An old man strips off his shirt and dons goggles and boxing gloves with foam pads taped over the fists. He plunges those fists into tubs of paint and proceeds to go three vigorous rounds, pounding his paint-fists onto a huge canvas.
The blows all land at shoulder level, creating explosive splotches, all in a row, 25-30 feet across. The goggles are covered with paint so he can barely see whatever it is he's painting. He's 80 years old and the "boxing painter" has been doing this for decades.
Whatever its other virtues, "Cutie and the Boxer" can be appreciated for exposing, just a bit, the whole "Emperor's New Clothes" nature of the New York art scene. Shinohara is the living embodiment of that song from "Gypsy," "You've Gotta Have a Gimmick." His gimmick took him from Japan, where he was a young star of the avant garde, to New York City, where he wasn't.
That's a second subtext of "Cutie and the Boxer." Shinohara lives check to check, sale to sale. The rent is late, he has to unload his boxing paintings and other canvases, his scruffy, scrunchy cardboard fish and motorcycle sculptures, at whatever price he can get.
And his wife, Noriko, is the one who barely keeps him and this suffer-for-my-art enterprise afloat. She met him and married him when he was in his 40s and she was an aspiring artist, all of 19 years old. Forty years later, the man she calls "Bullie" treats her as "just an assistant." He lectures her that "the average one needs to support the genius.
And Noriko, who paints elaborate, nude confessional comic book images under the guise of "Cutie" (her nickname) is coming into her own. Now in her 50s, she needs the fame that he once had. She's tired of being "the assistant."
"Cutie and the Boxer" is an 82-minute exploration of a co-dependent marriage that functions, after a fashion. Noriko cooks and organizes and makes sure the bills are paid. She enjoyed the good times, when they were younger ex-pats, drinking and smoking to the wee hours with fellow artists (glimpsed in revealing home movies) when she admits she should have been paying more attention to their son. The kid grew up to be an alcoholic, and Ukio only recently got off the booze himself.
Ukio starts on a rant about how an artist makes his greatest work when he's young, using Spielberg as an example. Noriko raises an eyebrow, perhaps at the youth she gave up for him, perhaps suggesting that the 80-year-old might want to shut up on that subject.
The need for acceptance is strong in each of them, and director Zachary Heinzerling lets us see the disappointments and rejection each feels when works don't sell, gallery openings don't give them momentum and the Guggenheim is slow to bestow its imprimatur on Uriko.
The ego and the passion of creation pop up in this film, along with the struggle. Quite aside from the arc of Noriko coming out of her shell and asserting herself, "Cutie and the Boxer" can be appreciated for showing that "the starving artist" is no mere cliche. Sometimes, the fame and fortune come. And sometimes they don't.