“Cutie and the Boxer”: A marriage that goes all 15 rounds

Noriko and Ushio Shinohara in CUTIE AND THE BOXER.Courtesy of RADiUS-TWC

“Cutie and the Boxer” has its only Madison theatrical screening at 7 p.m. Friday at the UW-Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall. R, 1:22, three and a half stars out of four.

UPDATE: “Cutie and the Boxer” was just nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary on Thursday morning!

Ushio Shinohara is a wiry 80-year-old Japanese-American painter who strips to his waist, dips boxing gloves in paint cans and pummels away at the canvas to create abstract art. And yet, by the end of the charming documentary “Cutie and the Boxer,” you’ll probably find him the less interesting half of the couple. Watching Zachary Heinzerling’s film is like being at a house party hosted by the couple, where we’re initially dazzled by the larger-than-life Ushio in the center of the room, but eventually find ourselves drawn to a quiet corner for a long, fascinating talk with Noriko.

In a 1971 documentary, Ushio was called “the most famous of the poor and starving artists in New York,” a dubious distinction if ever there was one. Ushio’s brash art (including the boxing paintings and sculptures of motorcycles) reflected his outsized personality (which fed into his excessive drinking) which left little room for anyone else. A young art student entranced by Ushio, Noriko found herself marginalized as his wife, her own artistic ambitions sidelined in order to take care of the household and their young son. “Ushio’s voice was always in my head,” Noriko explains, a sentiment that seems equal parts devotion and frustration.

Honestly, I expected to learn that the couple divorced at some point — Ushio seems that hard to live with. But in 40 years the couple has endured, taking the more difficult road of staying together, irritating each other, caring for each other, finding compromises where they can and butting heads where they can’t. In other words, true love.

Especially gratifying is seeing how Noriko’s own artwork, lovely and cheeky autobiographical drawings, have finally flourished. To tell the couple’s story, Heinzerling mixes archival footage along with present-day footage of Ushio arranging a retrospective show of his work (Noriko gets a room of her own). But he also animates Noriko’s drawings of her and her husband. Which is fitting, because the line between life and art in their marriage is hard to discern. Each nourishes the other.

“Cutie and the Boxer” kicks off the UW-Cinematheque’s 2014 series this weekend at 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Visit cinema.wisc.edu for a full schedule.

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