Thursday, September 23, 2010

TIFF Review (Boxing Gym)

This is my first out of three TIFF film reviews and I will also be writing a festival report. - David Davidson

Boxing Gym (Frederick Wiseman, 2010) *Director in attendance
*** (A Must-See)

There are three superstar documentary auteurs whose films reflect both their areas of interest and their recognizable approach to filming them. They are Frederick Wiseman, whose approach is of that of the fly-on-the-wall observer and his subjects are institutions; Errol Morris, whose technique is interviewing and his subjects vary though the focus is usually politically topical; and Werner Herzog, who has the uncanny ability to render the familiar into the surreal. Coincidently all three of these filmmakers have new movies premiering at TIFF 2010, Mr. Wiseman has Boxing Gym, Mr. Herzog is bringing his 3-D Caves of Forgotten Dreams, and Errol Morris’s new doc is called Tabloid.

Frederick Wiseman’s PBS documentary Boxing Gym is about an old-school boxing gym in Austin, Texas that is run by old-timer Richard Lords. It was filmed in 2008 before Mr. Wiseman filmed La dance – le ballet de l’Opera de Paris. Mr. Wiseman is a man who thinks that boxing is a noble sport; elegant and choreographed. He said he chose the Lords Gym after only twenty seconds within it. It is an obvious choice because the people there and the building have so much character. The gym boasts a plethora of boxing paraphernalia, colorful characters, and well-worn equipment. On the wall there are Nike boxing posters with Greek wrestlers (a subtle way to contextualize the history of the sport the goes back to ancient Rome), and a poster of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) [a way to contextualize the representation of the sport; I would also add King Vidor’s The Champ (1931) and Robert Wise’s The Set-Up (1949) and Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956)].

Mr. Wiseman is both the director and editor of the film. Though it is in the editing process that Mr. Wiseman’s vision comes together, as he moulds all his cinéma vérité footage, without any voice-of-god narration, into a portrait of a community. This community of both sexes, people of different life stages, multi-ethnicity and viewpoints form a positive microcosm for the United States of America.

The way the documentary progress is also very interesting. It begins with a sunrise and the younger gym members training. Children training and babies in cribs are one of the first subjects and as Boxing Gym progresses the age of the subjects increase. By the end there has been the entire life cycle including adolescents, emerging adults, adults, and seniors. Boxing is with these people their entire lives and it hints that it is a sport that is passed down through parents. As well to contrast the opening sunset (which in the bottom of the frame includes the small sign that indicates where at the Lords Gym), the film ends with an extended sequence of sunsets.

The documentary is not about the boxing fights themselves, if you wanted that Mr. Wiseman rebuttal is that you can just turn on TV any evening of the week. Boxing Gym is more concentrated on the process of becoming physically fit and disciplined. Here is Roland Barthe's on boxing from his essay The World of Wrestling in the book Mythologies:
This public knows very well the distinction between wrestling and boxing; it knows that boxing is a Jansenist sport, based on a demonstration of excellence. One can bet on the outcome of a boxing-match: with wrestling, it would make no sense. A boxing- match is a story which is constructed before the eyes of the spectator; in wrestling, on the contrary, it is each moment which is intelligible, not the passage of time. The spectator is not interested in the rise and fall of fortunes; he expects the transient image of certain passions. Wrestling therefore demands an immediate reading of the juxtaposed meanings, so that there is no need to connect them. The logical conclusion of the contest does not interest the wrestling-fan, while on the contrary a boxing-match always implies a science of the future.
Boxing Gym is about this "science of the future" and how a person through will, training and dedication can overcome perceived limitations and take up the sport. It is about how one refines ones body and familiarizing oneself with the sport to the point where training and acting becomes second nature; a similar subject explored in La dance – le ballet de l’Opera de Paris.

Boxing Gym is relatively limited to what goes on in the gym except for a few apt establishing shots. These shots not only establish the setting, the time of the day and the progress of the films cycle, but also they contextualize the gym within a larger city, thus rendering these personal experiences more universal. There is a wife who wants to buy her husband a membership to the gym. She wants to give her husband a chance to pursuit his dreams. There is also a weighty gym member who trains really hard. He is pushing himself, giving it his all. This sequence renders the participants in Mr. Wiseman’s films overarching common attributes, which is “a perpetual desire to see their dignity recognized”. It is this celebration of individual efforts that make Mr. Wiseman’s film so rich. – David Davidson

(AMC Yonge & Dundas 24, Toronto, ON)

No comments: