Fighting the good fight at Lord’s

 

Frederick Wiseman’s singular documentaries never hit you on the head, not even one called Boxing Gym. They are subtle and meditative affairs, never in a hurry to reveal themselves,...

By Kenneth Turan

Frederick Wiseman’s singular documentaries never hit you on the head, not even one called Boxing Gym. They are subtle and meditative affairs, never in a hurry to reveal themselves, carefully allowing audiences the time and space to figure things out on their own.

Wiseman, indefatigable at 80, has been doing things this way for decades. Producer, director, editor and sound person on this film and others, he’s made 36 documentaries to date, starting with the landmark Titicut Follies in 1967. He never uses voice-over narration, which encourages viewers to really look at what’s being shown.

What Wiseman’s films share, aside from utilitarian titles such as Basic Training and State Legislature, is a focus on society’s institutions. In Boxing Gym, he sets his sights on an establishment that matches its title for spareness: Lord’s Gym in Austin, Texas.

Lord’s Gym looks to be right out of central casting. It’s a hectic, no-frills establishment of the Million Dollar Baby variety with every corner bursting with training spaces and walls covered by posters and boxing art. It’s not only a place to learn what writer A.J. Liebling memorably called the “sweet science,” but also a living shrine where people are invited to inhale the potent mythology of the sport.

Running the place in a distinctly simple manner (“$50 a month, no contract, no plastic, no initiation fee”) is former professional fighter Richard Lord. He is a true believer in the manly arts, convinced that learning boxing skills will improve the lives of everyone, even a young boy who has epilepsy and can’t get into the ring with someone else.

To describe Lord this way, however, is somewhat misleading. He is in truth an avuncular man with a gentle manner, good with children and intent on the idea that the passing on of knowledge is what his gym is all about. He and his fellow instructors are always teaching, calling out combinations of punches — “one-two, one-two, jab, jab, jab” — to his sweaty charges.

What’s most impressive about these students is how dead serious they all are. Men and women from all socio-economic strata as well as boys and girls are equally intent on the task at hand, rarely so much as smiling as they go through the exercises and routines.

Expert cinematographer John Davey captures classic apparatus such as the light bag and the heavy bag but also boxers focusing on strength, balance, footwork, endurance and hand speed. We see multiple iterations of all manner of drills, and one of the pleasures of this film is that it understands that the more you look at something, the more mysterious and beautiful it becomes.

Though almost everyone in the gym seems nice, especially the new parents who keep a protective eye on infants placed just outside the exercise areas, it becomes increasingly inescapable that boxing is grounded in violence, in one person hitting another. And though the film never judges or decries, only illuminates, to watch it is to be confronted with what looks like anger, frustration and hostility being worked out in all corners of the gym.

“It’s the beast in action,” Wiseman said in an interview at Cannes earlier this year. “We’re a violent creature, though the fact that it is ritualized in boxing means that it is more or less under control.”

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