by Paul Laster
A charming film about two bohemian artists living and working in New York, Cutie and the Boxer documents the tumultuous, 40-year marriage of avant-garde “boxing” artist Ushio Shinohara and his overshadowed wife Noriko. Struggling in SoHo from the early-‘70s to the mid-‘80s, and for the past 27 years in a ramshackle loft in DUMBO, the Japanese artists exchange barbs—and occasionally admiration—as they battle to establish their individual identities.
Assembled from archival clips, documentary footage shot in their loft and at galleries exhibiting their work over the past few years, and animation made from Noriko’s illustrations in her novella about her alter-ego Cutie and her insensitive husband Bullie, the heart-wrenching tale won first-time film director Zachary Heinzerling the Directing Award for U.S. Documentary at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
Whitehot Magazine contributor Paul Laster recently sat down with the director and artists at the DUMBO loft to discuss the making of the documentary and the hardships and triumphs the rebellious artists have endured.
Paul Laster: How long were you working on the film?
Zachary Heinzerling: Five years.
Laster: What was your relationship to the art world before making the documentary?
Heinzerling: I studied art—as well as philosophy and film—in school, but I didn’t have any kind of relationship to the New York art world.
Laster: What was your film experience prior to making Cutie and the Boxer?
Heinzerling: I worked at HBO in a variety of roles for a director that made documentaries related to sports for about six years.
Laster: How much time did you spend researching the Shinoharas and their community before you started filming?
Heinzerling: None at all.
Laster: You just dove right into it?
Heinzerling: Yeah, I was interested in the subject because I didn’t know anything about it. The exotic aspect of it attracted me. I didn’t know anything about their art before being introduced to them; but then I did extensive research. I read a lot of interviews with them and watched every film that’s been made about them. They live a truly artistic lifestyle—the romantic idea of the bohemian life in a loft—and that was very appealing to me. It was like a time warp. It felt like I was back in the heyday of New York when I was hanging out with them.
Laster: How were you introduced to them?
Heinzerling: Patrick Burns, a close friend of mine from school, introduced us in 2007. He was a journalist at the time and had done a photography project with them. He showed me the pictures and introduced me to them. We started filming them together and continued working together for the first two years. He landed another project, so I took it over and finished the film.
Laster: Was this something that you knew you wanted to do right away or did it grow over time?
Heinzerling: It definitely grew over time. I didn’t know that it would last so long. I had been working in documentary and looking for a subject for my first film. I didn’t really know where it would go. We initially made a short film. I thought of it as a side project—a nights and weekends project. I always had other jobs—both of us had other jobs. I had no idea that it would become what it did.
Laster: You didn’t have a plan when you started?
Laster: Did you show the short film at festivals to get further funding?
Heinzerling: I made a trailer after the second or third year and we got funding from it. Then each funding cycles we would apply with more and more material. People responded enthusiastically to the way it looked and to the Shinoharas unique personalities. You had never met anyone like this and never seen it treated in this cinematic way. It bridges the genres of narrative and documentary. It’s not a film that you can talk about and easily sell, but when people see the footage and see the artists they get sucked in.
Laster: Yeah, the Shinoharas are naturals. The film doesn’t really follow a chronological order, right? It’s more of a montage. It starts with Ushio’s 80th birthday, but you had already been filming prior to it. How did you come to this solution for binding all of the footage together?
Heinzerling: We really wrote the movie in the edit. We had a massive amount of material, both old and new. There were interview and voice-over scenes. We wrote a narrative using these scenes. We had a much longer storyline about them getting priced out their previous studio, but dropped it. There were other storylines that existed and we just kept witling it down to the core events and scenes that made the most sense in the movie. It took about a year and a half to edit. I went through three editors, so it was a long, grueling process to figure it all out.
Laster: And you ended up working with David Teague. Was that when things started to click?
Heinzerling: We didn’t have much funding when I worked with the two previous editors and they had to take other jobs that paid them more so I always had to find another editor. When I started with David we had a three-hour assembly and then we worked for eight months with that assembly.
Laster: You got funding for production, but that couldn’t have put food on your table. This project sounds like it was a work of pure passion.
