Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Movie Review: Boxing Gym

Boxing Gym ***
Directed By:
Frederick Wiseman

Frederick Wiseman is a legendary documentary filmmaker – one of the most well regarded directors that the genre has ever had. He has been making films since the 1960s, and according to IMDB has 39 director credits, has won Emmys and Peabody award, and is generally considered a master at the form. So it is somewhat embarrassing to admit that before I saw Boxing Gym at the Toronto Film Festival, I had never seen a film by him. Mind you, the fact that most of his films rarely get a wide distribution, and mainly play on PBS, may have made them harder to see, so I’ll use that as my excuse.

I think Boxing Gym was a good way to introduce myself to this filmmaker. Many of his documentaries are epic in length – three hours or more – and walking into a film that long without a real idea of what to expect could have been a daunting task. But Boxing Gym clocks in at a lean 91 minutes.

The film is an observational documentary – meaning that unlike most documentaries we see, this isn’t a film full of talking heads and archival footage, but instead a film where Wiseman simply sets up his camera in a location and lets the people there act the way they normally do. In the past he has done this with hospitals, welfare offices, housing projects, state legislature, boot camps and ballet companies. In Boxing Gym, it is a small gym in Austin, Texas, run by Robert Lords. Through the action we see people from all walks of life, all different skill levels come in a train to become boxers. We see the pros trying to gear themselves up for real fights, children just learning the art, housewives trying to stay in shape, and older men who always wanted to become boxers, but never did anything about it until now. They are all different, yet share something as well – the passion for the sport, and the willingness to learn.

The movie has a wonderful rhythm to it, established by Wiseman in his editing. There is no artificial music in the film, but the sounds of the gym – the punching of the speed bags, people pounding on the heavy bags, trainers barking out orders, the constant beeping letting you know a set has finished – establish the rhythm of the movie better than any score could have. There are stretches of time where we do little else but watch as one guy trains by himself, and the result is almost hypnotic, as we fall into his same rhythm.

Wiseman has said he has always been fascinated by violence, particularly institutionalized violence, and here he finds a way to examine the same subject from a different point of view. It is impossible not to watch these guys train, and not think what they are training to do – beat someone else up. Wiseman established connections to other forms of violence subtlety in the opening and closing montages – showing us the Texas University football stadium, and other images. And he reaches beyond the boxing gym when some of the members there discuss the Virginia Tech shooting, which happened while Wiseman was filming, amongst themselves. Wiseman, unlike many documentarians today, never insets himself into the action, or into the conversations, but rather shapes his documentaries by what he shows us – not what he tells us.

Boxing Gym was an interesting experience for me. I don’t think it is a great documentary, but I do think it is one made with great skill and precision. It makes me want to delve into the documentaries of Wiseman’s past to see what else he has come up with. I can’t think of any other higher praise than that.

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