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Fist Jazz

by Published on
photo courtesy Zipporah Films
A still from Boxing Gym

Novelist Joyce Carol Oates wrote that boxing is “the drama of life in the flesh.” Ernest Hemingway famously said, “My writing is nothing. My boxing is everything.” A.J. Liebling dubbed boxers “pugilant heroes” and wrote about their matches with an eloquence and flair his contemporaries usually reserved for dignified workers and socialist glory. Boxing, writers tell us, is a science, a dance and kinetic poetry. It’s diplomacy without talk, opera without music, war without extra people around.   

The great documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman has his own views. His remarkable documentary, Boxing Gym, looks at the daily routine of a nondescript gym in a nondescript Austin neighborhood. The 80-year-old director postulates that boxing is a form of hypnosis, which might seem a little odd. Hypnosis is best served by silence, or at least quiet. Boxing is about grunts and groans and great, heaving exertions and body parts slapping into other body parts.

The film is hypnotic. Eschewing voice-overs, narration, talking-head interviews and any sort of written information, Wiseman sets up his camera and films fighters at work, basking in the rhythms of training, day after day. Wiseman’s movie is more of an aural experience than a visual one. “The first thing you get down is the rhythm,” a fighter at Richard Lord’s Boxing Gym tells a beginner, and Wiseman makes that advice the guiding principle of the film. Boxing Gym is a marvel of unobtrusive cinema-verité and polyrhythmic musical invention in which instruments are the repetitious thwack of jump ropes on concrete, the squeak of shoes on canvas, the thump of gloves on the heavy bag, the heavy breathing of men and women, the rat-a-tat triplets of the speed bag and the sickening thud of gloved fists colliding with torsos, just to remind us it’s not all poetry and art and music.

gym

(Gym owner Richard Lord, photo courtesy Zipporah Films)

The movements and rhythmic insistence of Boxing Gym’s fighters are ends to themselves. They don’t add up to anything—no narrative, no plotline, no character development—beyond the simple artistry of acts performed until they’re mastered. Wiseman the artist truly shines in the editing room, transforming 100 hours of unremarkable routine into 90 minutes of music.

Wiseman joked in a recent interview that Boxing Gym is like a Philip Glass composition: If you listen enough to the repeated sounds of the gym, eventually they’ll start to sound like something else entirely, something more mysterious. For 45 years, Wiseman has been mapping the interiors of our institutions—high schools, housing projects, mental hospitals. In his newest movie, he plays alchemist, turning a boxing gym into a monastery: a place where devotees commune through their fists.

Josh Rosenblatt writes about film from New York City.