At the heart of the 2014 Oscar-nominated documentary Cutie and the Boxer is not just the story of a strained and complicated marriage between two artists, but a depiction of the difficulties faced by anyone trying to eke out a living from a career in art, and the exhausting pressures of trying to achieve success.
Produced and directed by Zachary Heinzerling, the documentary is an intimate — and at times uncomfortable — portrait of the 40-year marriage of Japanese-born, Brooklyn-based artists Noriko and Ushio Shinohara. Through a combination of flashback footage and animated versions of Noriko's watercolor color series "Cutie and Bullie" (which she completes over the course of filming), viewers follow the Shinohara's tumultuous years together — from Ushio's early successes living and working in New York to alcohol-fueled periods of destruction where the family had little money, Ushio struggled to sell work, and Noriko all but gave up working on her own art in order to keep the family afloat.
As much as Cutie and the Boxer is a story about Noriko and Ushio Shinohara's unique marriage of opposites, it's also about the greater struggle to survive as an artist, in the market and at home. Where other artists have succumbed to their own egos, market pressures, substance abuse, and economic instability, the Shinoharas defy the odds and ultimately triumph. Their story isn't without bumps, pitfalls, and roadblocks, but they've committed themselves to their art — a risk worth taking.
Did Cutie and the Boxer feel like a triumphant or tragic story? Does the film's depiction of Ushio as selfish seem fair? What part of the film affected you the most? Does the Shinohara's story seem familiar in comparison to other famous art world couples? Is their relationship a cautionary tale for balancing career and love?
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Alanna Martinez is a writer, editor, and visual artist based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Art+Auction, Modern Painters, and Williamsburg Greenpoint News + Arts.