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Cannes '10 Day 11: Our local treasure

Posted by Wesley Morris  May 22, 2010 08:58 AM

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Earlier this week, I sketched a story from here about the national treasures moving up and down the Croisette. Martin Scorsese. Woody Allen. Roger Ebert. Not to mention all the local (French) auteurs. But few treasures got around Cannes this week as much  as Frederick Wiseman, America's -- and Cambridge's! -- greatest documentary filmmaker. There he was at a crowded screening of Olivier Assayas's 333-minute Carlos the Jackal epic. There he was again gamboling along a hot hotel terrace as Mick Jagger was giving a jocular interview to an international handful of reporters. One night he was seated next to the French filmmaker Agnès Varda (more treasure). On another, he was seated, quite magically, next to me. 

At 80, Wiseman is able to move around town with an anonymity that Varda or Allen or Ebert no longer have. Could this also be true when he runs errands around Porter Square where he lives? But the people who do recognize him or discover who is appear to be tastefully star-struck. His latest film, "Boxing Gym," had an ecstatically received premiere in the festival's Directors Fortnight on Thursday. (I recorded the video above a few minutes before the screening. It's sub-sub Wiseman in quality.) 

Wiseman spent several weeks in Austin, Texas filming the members of "Lord's Gym," as they trained, sparred, worked out, and shot the breeze. He bestows upon this busy, gloriously overdecorated facility his usual contemplative eye, but, at a 91 minutes, in less time than usual. (At dinner the other night, a friend of Wiseman's said, "This is short for you, Fred." He responded by saying that it was as long as it needed to be.)

Thumbnail image for Boxing Gym.jpg

Many of Wiseman's films examine the intricacies, benefits, and failures of American systems and bureaucratic institutions. Those movies, which include "High School," "Welfare," "Domestic Violence," its sequel, and "State Legislature, are long because they need to be. "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 includes an actual match at the gym. And it's a testament to the film's contemplative and deceptively serene atmosphere that this sequence provokes winces and gasps -- and not because most of the audience, on this occasion, is French (not purely, anyway). 

The other part of that thematic intersection is the body, what it can be trained to do, what it can withstand and what it can't. He's made several films about dance, but the new film -- with its interactions among different races, genders, ages, classes, and personalities -- might be his most hypnotic, rhythmically assembled observation of corporeal expression. The repetition here of physical actions (sit-ups, punches, bouncing a hammer off a tire) achieves a spiritual effect that Wiseman doesn't overstate. The feeling of modest transcendence happened by nature. When it was over the audience rose to its feet and applauded the film and Wiseman, who seemed touched and a little embarrassed. I had to leave the ovation to see another film. But on the long climb up and out of the Palais Stéphanie, the cheering was still pretty loud. 

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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