Boxing Gym contains no narration, no score, and no subtitles (despite the occasional Spanish). No one speaks to the camera. There's not even a title card, unless you count the shot, in the first minute, of a sidewalk sign reading, "Boxing gym." You wouldn't even know the movie was set in Austin, Texas, unless you picked up the occasional clue — an accent here, a T-shirt there. Or if, like me, you Google'd it.
In other words, Boxing Gym, which opens today at the West End Cinema, is a lot like the three dozen other documentaries Frederick Wiseman has made in the past 40 years, the titles so simple as to border on grandiosity: High School, Hospital, Juvenile Court, Welfare, Meat, Deaf, Blind, Zoo, Public Housing, Domestic Violence, and so on. He is considered, along with D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers, the "godfather of cinéma vérité" — meaning, non-pretentiously, of observational documentaries. Naturally, Wiseman, who will be on hand tonight for a must-hear Q&A, dislikes both terms. He was once quoted as saying:
What I try to do is edit the films so that they will have a dramatic structure, that is why I object to some extent to the term observational cinema or cinéma vérité, because observational cinema to me at least connotes just hanging around with one thing being as valuable as another and that is not true. At least that is not true for me and cinéma vérité is just a pompous French term that has absolutely no meaning as far as I'm concerned. The effort is to be selective about your observations and organize them into a dramatic structure.
His sense of drama, though, is vastly different from most filmmakers'. As he once explained, "In each scene, I have an obligation to provide the context and, from my point of view, the result is more dramatic than when you just cut to the most sensational aspect. The so-called juicy part of the scene is more comprehensible and more powerful because the context is clear." So despite intense editing — which takes many months, compared with several weeks of filming — he allows shots to linger, to give moments room to breathe. Rather than cut away from silence, he embraces it.
The result is a style of filmmaking most people aren't accustomed to — and one that, even for a fan like me, takes some getting used to. The entire 90-minute movie, with one exception, is set inside Richard Lord's gym or in the parking lot, and Lord himself is the only consistent human subject. Everyone else — from a pre-teen girl to an elderly man, a Latino boy to a middle-aged white woman — is passing through, the gym (and film) just a brief stop in their wider lives. They spar in the ring, shadow box, work the bags, bounce sledgehammers off rubber tires, and, perhaps more than anything, shoot the shit — about boxing, yes, but other topics, too, like the Virginia Tech massacre.
There's no obvious arc, no overt drama, but it's clear why Wiseman toils in the editing room so. I was entranced by the film well before I even realized it. The gym itself is a living, breathing character, and its mood shifts ever so subtly. There is dramatic tension, and it builds, however imperceptibly, before receding — like a tide that rises and falls without creating waves of any consequence. Much as I love heavy surf, sometimes the sound of water lapping against the sand is a nice change of pace.