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Boxing Gym

Dir: Frederick Wiseman

Rating: 3.9/5.0

91 Minutes

Watching Boxing Gym made me feel like a detective: everything was laid before me, and nothing was explained. This is the way Frederick Wiseman works, and basically always has, across a career nearly five decades long. Though he objects to such labels, Wiseman is roundly recognized as one of the pioneers of direct cinema, the style of documentary filmmaking that eschews voiceover narration, direct interviews, expositional graphics or really anything other than whatever images the camera captures. He’s the most passive sort of ethnographer, hunkering down in the corner of a place and just watching, watching, watching.

The latest film from the 80-year-old director concerns Lord’s Gym, a training facility for boxers in Austin, Texas. Many of the patrons are clearly getting ready for actual bouts, but there’s a microcosm moving through the handsomely weathered building with little kids, new mothers and elderly pugilists getting their exercise amidst the bruising behemoths. The proprietor notes that one of his regulars is a “68-year-old lady who hits the speed bag better than anyone else.” There’s something oddly inspiring about this egalitarian subculture in action, where everyone gets a turn to throw a punch or practice their footwork by bouncing on an old tire.

The most common approach to this sort of documentary involves establishing a narrative and developing people onscreen into characters with their own nicely identifiable arcs. This is where a director hones and shapes the film just as assuredly as a screenwriter of fanciful fictions, not to be deceitful, but to find the story hidden within their miles of footage. Wiseman approaches it differently, assembling the film according to feel and rhythm. He gives the audience nothing particular to hold on to–no heroes, no villains, no conflicts, no three act structure–and trusts that the immersive quality of the film will be enough.

For some reasonable souls, it might not be. An hour and a half is a long haul for a movie that’s about shape, feel and impressions rather than a satisfying beginning, middle and end. The beautifully photographed sunset vistas that usher the film to its close (shot by cinematographer John Davey) could have been inserted a reel or two earlier and most viewers wouldn’t have felt slighted.

But even without being able to pinpoint why every sequence is needed, it’s easy to trust that Wiseman has it right since the film has a mesmerizing quality. Wiseman may not build characters, but they certainly emerge, the same way that watching a neighbor go about their business every day gives a sense of the person, even if actually writing out a list of their attributes may still be impossible for the observer. Wiseman’s camera is clearly unobtrusive enough to let everyone operate at their most casual and unguarded, which is perfectly representative of the stated ethos of the gym, where posing, performance and bravado aren’t well received. As one of the patrons notes, “Anyone who comes in acting like a tough isn’t going to last long here.”

Save one sequence involving some running up and down the ramps of one of Austin’s sports stadiums, the entirety of the film takes place within the gym’s walls, papered with tattered prize fight advertisements and Raging Bull posters. There are no smartphones or laptops; the fanciest technology in sight is the digital timer that beeps every minute or two to signal the end of a workout session. It gives the film a timeless quality that’s only disrupted when a few people in the gym discuss the then fresh tragedy of the Virginia Tech shootings. It establishes just how shocking the news needs to get in order to penetrate the insular mental security of the gym, but it also breaks the spell somewhat. The film is briefly about a time instead of a place.

The effectiveness of Boxing Gym makes the case for Frederick Wiseman’s approach. It’s easy to believe that this is as perfectly pure and honest of way to make a documentary as possible, emphasizing the document portion of the word. It’s relatively unadorned, but that doesn’t mean just anyone can pull this off. It takes the artistry of a filmmaker like Wiseman to take all this raw footage and craft it into something whole and satisfying.

by Dan Seeger

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