Heinzerling: Oh yeah, definitely. I had to take other jobs the whole way. I finally stopped my other job in the last year and worked on this project full-time—from February of 2012 until this summer. By 2012 we had gotten enough funding so that I could pay other people to be working on it full-time, too. It was never a film that was going to bring financial success. I didn’t do it for the money.
Laster: How much time did you spend filming the Shinoharas? Did you spend nights at their studio?
Heinzerling: They go to bed late so I would stay pretty late, like two or three o’clock in the morning.
Laster: They sound like teenagers! (laughs)
Noriko Shinohara: Our dinnertime is around midnight or one o’clock.
Laster: You should be living in Barcelona.
Ushio Shinohara: Japanese friends usually call me at midnight. Those are the most important calls for me.
Noriko: We usually go to bed around three o’clock.
Laster: How did you survive all these years in New York? Only from selling work or did you work jobs?
Noriko: I made textile designs for one year, when my son was about 4½ to 5½; but it was a very bad experience. I didn’t have any time for myself. I didn’t even sleep. It was hard, so I quit. It distracted me, even if I could get money. It was only during that time that I didn’t make my art. Otherwise, I worked all of the time. In the ‘80s Japan’s economy was good and many museums collected Ushio’s work. It was a good time for us. We had lots of parties and traveled—often to Bermuda. We didn’t have to worry about our rent. After Japan’s economy faded our struggles started again.
Laster: Ushio, did you get shows in New York in the ‘70s and ‘80s?
Ushio: Yes, I had a big, solo show at Japan Society in 1982. After fourteen years of living in New York, I got a second chance. Other Japanese artists living here were envious of me. Alexandra Munroe had just started working there and she worked on my catalogue. Since then we have remained good friends.
Laster: Did you think that things would change for the better after your solo show?
Ushio: Grace Glueck wrote a big review in the New York Times and afterward the people at Japan Society told me that I should be careful because lots of curators and galleries would be all over me. They said that I should be wise in picking the right situation, but the reality was that nobody came calling.
Laster: Did you ever work a job?
Ushio: I tried doing carpentry. There were a lot of Japanese carpenters. I thought I would join them; but my eyesight was bad and I was just not experienced enough, so I couldn’t continue. I did, however, keep one job making artistic silkscreen prints in 1969 for an American art dealer. I would make 100 to 200 pieces and sell them to him wholesale. Because I was so desperate for money I would sell them for $3 a piece, whereas the usual price was $10 a piece. Other artists became upset with me because I was undercutting their prices.
Laster: The film discusses a change of life for both of you: Ushio stops drinking and Noriko creates Cutie, which gives a voice to her frustrations with Ushio and a new direction in her work.
Noriko: I started making Cutie drawings in 2006 and made most of my Cutie works in 2007. At one point I couldn’t continue. I struggled with my art, which might be one of the reasons that I pushed myself to finish the series. I still want to make a book of the drawings.
Laster: After you stopped drinking, Ushio, were you more productive?
Ushio: Yes, definitely; but artists need drink. After I stopped drinking my brain cooled down. I need my brain to be hot—to be boiling.
Noriko: Your brain is already boiled! If you add alcohol it’s going to be like a volcano. (laughs)
Laster: You’re seen swimming in the film, Ushio. Doe swimming help you stimulate the brain?
Ushio: Sure. The reason why I swim is not because I want to gain muscle. I want to be physically fit.
Laster: Zach, I saw the swimming scene as a very poignant part of the film—a depiction of Ushio’s perseverance against all odds. Why did you decide to shoot that footage and why did you film him from an underwater perspective?
Zach: We shot that footage without knowing where it would go in the film. It’s something that he does ritually—very early in the morning, maybe five times a week. I always wanted to film that aspect of his life and use it someplace it in the film. The swimming and the water seemed like a nice bit of visuals for a contemplative realm, where one’s innermost ideas and feelings are expressed. We actually had other footage of him shot from above water during his swim, but decided to concentrate this scene on the poignant moment in the film where he dives into the pool and swim laps. There’s a sense of everything washing over him and a rebirth that happens to him in the film. There’s a breaking point where the audience realizes that he really does care—this is serious—and that he comes out of it and decides to do something different.
Laster: The scene captures the metaphoric nature of his struggle, especially when shot from underwater.
