The boxing gym is a well-used—-and perhaps overly romanticized—-setting in film. The Rocky series will forever hold hearts, despite its cheesiness. And Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgan‘s 1999 Oscar-nominated doc, On the Ropes, stands arguably in the company of the legendary sports study Hoop Dreams.
And so it struck me as an interesting subject for the prolific and celebrated documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman to take up. Wiseman’s Boxing Gym is the 36th film in his oeuvre, much of which focuses on the human experience within social institutions. One of his early films, 1967’s Titicut Follies, documents the inmates of a facility for the criminally insane. Boxing Gym is a much lighter meditation on life within an institution: Its four walls belong to Lord’s Boxing Gym in Austin, Texas, run by former professional boxer Richard Lord. There’s still structure, rules, and discipline here; athletes are instructed to keep feet planted and pivoted, elbows shoulder- high, and punches coming at a rhythmic beat.
Yet the boundaries of this sports institution are more fluid than others. At Lord’s, boxing is open to everyone. White and blue collar, young and old, male and female, black and white, immigrant and Texan, professional and amateur all train together under the same rules. They all drip in sweat, pant in breath, and struggle to juggle family, work, and sport. In one scene, the camera frames the back of a black man’s swaying dreadlocks as he hammers the punching bag above him. One two, one two, one two, the bag steadily hits the ceiling. The beat continues as the visual quickly cuts to a white man’s legs moving to and fro below, performing the same action. It’s one of Wiseman’s many sonic and visual tricks that subtly communicates Lord’s melting pot.
The film contains no music, no interviews, no apparent endeavor to explain what’s going on in the picture. The camera is unobtrusive, rarely attempting to pan, rack focus, or zoom. The gym serves as a backdrop of visual splendor; the walls covered from edge to edge with pictures of fighters from Greek mythology to the present. Chewed-up car seats substitute as weight benches. Mirrors along the heavily decorated walls reflect the people moving within them. As in other Wiseman films, the setting is just as important as the people within it. Meanwhile, rhythmic punching, lunging, and bouncing serve as the fitting soundtrack to this poetic portrait of a place and the people in it.
Wiseman has long objected to critics pinning his style to direct cinema, the observational fly-on-the-wall style of filmmaking. He thinks it carries an incorrect connotation—-that he’s just hanging around without any narrative intent. There’s no doubt that deliberate narrative choices are made throughout this film, yet these choices fail to amount to any discernible story arc. After 90 or so minutes, repeated shots of people lifting weights and working out become a bit tiresome. It’s an exercise in patience. for sure, but the pay-off is the opportunity for the audience to arrive at its own revelations. Hollywood rarely trusts its customers with that privilege.
Boxing Gym opens at the West End Cinema tomorrow. Filmmaker Frederick Wiseman will be present for post-screening Q&A.