Frederick Wiseman’s latest documentary is as much about movement and discipline as La Danse, which he interrupted the editing of Boxing Gym to shoot. But where ballet is about translating feeling into movement, boxing is about controlling violence, so it probably shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did that the most striking quality of the gym Wiseman documents—and of the film itself—is its Zen-like aura of peace and loving-kindness.
Wiseman’s setting is Lord’s Gym in Austin, a threadbare place whose borderline rattiness (the upholstery on some chairs is gutted) takes a while to sink in, since it’s such a warm and nurturing community. In his director’s statement, Wiseman says he chose the gym partly because it’s “an American ’melting pot.’ The people training at the gym are men and women from all social classes…people of many races, ethnicities, and ages boxing and working out together in an amicable and collaborative way.” That’s partly Austin: One of the main things that kept drawing me there as a young woman was the laidback, respect-differences vibe that removed a lot of the venom from the race and class divisions that poison most of America. But, as Wiseman slowly reveals, the other main ingredient here is Richard Lord, the retired boxer who founded the gym and runs it with unflappable calm and a steady, empathetic gaze.
There’s no narrative and no star (unless you count Lord, who gets marginally more screen time than anyone else)—just layers of information accumulating like paint on a canvas, in the old-school direct-cinema style Wiseman helped invent. He even uses 16mm on this film, though he has since had to switch to HD because even he now has difficulty getting funded to use film (Boxing Gym was underwritten largely by several PBS outlets). “I regret that,” he said of his switch to HD in the Q&A after the screening. “I don’t think the image quality is quite as good, and I don’t like editing on an Avid—perhaps because I have 150 years of experience on a Steenbeck.”
His editing keeps the film’s many narrative threads taut while mirroring the laidback feel of its subject as he moves seamlessly from one scene to the next, each one a short story in itself. The gym’s resident philosopher gives self-help advice to a grateful fighter; children’s games are made purposeful as people play leapfrog or jump rope to train; a man takes a break from training to cup his baby’s face with his gloves; street fighters learn how to fight properly—and, more importantly, how to avoid fighting in the first place. Meanwhile, the walls tell their own stories, fight posters and photos hanging next to Milton Glaser’s psychedelic drawing of Bob Dylan.
The rhythm of the gym dictates the rhythm of the film, from the thud of fists on leather bags and training pads to the timing bell to the dancing footwork the filmmakers keep returning to, staying on one pair of fighters practicing in overlapping circles long enough to hypnotize us. The almost always stationery camera occasionally does something showy, like when a speed bag being worked in the foreground strobes the image of a woman training in the background, but for the most part the imagery, like the sound, delivers information clearly and intelligently without drawing attention to itself. Cinematographer John Davey frames his shots elegantly, often capturing multiple perspectives at one time, like when he sets up behind a fighter training in a mirror, holding the shot long enough for us to study him, what’s on the walls beside the mirror, and the action reflected in the background.
Wiseman isolates some of the key elements of boxing and focuses on each in turn, from footwork to strengthening exercises to mental discipline to learning how to punch (Wiseman and Davey make the effort of working a bag so visceral your arms practically ache as you watch). But unlike in La Danse, which left me with a heightened appreciation of the art form as well as the institution that houses it, the component parts we see here never coalesce into an illuminating portrait of the sport.
Two of the pros who train in the gym share a ring at the end, but their bout is just another in an endless round of rounds. The fight has none of the added meaning that infuses the performances that end La Danse, which we see through the polarizing filter of the background Wiseman has just laid down. I guess that’s why this one’s called Boxing Gym, not Boxing.
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