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Frederick Wiseman on Boxing Gym

Legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman's films are sharply observed and hypnotic portraits of America's institutions. We talk to him about his latest journey inside a Boxing Gym.

Boxing Gym


Documentaries like Boxing Gym are a refreshing rarity. Frederick Wiseman sticks to what his camera sees: a tiny gym in Austin, Texas where people from all walks of life come to train and box. From moms with newborn babies who sleep ringside, to teenage boys who come eager for their first fight, Lord’s Gym serves as a melting pot for Austinites in search of a place to learn to box, unknowingly creating a sense of community.


With films ranging in subject matter from ballet to ballistic missiles, the eighty-year-old director has made a career out of his incisive observations of institutions, and taken together, his work provides a stirring portrait of America (and some other places, as well). His 1967 film about the criminally insane, Titicut Follies, was banned and an American judge threatened to burn the negatives for its content. His 38 films have won the most prestigious of awards, Wiseman as well (including, but not limited to, a MacArthur "genius" grant)—yet he remains a humble and simple filmmaker working with celluloid film and a skeleton crew and a great sense of humor.


Wiseman’s bare bones style gives his work an uncompromising, realistic quality and a rare and compelling window on humanity. Tribeca had the pleasure of chatting with him on the phone from Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Frederick Wiseman


Tribeca: What made you want to make a film about this boxing gym?


Frederick Wiseman: I boxed a little bit when I was a child, but I've always been interested in boxing. I used to see them project all the big fights on enormous screens in the 70s at Boston Garden, so I saw a lot of the Ali/Frazier fights and that sort of thing. I’ve been interested in boxing and really enjoyed some classic boxing books: Joyce Carol Oates' On Boxing and David Remnick's King of the World, for example.


The subject of human violence cuts across a lot of my films, like Titicut Follies, which is about a prison for the mentally insane. Many of the inmates there have committed the most horrible and violent acts imaginable. Law and Order is about the police, you see the police functioning to control and stop violence and arresting people who have committed violent acts.  In Juvenile Court you see another aspect of the state: punishing violence. In movies like Missile, about the training of the people who launch the continental ballistic missiles, and Basic Training, which is about army training during the Vietnam War, you see the preparation for war. In Manoeuvre, you see how the state has a monopoly on violence to protect the citizens of the state. So in an abstract way. the subject of violence cuts across a lot of my films. Boxing is a form of ritualized violence, where people learn to control their violent feelings and express them through the ritualized form of a boxing match. Apart from the fact that it’s also a sport with conditioning.


Tribeca:  Right, because in Boxing Gym a lot of emphasis is placed on the preparation for the match, not the match itself.


Frederick Wiseman: Right. In another way the boxing movie is very related to the two dance movies I’ve done, Ballet and La Danse because the boxers have to learn how to control all aspects of their body in the service of learning how to box. They have to learn how to use their arms and legs in a very specific way, not unlike the kind of control the dancers have to have.


Tribeca: You work is unlike most of the documentaries out in the world today, which is really refreshing. There's no digital graphics and there's no music. The music is more the sounds of sparring, punching bags, and jumping on the ring.


Frederick Wiseman: That’s a score by Phillip Glass.


Tribeca: In Boxing Gym?


Frederick Wiseman: I’m kidding!


Tribeca:  Wow, you had me for a second there.  I was afraid I watched the wrong film!  So, in the age of reality TV, there's a lot of work out there shot in a “documentary” style that lead the audience down a carefully mapped road where we are meant to feel a very specific emotion about a character that we are following and meant to empathize with. There is music to enhance the emotion, and interviews to explain things. You have your own style that doesn’t include these devices. Have you ever been tempted or interested to follow one character or add music?  


Frederick Wiseman: That technique doesn’t interest me. I’m not saying the way I make movies is right and that the other is wrong but it just doesn’t interest me. I’ve been interested in exploring the possibilities and improving the way I make films within my own technique. I always wanted to make films based on real things with a narrative form even if that narrative was expressed abstractly, which the editing creates. The best film book about film editing I ever read was [Eugene] Ionesco’s book on playwrighting.  


Tribeca: Your films seem to be able to fit into all sorts of venues:  TV, museums, and theatres. There are very few films that can do that. Do you feel like your films work as art pieces and as narrative films?


Frederick Wiseman: I prefer to see my films on a big screen, as anyone would.  They were made to be shown in theatres, but they’ve been shown much more on TV. It’s only in recent years that I've had any decent theatrical distribution.  They are made to be seen as movies more than anything.


Tribeca: How do you choose subjects for your films?


Frederick Wiseman: I just pick whatever interests me at the time. But it’s always about an institution in some way. The institutions serve the same purpose as lines on a tennis court. It provides a limit.


Tribeca: How do the subjects in your films react when they see their lives on the big screen?


Frederick Wiseman: A lot of them have never seen [the films]. The people in my films who are waiting in a welfare line, juvenile court, or in a hospital—there's no way to find them.


Tribeca: Yet parts of their lives have been broadcast on TV and screened at the most prestigious festivals around the world.


Frederick Wiseman: Yes. Some people I can track down and I try to find others. The staff and some of the families from my film Near Death were able to see the film at a screening I did at the hospital. But films like Domestic Violence, Law and Order or Juvenile Court have so many people in them that will never see the film.


Boxing Gym


Tribeca: So after studying all these institutions for so long, have you come up with any conclusions on the human condition that you’d like to share?


Frederick Wiseman: (Laughs.) You know what answer I'm going to give, don’t you?


Tribeca:  Watch your films!


Frederick Wiseman: Yes. Any conclusions I have are in my movies. If I could say it in 25 words or less than I shouldn’t have made the movies! (Both laugh.)


Tribeca: You have had a prolific career and have a very unique and specific artistic voice. Do you have any advice for young filmmakers or artists?


Frederick Wiseman: Marry somebody rich.


Tribeca:  My dad tells me that a lot.  Okay but seriouslyany advice?


Frederick Wiseman: There is no formula. Follow your own interest or judgment. It doesn’t mean that the result will be good but there is a better chance, if people are doing what they like to do and they see how far they can carry it. The only rule I think there is about movie making is that you can see the picture and hear the sound.


Boxing Gym opens at the IFC Center on Friday, October 22, where Wiseman will be present for an opening night Q&A after the 5:45, 7:50, and 9:55 screenings. Click here to enter to win a Boxing Gym poster, signed by Wiseman!


Keep up with Wiseman at his Zipporah Films website.


On Thursday, October 21, Wiseman introduces a screening of the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup at the IFC Center.


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