Zach: Yeah, there’s something about his leathery skin and the bubbles. You see an 81-year-old guy whose body is a symbol of his life and struggle and he’s taken it along the entire way. There’s something quite beautiful and poetic about it. Being there and being really close to his face with the camera was amazing. His expression was so raw.
Laster: What was it like for the two of you to have the cameras on you all the time?
Noriko: Ushio is quite popular in Japan so many Japanese film crews have come to visit us here and in our former studio in SoHo. We are used to being filmed. Since the 1960s we have been documented for television and films. For us, the camera’s not a stranger.
Laster: Were there any scenes that were difficult for you to have filmed?
Noriko: No, but it took us a while to get used to Zach. At first, he was a stranger and when he left we were relieved. But most of the time it was fine.
Laster: Did you feel self-conscious making art in front of the camera?
Ushio: I’m used to being photographed and being on film so I didn’t feel self-conscious at all. The boxing paintings are about performance and I’ve been doing them since the 1960s.
Laster: Do you make the boxing paintings live, before an audience?
Ushio: Yes, absolutely. The performance for boxing painting is all about the connection with the audience. Without their involvement, there would be no performance. Often after the making of a boxing painting live, audience members come up and ask me to punch their white T-shirts.
Laster: Is there documentary footage of you making boxing painting?
Ushio: I have many home videos, but there aren’t many professionally made films of the boxing paintings. I once made a boxing painting in a television studio, but it was for Japanese TV.
Laster: There’s a television documentary in the film that was made for American TV. Who produced it?
Ushio: It was for CBS, but it was never aired.
Laster: Who shot the old film footage of Ushio, where he’s drunk and when he was fishing, that was used in the film?
Noriko: I shot the video of him fishing, but the scene of him drunk and the scene of us walking in the street with our son Alex was made by a close friend. He was visiting New York with his wife in 1986 and had just gotten a good video camera. He shot a lot of film and later sent it all to Zach, who chose some parts for the film.
Laster: How had this old footage been preserved?
Heinzerling: Ushio’s friend shot Hi8 tape in 1986 and I found an edited version in the studio and had the Shinoharas ask for the outtakes. Their friend sent a box of beautifully packaged, brand new cassettes and Ryuhei [Ryuhei Shindo, the translator during the interview] and some other friends went through it all and subtitled it. We found some very telling and raw moments that we wouldn’t have had. There’s a scene there with Ushio talking about his work that’s one of the most honest moments in the film. It feels like he’s not really performing—that it’s him in the raw—because he’s always performing in life. He’s always acting and holding up this character, even in their lives. Finding what’s at the root of what makes him tick can be difficult and this footage showed that side.
Laster: When you say that it was in cassette form, how was it shot?
Zach: Hi8 video was used in the first small Handycam that Sony made. You could set it up and record endlessly. You didn’t have to worry about it. The tapes were cheap. They just set the camera on a tripod at their party and let it roll. They were 3-hour long takes of a party, but you couldn’t understand what was going on in most of them. People were talking over each other, but then there would be this crazy scene. The other stuff was of the Shinoharas filming each other in Bermuda on vacation. They always took a camera wherever they went—which was fortunate for us.
Laster: How does Zach’s film capture those times for you, Ushio?
Ushio: It’s really impossible to cover everything that I’m about in 90 minutes. The film didn’t talk much about my artwork, so the portrayal was kind of partial. The scene that I like best is the one where I packed my art in bags and went to Japan to sell it. For me, life and art are one. They are very intertwined. For example, the scene where I’m portrayed drunk—that part of my private life is actually a part of my art, too.
Laster: What are your thoughts on the film, Noriko?
Noriko: Several articles about the film say that I was Ushio’s assistant before I developed Cutie, but actually I have been painting all of my life. I painted classically with a lot of colors, but then all of a sudden I started doing Cutie with line drawing I the beginning of 2006. Before that I made a lot of paintings and etchings and I also made illustrations for my novella. The film makes it seem like I was Ushio’s assistant and suddenly made Cutie. Of course, Zach couldn’t show all of my works, but still it creates a kind of misunderstanding, which was a little bit of a shock to me.
