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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Fine Manly and Womanly Art
by Donald Levit

Frederick Wiseman’s four-and-a-half-decade filmography lists thirty-six documentaries and two fiction films, half of them black and white and all but two recent ones in 16mm, often done for non-commercial television and shown in schools, and usually without narration or overt explanation. Philip Lopate’s “greatest American filmmaker of the last 30 years” had a relative hit last year with La Danse--The Paris Opera Ballet, and the octogenarian is honored with a yearlong retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art and a “Special Event” showing, and “conversation and Q&A,” of his new Boxing Gym at Lincoln Center’s New York Film Festival following appearances at those of Cannes and Toronto.

A constant in his work is violence in different forms, mental as well as physical, and the societal institutions that use, channel or contain it --the military, judiciary and legislative, schools and religious orders and prisons, fashion catwalks, ICUs and asylums. (His very first, the 1967 Titicut Follies, was banned for twenty-four years in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and remains the only film ever legally censored here other than for obscenity or homeland security.)

The documentarian will attend theatrical opening night in person but at NYFF press screening was present via Skype. He has long followed, and wanted to consider, the sweet science and, on a friend’s tip that brought him to the Austin, Texas, Lord’s Gym, knew after twenty seconds that that was the place, “the ‘melting pot’ -- though I hate to use that cliché -- of people from all walks of life, ethnicities, genders.”

In addition to producing and taping the sound, Wiseman also did his own as always superb editing. As in the Maysles’ direct cinema verité, he downplays the effect of the documenting process on events it portrays, eschewing even the usual printed identifications. Parameters in this concrete case are provided by the small gym itself, in a corrugated warehouse-type structure plastered with posters, photos and paintings.

The director’s works have each its own natural, organic flow, just as a trainer demonstrates two-hand rhythm on the speed bag and Richard Lord emphasizes the same with outdoors sledge-hammer-on-truck-tire technique. Clip-on body mikes impracticable for a contact sport, portable sound equipment can only capture so much, limited to the immediate area. To a “sound track” of leather on leather or wood creaks under a canvas ring to dancing sneakers, unrehearsed conversations shift one into another within the unifying thread of varied men, women and kids in attendance and proximity for a range of reasons.

On floor mats or eclectic cracked chairs whose insides puff out, or in the owner-manager’s ordered-clutter office, taping hands, taking trainers’ instructions or in bull sessions, the mixed bag of American races, genders and backgrounds talks of the outside world such as the Virginia Tech campus shootings, of money, personal hopes in for example a return for one last taste of ring glory, or of the wife or husband and the children. Or they may not talk at all, as in an extended sequence where an Anglo woman and a Hispanic male skip and shadowbox separately inside the ropes, heedless of the other in private concentration even when moving from opposite corners to side-by-side.

In its sixteen years, former professional boxer Lord’s sanctuary has become a gathering place, a home, a refuge, for companionship, learning, discipline and dedication for those on both sides of the client-employee divide. There is no technological gee-whiz in these ninety-one minutes, no digital nothing, cell phones, screens, iPods or elevator music, and so few weight and rowing machines and treadmills as to be nonexistent. Bright color is limited to gloves and correspondent mitts or pity pads, while as for the rest the workout gear is non-designer functional drab.

This thus is non-committal visual and aural, more nearly pure cinematographic than most of what the screen offers today. Quietly, Boxing Gym captures pieces of lives and, doing so, is not directed to the testosterone crowd conditioned to unrealistic spectacular violence perpetrated by big names in skimpy stories.

(Released by Zipporah Films; not rated by MPAA.) 

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