In addition to the portraits of famous artists I wrote about two weeks ago, this year's New York Film Festival features a trio of documentaries centered on specific places. One film takes us inside a boxing gym for a timeless and objective, "fly on the wall" perspective on the pugilist sport and some of its enthusiasts. Another puts us across from The Mets' Citi Field, to the chop shops of Willets Field, Queens. And the last is a trip through the British countryside in the form of an essay film filled with both historical and contemporary commentary. Their titles, in respective order: 'Boxing Gym,' 'Foreign Parts,' and 'Robinson in Ruins.'
Documentary legend Frederick Wiseman follows his previous film, the Paris Opera Ballet-set 'La Danse,' with a sort of companion piece in 'Boxing Gym.' This one brings the filmmaker's typical non-narrative, purely observational style to Lord's Boxing Gym, a little hard-to-notice joint in Austin, Texas. We see some sparring, some training, some interviews -- between Richard Lord and potential members, that is; Wiseman's films don't have the talking-head sort found in traditional docs -- and eavesdrop on other conversations, including one that gives us our only sense of time by responding to the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting.
If only it was a wrestling gym we could see this as a non-fiction, reverse-order parallel to Darren Aronofsky's couplet of 'The Wrestler' and the upcoming 'Black Swan.' But no, not that it matters, as usual Wiseman has little to compare to. I will admit to initially thinking of the contrast against Nanette Burstein's uber-dramatic Oscar-nominated doc 'On the Ropes,' which I looked at a month ago. But aside from them both involving boxing, there's no reason to link them. They're both docs, but they're not really the same kind of film. I might as well put 'Boxing Gym' against 'Rocky.' Or, 'Boxing Helena.' That's how separate it is from anything else.
Actually, if I had to align it to any one film, fiction or non, I'd probably go with 'Nashville.' There's a overlap and flow with sound in 'Boxing Gym' that reminds me of Robert Altman's technique, and it gave me a similar feeling about America and the permeation of violence. Yet there is little to no semblance of narrative in the Wiseman. We never follow the people home or to matches outside of the gym. A few people we see over again and can get a minor sense of their lives, but not their stories. And of course there's no context. We're never told who Richard Lord is or was or when he started his gym. Still, what a great character with his little braided rat tail and his strange way of being both extremely embracing and physically frightening at all times.
Another favorite individual is the thick kid from Houston who boasts about having "phenomenal hands" and talks a lot of obvious b.s. For a second it seems he could be showing off and bragging because the camera is on him, but Wiseman would never allow that. Instead the guy is just chatting with another member and displaying a level of confidence that even Ali might find obnoxious. I can't recall if he ever shows up again in the film, but then "Boxing Gym" is very busy and it would take a few viewings to notice everything and everyone going on in the backgrounds.
It's almost like a little bustling community in Lord's, and at times the structure of "Boxing Gym" makes it feel like an old city symphony film. That flow of sound and the visual rhythm of the editing and the fact that we're rarely shown scenes outside the gym creates the impression that all on screen is occurring in a single day. Of course the different clothing worn by Lord and others remind us that it isn't, but I wouldn't be surprised if the film is meant to give this "day in the life" sense.
'Foreign Parts,' on the other hand, gives a kind of "year in the life" feeling, and it's for the most part outside. The seasons are noticeable through the weather but also by picking up on what's going on over at Citi Field. The setting is the same auto-body repair village from Ramin Bahrani's excellent realist fiction film 'Chop Shop,' though in that it's still Shea across the way. Also this doc, co-directed by anthropological filmmakers Verena Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki, has a new context, that of the city's plans to clear the scrapyards and shops of Willets Point for a mall, an airport shuttle, a convention center and other developments.
So the film is a sort of ethnographic work capturing a soon-to-be-lost village and its tribe, which includes one actual official resident, a few homeless people and the employees of the shops, many of whom are quite comfortable rolling joints and talking candidly about other illegal activities, like street racing. Initially "Foreign Parts" is a Wiseman-esque observational piece, simply looking it at humans and automobiles as somewhat the same. Metaphoric shots of anthropomorphic vans being torn apart and spilling their blood, a TV plays a daytime court program involving sex with machines (presumably vibrators), this stuff mixed with shots of undisturbed mechanics and managers and women tending charcoal grills.
Then suddenly people start talking to the camera and the filmmakers, particularly a beggar woman, a couple who lives out of a van and a young man who thinks he's to appear in a school project -- "hope you get a good grade," he says. "Foreign Parts" evolves into a few dramatic narratives and grows more and more subjective. A kid who clearly smokes blunts acts for the camera all innocent and pretend ignorant. The beggar woman dances with a cameraman (one of the filmmakers, likely) while he/she is shooting her and obliging as if a first-person, 'Lady in the Lake'-esque character. An emotional reunion between the homeless couple contains a lot of conversation with the filmmakers (and the borrowing of a cellphone), who then ask if it's okay to continue shooting.
Ultimately, the film becomes something completely different than originally conveyed. There's a certain political aspect and positioning in support of the people at Willets Point, even if unintentional. We're brought into community board meetings but stick to the side of the resident-activist fighting against the urban renewal plan. The poetic and experiential turns to the direct and involved. Maybe the progression is a statement on the eventual transformation of the area from enchanting junk jungle to invasive gentrification, though I doubt it. I'll still recommend 'Chop Shop' to anyone wanting a look at the neighborhood, now or when it's gone, but 'Foreign Parts' is a decent complement and follow-up.
I'm not going to say a whole lot about 'Robinson in Ruins,' for a few reasons. I missed the beginning, I'm unfamiliar with Patrick Keiller's previous 'Robinson' films, and it's so difficult to properly describe to anyone with an idea in mind of what documentaries look and sound like. The best I think I can do for now is say it's as close to what I imagine a Douglas Adams-directed non-fiction film might be like -- and man, do I really, really wish he were still alive to prove me right or wrong. Narrated by Vanessa Redgrave, it's almost like a travelogue through time and space (no, not outer space) and as interesting a film about the financial crisis as the NYFF selection 'Inside Job.' I think I could spend hours more watching a spider construct a web while hearing about Wall Street's collapse. I'll just have to settle for watching 'Robinson in Ruins' again and again. And I probably will do that, though first I'll be renting Keiller's 'London' and 'Robinson in Space.'
'Boxing Gym' opens in limited release October 22, 2010. Neither 'Foreign Parts' nor 'Robinson in Ruins' have set U.S. theatrical release dates. 'Robinson in Ruins' will be distributed in the UK on November 19.