Hollywood adores overused archetypal love stories that can be summarized as boy meets girl, girl falls for boy, something dumb happens and boy and girl live happily ever after. There's a problem, though: Life is hardly ever as tidy as these make-believe setups that are obviously intended to entertain and pull in big bucks at the box office.
When celebrated artist Ushio Shinohara was approached with the idea of filming a documentary about his life, he thought he would be the hero. He thought his signature Jackson Pollock-esque mesh aesthetic in which he remodels boxing gloves into makeshift paint applicators would anchor the narrative. He thought Houston-born director Zachary Heinzerling would cut a film about art and art making.
Heinzerling's film, Cutie and the Boxer, which opened the fifth annual Houston Cinema Arts Festival at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Wednesday, does have passion for art as the golden thread that strings a captivating story, one that's too intricately rich to have ever been imagined.
As they say, truth is better than fiction.
What's bewitching about Cutie and the Boxer isn't that it delves into the mind of a struggling artist whose work was respected for decades but failed to sell. Rather, it unveils a relatable human story of a husband and wife as their skewed relationship shifts. Noriko Shinohara, Ushio's spouse, an accomplished artist in her own realm, had served a secondary role supporting Ushio's career. She was 19 years old, he was 41 years old when they met in New York.
A tender glance onstage between these two lovebirds evinced that in the face friction, their affection for one another is timeless.
"Cutie" is a female caricature created by Noriko. The character, who appears naked, represents her resentment of being forced to put her own artistic development on hold to cater to her capricious husband, who's symbolized by the character "Bullie." Ushio depended on Noriko to raise their son, to clean, cook and manage their finances while he continued a reckless lifestyle that led him to alcoholism.
Just as Noriko struggles to reclaim her own voice, so does Cutie. Noriko sketches an increasingly confident figure that turns strife into inspiration. At the film's conclusion, more than 40 years since the couple first met, Noriko achieves recognition for her powerful message, her work standing proud and adjacent to Ushio's in a collaborative exhibition.
Still, Noriko doesn't show anger or exasperation. Her patience while enduring misery and poverty doesn't tarnish her charming, dry humor and pointed honesty. Noriko accepts her destiny and invites conflict as means to draw a constructive impulse to pursue her first love, art, and keep her second, her husband.
"After watching the movie, I am surprised that Noriko still loves me," Ushio said during a panel chat with Noriko, Heinzerling and Houston Cinema Arts Festival artistic director Richard Herskowitz.
A tender glance onstage between these two lovebirds evinced that in the face of friction, their affection for one another remains timeless, united by the urge to decipher their inner and outer world through art.
"Without Bullie, Cutie cannot exist," Noriko says.
The Houston Cinema Arts Festival continues through Sunday. See the full schedule.