Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 07 October 2010
Source Zipporah Films digital projection
Features: Frederick Wiseman
Categories The 48th New York Film Festival
Frederick Wiseman has filmed subjects as institutionally complex as a state legislature and as socially diverse and geographically broad as entire towns (in Aspen and Belfast, Maine). His thirty-eighth film, by contrast, considers a comparatively small space, one that seems rather narrowly defined in its purpose, import, and range of activity. It is a boxing gym, not a great deal larger than the boxing ring it surrounds, but large enough to contain a small gradient of the population of Austin, Texas: women and men, professional and amateur, of varied ethnicities, classes, and professional and educational backgrounds, each engaged in the determined, grueling, rhythmic ritual of boxing.
Or, if not actually boxing, then training to box: training is, for many in R. Lord’s Boxing Gym, an end in itself, promoting strength, endurance, and balance. (Gym owner Richard Lord reports, “I got a 68-year-old lady can hit the speedbag better’n anybody.”) For others, boxing as a practice serves as a way of negotiating pain and cultivating self-respect. For still others, it is a means of pedagogy, of educating children and adults alike in the ethics of self-reliance, control, morality, and perseverance through an array of repetitive verbal and physical cues, maxims, and exhortations. What boxing, for the most part, is not — at least within the heavily padded and postered walls of Lord’s gym — is a form of violence. If anything, it is a way of forestalling or channeling the energies of violence; more often, it is a way of avoiding it.
This is curious in many ways, not only because of the explicitly violent nature of boxing as a practice (or “sport,” even), but also because of the particular themes of the filmmaker himself. Wiseman has already made about a dozen films on various forms of violence as it manifests in a number of social and political spheres: in war (Basic Training, Maneouvre, Missile), in the streets (Law and Order, Juvenile Court), within institutional frameworks (Titicut Follies, Primate), and inside the home (the two Domestic Violence films). But in nearly all of these films, violence is more notable for its absence than its onscreen presence; it is an uncontrollable — and in some ways unfilmable — element which the action of the film’s subjects is intended to frame, to contain. In these films, violence is almost theatrical: it exists either as a potentiality to be prepared or rehearsed for (as a performance or play) or else as a memory or trauma to addressed and reckoned with (and often rehearsed or restaged through an institutional process). Even in those films, like Titicut Follies and Primate, in which we meet the violence head-on, the very application of the term “violence” becomes problematic, begging certain debates and refutations. (Can the dismemberment of a monkey in the name of cancer research or the force-feeding of a mentally ill prisoner be called “violent”? If so, what presumptions does that designation entail?)
In Boxing Gym, boxing’s relation to violence is similarly problematic, especially when the subject of actual, unstaged violence is addressed. A student’s out-of-ring fights and the shootings at Virginia Tech (contemporary with Wiseman’s production) draw concerned, even paternal responses from the boxers and trainers, but these are more notable for their measured nature than any overtones of outrage or moralism. Indeed, this attitude seems natural to an environment in which fathers train with their daughters, dogs and babies wait on the sidelines as their owners or parents punch leather, and a mother idly chats about quotidian matters with a friend while lovingly taping up her young son’s hands before sparring. The most extreme points of view come from younger, more thrill-seeking boxers, who enjoy the buzz of taking one across the chin, but even this smacks of masochism and bravado rather than simple bloodlust.
If anything, Wiseman shows how, in the boxing gym, violence is sublimated in fantasy. The posters of Evander Holyfield and Héctor “Macho” Camacho that line the walls represent an ideal to some fighters, but mostly they - and Wiseman - seem more enveloped in the in-the-moment rhythms and drones of the gym: the repeated slaps of leather on leather, the incessant syncopation of the speed-bag, the piercing bleeps of digital timers. Here, Wiseman’s sound design, coupled with cinematographer John Davey’s intimate attentions to the fighters foot- and fist-work, collage to form an impressionistic image of the boxing gym, and the film is at its strongest when it drifts into the pure abstraction of bodies in motion.
With this emphasis on the body, Boxing Gym dovetails nicely with last year’s La Danse, which Wiseman made in between the shooting and editing of the new film. Each focuses intently on the human body, and casts the camera as a participant — or dancing/sparring partner — in the action, following each lunge and pivot with a fluidity that stops just short of seasickness. In some ways, though, La Danse is the more grueling film, a document of process that matches Meat in its pulverizing cadences and machine-like repetitions. Boxing Gym is, paradoxically, more of a dance film, an elegant, hypnotic document of pure physicality that abstracts the subject of boxing into a constant throb of balletic motion.