Boxing film’s hook is its simplicity
Frederick Wiseman must drive certain nonfiction filmmakers crazy. He makes it look too easy. There are a hundred ways to make a documentary (although if you’ve watched enough lately, you know we see only about six). Wiseman’s transparent style — observe and report — is like Anna Wintour’s pageboy: Why change now? Other filmmakers have tried his approach, but they rarely have the confidence to let the unadulterated silences and meticulous assembly speak for themselves. Wiseman is 80, and there’s wisdom in his formal economy. He doesn’t appear to work harder than a subject needs him to.
“Boxing Gym,’’ which opens in the Boston area today, is modest by the standards of Wiseman’s epics. In the spring of 2007, he spent a few weeks at Lord’s Gym, a training facility in Austin, Texas, that’s open to the public. Wiseman’s not out to say anything grand or complex. His camera simply films the gym’s members (men, women, children, black, white, Hispanic, comfortable, poor, amateur, advanced) as they train, spar, work out, and shoot the breeze about everything from the deliriously anticipated Oscar de la Hoya-Floyd Mayweather fight to the Virginia Tech shootings, both of which occurred during the filming.
Wiseman bestows upon this busy, vast, and vastly overdecorated facility his usual contemplative eye, but, at a brisk 91 minutes, in less time than usual. Many of Wiseman’s films examine the intricacies, benefits, and failures of American systems and bureaucratic institutions. Those movies, which include “High School,’’ “Hospital,’’ “Welfare,’’ “Domestic Violence,’’ its sequel, and “State Legislature, are necessarily long. “Boxing Gym,’’ however, is the perfect thematic intersection of two of the focuses in his work. One is violence, which here is ritualized. But just so we know that boxing is not just a way to stay in shape or out of trouble, he eventually includes an actual match at the gym. And it’s a testament to the film’s contemplative, convivial, deceptively serene atmosphere that the punches and the sffft! sound produced when they land are shocking: that rough contact is very much part of the point.
The other aspect of that thematic intersection is the body, what it can be trained to do, what it can withstand and what it can’t. Wiseman has made several films about both disability and dance, but this new one might be his most hypnotic, rhythmically assembled observation of corporeal expression. The repetition here of physical actions (sit-ups, punches, the bouncing of a sledge hammer off a tire) achieves a spiritual effect that Wiseman doesn’t overstate. (He often ends scenes not long after one of the gym’s digital timers blares.) The feeling of modest transcendence happens by nature.
If fight movies are to be believed, boxing is also about bonding (there’s as much talking in Wiseman’s as there is training). And many of the members of this place do seem bound — to fitness, to the sport, to each other, to some higher power that a place called Lord’s Gym would seem to understand. The “Lord’’ is actually Richard Lord, a small, trim, middle-aged ex-boxer with facial hair and a long thin plait in the back of his head. He looks tough, so as he signs up new members ($50 a month; no initiation fee), helps train regulars, and offers counsel he doesn’t bother to act it. Like another lord, he has a quiet authority. He instructs. You follow.