Let’s start by stating the obvious: Boxing Gym is not one of Frederick Wiseman’s major works, nor is hindsight much likely to alter this initial assessment. Although the documentarian’s greatness resides not so much in single films as in an imposing, cumulative body of work, there are clear differentiations to be made among the individual items of his oeuvre, and Wiseman’s latest lacks the sweep and variety of experience on display in Central Park, the relentless, if distanced, critical edge of Welfare, or the serious ethical considerations discussed at length in Near Death. But what Boxing Gym offers instead is a privileged peek into a little pocket of something close to a functioning democratic system—at least as far as such a proposition is possible in a country that spells out all of its interactions in capitalist terms. Still, as far as capitalist enterprises go, Lord’s Gym of Austin, Texas, a makeshift training facility housed in what looks like a converted garage and host to a racially diverse group of boxers of all ages, both sexes and professional and amateurs alike, in short, whoever can put up the meager monthly fee, seems like a particular benign operation.
Presided over by benevolent owner Richard Lord, a middle-aged man with a gruff goatee, a rat tail, and a voice marked by a vaguely alcoholic slur, the gym takes on the feeling of a genuine community—as well as a refuge from the difficulties of the outside world. With Lord’s encouragement, children are brought along with parents to avoid babysitting costs (we see an infant asleep, a kid doing his homework), while a sincere desire to make one’s fellow trainee welcome is one of the establishment’s distinguishing features. As one veteran explains to a newcomer before instructing him on the proper way to perform a particular exercise, “[Boxing]‘s viewed as a violent sport…but everyone here’s real nice and friendly.” Far be it from Wiseman’s camera (which, as usual in the director’s films, provides all the authorial commentary we get) to dispute this assertion. As glimpsed in the asides between fights, a largely collegial atmosphere reigns, even as people reflect on their personal problems, and, while brutality is certainly part of boxing, in Wiseman’s film violence registers more as something that happens outside the confines of the gym walls than within. (Hot topics of conversation among the trainees include the then recent Virginia Tech shootings, a local robbery and an army recruit’s desire to experience combat.)
Rather than an exchange of damaging punches, Wiseman envisions the sport as something akin to dancing (making this film, along with its relative lack of criticism for the institution it documents, a fit follow up to La Danse, the director’s look at the Paris Opera Ballet). Spending more time documenting training drills than actual fights, the director keeps his camera fixed on the hypnotic rhythms that develop from the repetition of duck-and-punch exercises, fighters maneuvering shoulders and feet in a ring corner, and the relentless assault of fists on punching bags. Coupled with the dense noise of the soundtrack (the whirr of gloves hitting canvas, the fighter’s various grunts, the frequent ding of an ancient timer) and the wealth of environmental details that bespeak of an enterprise run more on ingenuity and dedication than outsized budget, these displays of human suppleness help stake out a distinctive space that Wiseman vividly brings to life.
For the inhabitants of this space, many of whom clearly have difficulties in their outside life, Lord’s gym represents nothing less than a workable, if ephemeral, form of utopia. And, let’s face it, while harmonious interaction doesn’t always make for the most fascinating viewing, and while the institutional critique that characterizes a good number of Wiseman’s films is certainly missed, we’ll take our utopias where we can get them.