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With: Richard Lord                                       
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Frederick Wiseman
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 91
Date: 05/20/2010

Boxing Gym (2010)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Glove Actually

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Frederick Wiseman is 80 this year, and he has directed nearly 40 documentaries over the last 40-plus years. Some of these films are short, and some of them are over three hours long. Some of them premiered on television, and some in movie theaters. Hardly any are available for the general public to see; they are only available through Wiseman's own company, and at not-too-friendly prices. It's hard to say if a more commercial career would have boosted Wiseman's reputation, but the fact is that -- in certain circles -- he's already a living legend.

He has developed a singular "fly-on-the-wall" filmmaking style that few have ever been able to emulate. His cameras rarely appear to be there at all, and his subjects never pay attention to them. In his most famous films Titicut Follies (1967) and High School (1969) as well as The Store (1983), Public Housing (1997), Belfast, Maine (1999), and Domestic Violence (2001), there's no narration, no talking heads, and very often no story. Most of his films focus on institutions, places where numbers of people go for some specific purpose. Boxing has always been an inherently cinematic event, very visual, dynamic, dramatic and competitive, and now Wiseman has stumbled upon perhaps his most cinematic documentary, Boxing Gym. In a year filled with angry, sociopolitical documentaries, it's my favorite. (It opens at San Francisco's Roxie Cinema, as well as many other fine theaters across the country.)

It was shot in 2007 in Lord's Gym, in Austin, Texas. We know the date only because at one point some of the customers mention the Virginia Tech shooting of April 16. This does not make Boxing Gym a political film. It's just something that the customers happened to be talking about that day. Other topics of conversation are finances, stupid criminals, military service, and, of course, boxing. Richard Lord, a former pro boxer, trains many ordinary people who are just looking to get into shape and learn something, and there are a few young, hungry fighters looking for a career in the ring. There are also housewives, old guys, street punks... men and women of all stripes, ages and shapes.

Wiseman sometimes shoots in Lord's office as he outlines his terms to his new customers. There are few rules. You pay your $50 a month, and you can come in any time you want. The equipment mostly consists of rubber, rope, and tape. Every once in a while we see and hear an electronic round timer that may be ten years old, but everything else here is old school, including used tires. Lord is seen working with new boxers, but the more experienced boxers are also very welcoming and helpful to newcomers. One kid has epilepsy, and can't get hit in the head; Lord agrees to train him but not put him into any actual fights. Other adults box with their babies resting nearby.

Over the course of the film, we see some faces again and again, and some faces we see only once. These people really love coming here. They love the exercise and they love building new skills and working to improve them. The atmosphere is tough, but supportive. The images cross between dynamic ones of people training, and then of people talking. Sitting in the audience, one can learn a little about balance, footwork, and other factors, or as much as anyone can learn without actually doing. (I even learned what the speed bag is actually for.)

This overall plotless experience here adds up to something extraordinary. This world seems untouched by economic woes or technological ones. Everyone is on an even playing field here. From among these run-down surroundings and a violent sport, Wiseman has built a sense of community and hope.

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