Critic's pick: "Boxing Gym." Frederick Wiseman's subtle and meditative documentary, set in an old school establishment in Austin, Texas, is never in a hurry to reveal itself, carefully allowing audiences the time and space to figure things out on their own. — Kenneth Turan
Frederick Wiseman's singular documentaries never hit you on the head, not even one called "Boxing Gym." They are subtle and meditative affairs, never in a hurry to reveal themselves, carefully allowing audiences the time and space to figure things out on their own.
Wiseman, indefatigable at 80, has been doing things this way for decades. Producer, director, editor and sound person on this film and others, he's made 36 documentaries to date, starting with the landmark "Titicut Follies" in 1967. He never uses voice-over narration, which encourages viewers to really look at what's being shown.
What Wiseman's films share, aside from utilitarian titles such as "Basic Training" and "State Legislature," is a focus on society's institutions. In "Boxing Gym," he sets his sights on an establishment that matches its title for spareness: Lord's Gym in Austin, Texas.
Located in an unglamorous part of town, Lord's Gym looks to be right out of central casting. It's a hectic, no-frills establishment of the "Million Dollar Baby" variety with every corner bursting with training spaces and every inch of wall space covered by posters and boxing art. It's not only a place to learn what writer A.J. Liebling memorably called the "sweet science," it's a living shrine where people are invited to inhale the potent mythology of the sport.
Running the place in a distinctly simple manner ("$50 a month, no contract, no plastic, no initiation fee") is former professional fighter Richard Lord. He is a true believer in the manly arts, convinced that learning boxing skills will improve the lives of everyone, even a young boy who has epilepsy and can't get into the ring with someone else.
To describe Lord this way, however, is somewhat misleading. He is in truth an avuncular man with a gentle manner, very good with children and intent on the idea that the passing on of knowledge is what his gym is all about. He and his fellow instructors are always teaching, forever calling out combinations of punches — "one-two, one-two, jab, jab, jab" — to his sweaty charges.
What's most impressive about these students is how dead serious they all are. Men and women from all socio-economic strata as well as boys and girls are equally intent on the task at hand, rarely so much as smiling as they go through the endless exercises and routines necessary to achieve a state of boxing grace.
It's not just work on classic apparatus like the light bag and the heavy bag that "Boxing Gym's" expert cinematographer John Davey captures, but boxers focusing on strength, balance, footwork, endurance and hand speed.
We see multiple iterations of all manner of drills, and one of the pleasures of this film is that it understands that the more you look at something, the more mysterious and beautiful it becomes.
Though almost everyone in the gym seems very nice, especially the new parents who keep a protective eye on infants placed just outside the exercise areas, it becomes increasingly inescapable, though no one mentions it, that boxing is grounded in violence, in one person hitting another.
And though "Boxing Gym" never judges or decries, only illuminates, to watch it is to be confronted with what looks like anger, frustration and hostility being worked out in all corners of the gym.
"It's the beast in action," filmmaker Wiseman said in an interview at Cannes earlier this year. "We're a violent creature, though the fact that it is ritualized in boxing means that it is more or less under control."
Especially illuminating in this context is the accident of fate that had the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech, when 32 people were killed, take place while Wiseman was filming at the gym and is discussed by several of the boxers. The fact that no one who talks about that situation sees even the tiniest link between these different kinds of violence is completely fascinating.
Wiseman starts his director's statement in "Boxing Gym's" press material with a quote from the Russian writer Vasily Grossman, who says, "Violence is eternal, no matter what is done to destroy it. It will not disappear and it will not diminish but will only be transformed." This quietly provocative documentary will give you a new appreciation of just how true that statement is.