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Frederick Wiseman’s Bout With “Boxing Gym”

Frederick Wiseman’s Bout With “Boxing Gym” (photo)

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Like all of Frederick Wiseman’s films, his latest has a title that seems to say it all: “Boxing Gym” is basically an hour-and-a-half of sights and sounds from an Austin area boxing gym. As usual, though, there’s more going on here. In presenting glimpses of different trainees – be they kids enjoying a fun sport, ordinary folks getting a workout, or actual fighters preparing for their next bout – “Boxing Gym” takes on a meditative quality, but that mesmerizing quality is eventually breached when the real-life violence of the Virginia Tech massacre thousands of miles away intrudes on the boxers’ world and becomes a point of discussion.

The legendary director, whose films include such classics as “Titicut Follies,” “High School,” and “Public Housing,” has made the exploration of the nature of American institutions his great artistic project, and the boxing gym is a manifestation of one way violence presents itself in ordinary American life, so when the news of a different kind of violence, both anathema and analog to some of the issues raised in the film, gives the film an additional, haunting dimension.

10212010_wiseman2.jpgThat description perhaps makes Boxing Gym sound like an ironic – maybe even condescending – critique, but Wiseman’s filmmaking has always been deceptively complex. As the director himself admits, he’s a big fan of boxing, and what shines through in his new film is a characteristic combination of incisive observation, visual poetry, and a very cinematic brand of humanity. Wiseman recently took the time to chat with us about his amazing new film, and how it fits into his work.

Why a boxing gym?

I’ve always been interested in boxing. I’ve watched a lot of fights. In the ’70s, I used to go to Boston Garden and they’d broadcast big fights, like the Ali-Frazier fight, on 12 by 15 screens. It was like being at ringside. And I boxed a little bit – took some lessons when I was a kid. Quite aside from that, I’m also interested in the subject of violence, which cuts across a lot of my films, and boxing is a ritualized form of violence. Films like “Titicut Follies” and “Juvenile Court” show the state punishing people who’ve created violent acts, and films like “Basic Training” and “Maneuver” are illustrations of the state’s monopoly on violence. And “Domestic Violence” speaks for itself, obviously. Also, there’s a connection between the boxing movie and the two ballet movies I’ve made – in “La Danse,” the woman who runs the Paris Opera Ballet says at one point that a dancer is like a boxer. The similarity is obviously the need to control the body — in both cases, they have to train a long time and have complete control over their legs and their arms and their head and torso.

There’s also a resonance with previous films like “Essene,” which was set amongst a small community of monks, in the way that the characters are aspiring to an idealized version of themselves. Everybody aspires to be like the guys on the walls – the posters that totally cover the walls of the gym.

I think that’s a good point. It’s related to “Essene” and thematically related to “The Iceman Cometh,” in the sense that a lot of the boxers are always talking about tomorrow. And those posters, in one sense, represent the dream. They were marvelous, all those posters – some new, some fraying, some dirty, some old. And they became thematically relevant. They’re of boxers who had some form of success. And that marvelously run-down, seedy look of the gym became a character in the film. It’s a two-million-dollar set that you fall into. Lord’s Gym is the only gym I looked at for the film – I got there and I immediately saw that it was film material. It looked right, and I liked Richard Lord a lot. He’s a very nice man and an extremely good teacher and a smart handler of people. He talks to everybody in exactly the same way – whether they’re doctors and lawyers or illegal immigrants.

10212010_boxinggym5.jpgBecause this is a gym, with different people constantly coming in and out, the editing must have presented some structural challenges. You’re less focused on process, unlike with something like “State Legislature.”

It definitely presented a different set of issues. It was interesting – the film is composed of a lot of very short shots. “State Legislature” is sort of the other extreme – that’s a movie dependent on talk. This is a movie that’s very dependent on action. In fact, one of the reasons I made it was because I was coming off of “State Legislature” – even though it’s being released after “La Danse,” I actually shot it before. I deliberately wanted to do a more action-oriented subject.

How did that affect editing the film?

I enjoyed the editing a lot, because of all the problems associated with finding the appropriate rhythm, establishing a relationship between the sound and the action. The sound was complicated, but it was fun to do. The time clock, the sound of the gloves hitting the body or hitting the leather – that’s the music of the film, its rhythm. I joked to somebody the other day that it’s a Philip Glass score. It was interesting to me to try and cut the movie to the sounds of the gym. It’s not often you have that kind of opportunity. I had to decide when to use the sound of the clock, when not to use the sound of the clock, the relationship of the movements made by feet to the sound of the clock.

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Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

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Wedding Planners

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Disaster Hut

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Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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