REVIEW: Wiseman's Boxing Gym Highlights One Small Corner of the Boxing World
If it's possible to make a completely gentle movie about boxing, Frederick Wiseman has done just that with Boxing Gym. This is hardly one of the world's -- or, for that matter, one of Wiseman's -- most earth-shattering documentaries. It's really just a moving-image snapshot of a particular world, Lord's Gym, in Austin, Tex., a laid-back joint where people who love boxing -- from kids and adult beginners to professionals -- congregate to hit the heavy bag and shoot the breeze, though not necessarily in that order.
The central character in Boxing Gym, if there is one, is Richard Lord, the former pro boxer who founded the place. Lord is a wiry, soft-spoken guy, and even though he doesn't exactly grab center-stage in the film, by the movie's end, you can see clearly how he's set the tone for this place. Early on, Wiseman shows the gym's happily jumbled décor, a mix of promo posters for various historic (or even not-so-historic) fights, portraits of old-time fighters and newcomers alike, and, of course, a poster for Raging Bull.
Wiseman's camera is a wide-open eye that gives us a sense of the types of people who find their way to Lord's Gym (we quickly realize that there's no set "type") and to the ways Lord welcome and encourages them. There's the young mother who's interested in boxing lessons and wants to know if her kids are welcome to tag along; Lord assures her they are, and tells her that the kids who accompany their parents to the gym have a ball there. A tall, quiet young man comes to the gym for the first time, and Lord makes note of his "brown eye" (we can't see it because the young man's back is to the camera). Lord asks him how he got it, and the kid says he got into a fight. Lord queries him, in a low-key, conversational way, about his motives for coming to the gym: "You're not doing it to go get some vengeance on somebody, are you?" The young man assures Lord he's not, and even though Lord tells him, "It sure is nice to know how to fight if you get in one -- it helps a lot," he also notes that most of the gym's members avoid fights. They don't want to "get their hands broke," he says, because then they "miss out in here."
From the texture of the film that Wiseman has built around Lord's quiet, unassuming character, you can understand why they wouldn't want to miss out. We see a young woman -- extremely fit but by no means tiny -- dressed all in white, skipping rope so lightly that her feet barely seem to touch the ground; they make a soft "pft-pft" sound as they do. Another fellow, so well-toned he could be a Rodin sculpture, shadow-boxes in the ring. His moves are a kind of improvisational dance, so graceful that you almost forget how much brute force there is behind those mighty fists. Without spelling it out, Wiseman suggests that boxing is both a sport and an art form, a discipline that demands not just hard physical work but a certain kind of intuitive smarts. You need to think both on your feet and with your feet.
This is Wiseman's 38th film, and it shows an affectionate, light touch. Through his eyes, we see Lord's Gym is a place where people can talk about life's big and small changes, even as they're doing pull-ups, sit-ups and all manner of huffing and puffing: In one sequence, a man and a woman who appear to be casual acquaintances discuss the man's impending engagement, barely breaking stride in their respective workouts. This is a place where parents can come to work out without having to book a babysitter: In one of the picture's subtle, funny moments, we watch one gym denizen go through his workout; at first you might barely notice the infant carrier placed a safe distance behind him. The baby inside is tiny, and the man takes a break to check on him, coo at him, pat him with his gloved hand.
That's the kind of detail Wiseman is so good at capturing. Boxing Gym may not break any new ground. But it takes us inside one particular small, intimate world and makes us feel at home there. Inclusivity is, after all, part of Wiseman's artistry.