WEBTAKES: Boxing Gym
Reviewed by Jared Rapfogel 

Produced, directed and edited by Frederick Wiseman; director of photography: John Davey; sound: Frederick Wiseman. Color, 91 min. A Zipporah Films release.

Though it’s no secret, it bears repeating that Frederick Wiseman’s body of work constitutes one of the greatest achievements of American documentary cinema. In turning his attention over the past four decades to one after another of our society’s various institutions—from law enforcement to the military, high school to hospice, the monastery to the racetrack, the welfare agency to the ski resort, the zoo to the department store, and so on—he has painstakingly constructed a portrait of a society as revealing and detailed in its individual parts as it is sweeping in its cumulative breadth.

At eighty years of age, Wiseman’s commitment to his life’s work shows no signs of flagging. His thirty-seventh film, La Danse, a portrait of the Paris Opera Ballet, was released to great acclaim late last year, and continues to screen around the world. And hot on its heels comes Boxing Gym. Shot prior to La Danse but edited subsequently, the new film turns its sights on Lord’s Boxing Gym in Austin, Texas, a small, cluttered, quasiutopian outfit, run by the charismatic and dedicated Richard Lord, whose membership spans multiple races, ages, and cultural backgrounds.

Within the context of Wiseman’s (admittedly diverse) oeuvre, Boxing Gym is unusual in several ways. It’s among the most spatially restricted of all his films—other than a few brief shots outside the gym, and a closing montage picturing the Austin skyline, Boxing Gym takes place entirely within the cramped confines of the converted garage housing the gym. And it’s equally focused in terms of the activities it depicts. Even when they feature institutions with fairly specific functions (Hospital,Juvenile CourtWelfare), Wiseman’s films tend to reveal a variety of situations and occupations. But Lord’s Gym is the site of a strikingly limited spectrum of activity—Wiseman records numerous conversations and interviews with prospective members, but for the most part the film bears witness to a hypnotically repetitive regimen of training exercises.

As a result Boxing Gym is Wiseman’s most palpably physical, body-centered film (a quality it shares to some extent with Basic TrainingBallet, and of course La Danse). The repetitive, physically strenuous nature of the gym’s activities is mirrored in the film’s rhythm and structure—while appearing simply to knit together a record of the gym’s daily operation, in its cumulative effect it registers as a kinetic and highly cinematic study of bodies in motion. Wiseman focuses on the process rather than the goal, on the endlessly repeated training exercises rather than on actual boxing matches. And the constant movement, the nonstop physical effort, becomes hypnotic, giving the film a surface texture remarkably distinct from many of his other recent films (such as the far talkier, more static State Legislature or the twoDomestic Violence films).

The focus on physical training has the effect of bringing to the forefront an aspect of Wiseman’s films that has always been present but is often underestimated, especially as his films have grown longer and freer in their construction: the artfulness of their editing, pacing, and formal structure. Often mistaken for mere accumulations of material, they are in fact something like reality collages, essays constructed from blocks of documentary footage. He is often criticized for eschewing voice-over or explanatory texts that would provide context, and for maintaining the illusion that his camera is not a factor in the situations he records. But apart from the fact that the effect of his presence on the proceedings should, to any perceptive viewer, be so self-evident as to require no acknowledgement, these criticisms overlook the fact that Wiseman’s films are designed to do much more than simply provide information. He aims not only to document but also to lead his viewers to reflect on and question the significance of the institutions he films, and the roles they play in the lives of those who take part in them. These larger questions—about the nature of human society, the relationship between individuals and institutions, and the ways in which people interact and influence each other—emerge organically from the immersive experience his films afford, from their attention to rhythm and structure, strategies which draw us into a space encouraging reflection.

One of the central insights provided by Boxing Gym is that the gym provides its members much more than boxing expertise, or even physical training in general. It’s both a community center—a place where it’s possible to interact with others outside the contexts of work or family—and a space apart from the demands of daily life, where its members can focus on the simple and almost meditative act of physical training. In fact, boxing per se is almost entirely absent from Boxing Gym—there’s an abundance of sparring, training, and education regarding the mechanics of the sport, but virtually no actual one-to-one boxing. There’s even something comical about the disjunction between the violent connotations of the sport and the entirely nonaggressive, communal nature of the form it takes at Lord’s. During a meeting between Lord and a family who’s interested in signing up their son, the young man reveals that he’s epileptic and can’t safely take a punch, and Lord assures him that he won’t be trading blows any time in the near future. And later someone at the gym explains that most of the members avoid street fights like the plague, for fear of missing time at the gym thanks to injury. Wiseman makes it clear that for most of them, their training is an end in itself, a discipline and a pastime, not a road to ritualized violence.

With the possible exception of Belfast, Maine, a masterpiece that represents a kind of summation of Wiseman’s work (since it surveys the many different facets and institutions of a single town), Wiseman’s films rarely assert their status as cinematic works of art, content to qualify as pieces in a larger, breathtakingly ambitious whole. Nevertheless, Boxing Gym qualifies as one of Wiseman’s most memorable recent works. A piece in the puzzle that’s almost incidentally a major achievement in its own right, its uncharacteristically short running time and concentrated subject matter belie its formal perfection and the depth of social perception that we’ve come to expect from Wiseman over the past four decades.

Jared Rapfogel is an Associate Editor of Cineaste and the film programmer at Anthology Film Archives in New York.

Copyright © 2010 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1