When you look at the animation part, I look quite miserable; but the part that Zach filmed is so much prettier than our real life. Our life was more about a struggle and it was bitterer. Zach’s characters look pure and clean—but no, we were bitter and really hated each other.
Ushio: Yeah, Zach was always looking for family fights, but he often missed them.
Noriko: Ushio became a good boy in front of the camera.
Laster: Ushio, was your inclusion in 2012 exhibition Tokyo 1955 – 1970: A New Avant-Garde at the Museum of Modern Art a big deal for you?
Ushio: That show was all about the past. It didn’t feature any of my recent work, so I didn’t think much about it. It took 50 years for 1960s Japanese art to make it in the US. It made me think a lot about the current state of Japanese contemporary art, especially when so many artists have passed away; but it did nothing for me now.
Laster: MoMA has three works of yours in the permanent collection. Did they acquire them directly from you?
Ushio: No, they got them from collectors.
Laster: In the film, Alexandra Munroe talks about wanting to acquire a piece for the Guggenheim Museum. Has that happened yet?
Noriko: These things take time. A museum in Japan showed a work by Ushio in 1991 and didn’t acquire it until 2000—nine years later.
Ushio: I don’t really give a damn about the Guggenheim. I’m focused on the current work and I’ve just started a new series and my mind is all in it.
Laster: The film has been circulating since Sundance, which was this past January, and it was shown at the Tribeca Film Festival and other film fests. Has it had any change on your life?
Ushio: Yes, there is a huge change. When we showed the film at a film festival in Missouri a theater audience of 1500 people gave us a standing ovation, which amazed me. It was like a baseball game at Yankee Stadium when Matsui hit a home run in the World Series. After I experienced that it made me want to make art that would get the same response from people.
Laster: How has the release of the film affected you, Noriko?
Noriko: It didn’t change anything, except for the animation that was made from my drawings. It showed me the possibility of animating my work, which is my new desire.
Laster: If you could choose, what would you rather have, more money or more possibilities to show your art?
Noriko: We have always had a limited life because of the lack of money. We need money to survive. We cannot give up everything to show our work. We need food and rent and materials. If I only choose to show my work, how can I survive without food? I’m a human being. I need both. I want to continue my art and I’m willing to sacrifice my life for it; but in order to sacrifice my life to my art I need to survive.
Laster: And for you, Zach—have opportunities opened up for you after winning the award at Sundance?
Heinzerling: Sure, I think there’s a lot more interest in what I’m doing next. I met a lot of people along the way and hopefully they’ll be people that I work with in the future. It was my debut and it’s been well received.
Laster: What was the response when the film was show at Art Basel in June?
Heinzerling: It was good for us because we had only shown it to film audiences at film festivals. The questions were more focused on the art.
Noriko: We were happy to see that our screening had a full house while the next film only had a few people lined up.
Laster: What was it like for you to be at Art Basel? Had you ever been there?
Ushio: It was our first time. I’ve always wanted to go; but the ironic thing is that I didn’t go for my art but for this film.
Heinzerling: Yeah, but your art is in the film. There would have never been a film without the art.
Noriko: It was a money world. Everyone was talking about half a million, a million. It looked like a different art department.
Laster: In the film, Noriko, you say, “We are like two flowers in one pot. Sometimes we don't get enough nutrients for both of us. But when everything goes well, we become two beautiful flowers.” Where are you at now?
Noriko: Still two flowers in a pot and not enough nutrients.
Ushio: With Alex, we are three flowers in one pot without enough nutrients! (laughs)
Noriko: Yeah, he still wants the nutrients of my flower.
Laster: Or maybe he just wants the roots!
Cutie and the Boxer is now playing in select cities across the United States. For more information see https://www.facebook.com/cutieandtheboxer?ref=br_tf
Paul Laster is a writer, editor, independent curator, artist and lecturer. He is a New York desk editor at ArtAsiaPacific and a contributing editor at Whitehot and artBahrain. He was the founding editor of Artkrush.com and Artspace.com and art editor of Flavorpill.com and Russell Simmons's OneWorld Magazine; started TheDailyBeast.com's art section; and worked as a photojournalist for Artnet.com and Art in America. He is a frequent contributor to Time Out New York, New York Observer, Modern Painters, ArtPulse and ArtInfo.com.view all articles from this author