A letter published in the March 1929 issue of Motion Picture Magazine asked: “Why in the world does anybody want to see life represented on the screen as it is? How can they stand to see anything so monotonous? We all see these commonplace things every day of our lives and when we go to the theatre we want something unreal and beautiful to give us courage and hope to face the trials of this drab world of ours…So please, Mr. Directors, give us not life as it is but life as we would like it to be…”
Apparently, documentarian Frederick Wiseman never subscribed to Motion Picture Magazine. (I guess the fact that he was born a year after the March ’29 issue was published also played a factor in his having ignored this letter’s ministrations.)
Beginning with Titicut Follies, his magisterial and deeply disturbing 1967 study of life in an insane asylum, Wiseman has embraced the drab and monotonous, and steadfastly attempted to record the realities of everyday American life. Now 80 years old, Wiseman, who was recently on Cal’s campus shooting a documentary there, continues to plow the same field: his newest feature, Boxing Gym (opening on Wednesday, December 29 for an exclusive run at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood), is an hour and a half long disquisition on the workaday world of Lord’s Gym in Austin, Texas.
Filmed over the course of a month, Boxing Gym depicts the exercise regimens of a wide assortment of Lord’s patrons. In addition to the usual suspects one might expect to find in such a place — the former boxers on the comeback trail, the young men in search of a discipline to master — its clientele also includes men and women, young and old, white-collar and blue-collar workers, African-Americans, Latinos, and whites, and even quite a few children. The gym’s rainbow coalition of customers proves there’s still some truth to the stereotypical cliché of America as societal melting pot.
Wiseman’s films eschew almost all the baubles we associate with contemporary documentary moviemaking. There’s no narration, no narrative arc, and no story to be told. There’s no music to punch up our emotions and, though it’s clear a huge amount of footage ended up on the cutting room floor, one gets the impression Wiseman doesn’t particularly enjoy the editing process, either.
Most of the film is observation, observation, observation. The sound is ambient; the conversations captured as banal as they come. Gym owner Richard Lord discusses a liquor store break-in while tossing a medicine ball to a customer; an aspiring Army Ranger expounds on the challenges and difficulties of basic training; a woman explains why she is buying a gym membership for her husband.
There are points where Boxing Gym is boring, but there are also points where you begin to appreciate its slow, steady rhythms and the banal realities it records. It may not provide the horrific titillation of Titicut Follies, but its drab monotony is just as genuine. This is real life as seen through the eyes of one of America’s greatest living filmmakers.