If a picture is worth a thousand words –
I met up with Lisa yesterday afternoon to catch the fourth of her four films, Frederick Wiseman’s Boxing Gym. “Frederick Wiseman’s a genius,” swore Lisa, before running on for forty-five minutes about the other films she’d just seen. Most of her enthusiasm was reserved for Cinema Komunisto, but her one-word precís of the day’s picks were “great” (Mysterion), “good” (Earth), and amazing (the aforementioned).
When I first moved to Brno (nearly 20 years ago – egad), I didn’t speak much Czech. My friend Johanna came to visit one weekend and I found myself speaking at speeds that should have caused a cop to pull me over. I knew I was doing it, but I couldn’t stop myself – I was finally in the position to talk! Not with someone, just at all. Johanna didn’t get a chance to say much back and never visited again. I’m not saying there’s a correlation, I’m just saying.
Anyway, that’s what the first 45 minutes of Lisa was like last night, and that’s why she likes film festivals, and all of that had been prefaced by genius.
Genius is not a word that Lisa bandies about. I’ve never heard her apply it to anyone, in fact, so the bar was set pretty high for Boxing Gym. In light of yesterday’s post on criticism, this film couldn’t have come at a better time. For one thing, Wiseman is a superb visual storyteller. There’s hardly any dialogue in the film at all, and what is there tends to be illustrative rather than expository. No direct questions or graphics for this guy. Secondly, there’s no dramatic arc, which is how Lisa often talks about her stories, and I think why she likes Wiseman so much.
Here’s a still from the film.
If I ask you to describe this picture, you’ve got just the one image frozen in time. Which part do you begin talking about, the foreground or the background? Do you talk about the kid’s stare, his intensity? The placement of his feet or the way he holds his body? Do you begin with the state of the bag, hardly brand new, or the duct tape keeping the carpet fragments together?
Boxing Gym is a 100 minute portrait of a place where people come to train. Some of the issues that come up are a lack of class divisions (in that this particular gym is a real melting pot of working class, white collar, serious fighters, new moms trying to get their bodies back), an emphasis on movement, technique, and form, and particularly given that the cinematography took place during the Virginia Tech attacks, the occasional meditation on the aesthetics and ethics of violence.
Wiseman largely builds from the background up with visuals of the empty space and the sounds that feet make, hands striking bags, electronic buzzers. It’s not until near the end of the film that he gives us an expansive physical view of the gym, and it’s also only near the end that he finally shows sparring. It’s a mark of his focus on technique, an emphasis he shares with gym owner Richard Lord, that fighting in the gym is secondary: training is what’s important. When one of the two combatants strikes a cross to his opponent’s jaw – no slow motion here – there’s an audible gasp and jump from the audience. Boxing is a violent sport, but the gym is not an inherently violent place.
This is the kind of storytelling that cinema can do well, but rarely does because it’s not a money maker. It’s not the kind of storytelling that theater generally does at all, where, thanks to that bully Aristotle, people always want to know what the conflict is.
It’s a hegemony, is what it is.