky ceiling out the window onto the street—their livelihoods depend on this sale, and the tension is palpable. “The Guggenheim is very poor,” the curator says. “We very poor, too,” Noriko says, “So we all poor.” In her quiet way, again, Noriko is able to speak some sort of truth to some sort of power, pointing out how ridiculous the relative poverty of the Guggenheim is against the imminent loss of heating and electricity in her own apartment if she can’t come up with the money to pay her past-due bills soon.
Unlike other artist documentaries featuring a frustrated female muse, like Scott Hicks’ Glass: a portrait of Phillip in twelve parts or the bio pic Pollock, that includes a story line covering Lee Krasner’s less notable career in comparison to her husband’s (Ushio and Noriko are compared to Pollock and Krasner at one point in Cutie and the Boxer, much to Ushio’s delight and amazement), this film shows a more nuanced relationship and the evolution of both artists. Neither all triumph nor all failure, their lives are in process, both as partners and artists, and it’s refreshing and hopeful to see progress, even later in Noriko’s life, towards gaining an audience and a voice in a world that has never provided full support for female artists. Heinzerling’s attention and patience with this story is one of the biggest successes of Sundance 2013, both in terms of great filmmaking and in showing, center stage as it were, the too often neglected territory of the feminine muse/artist.
Photos via Cutieandtheboxer.com (Press Photos)