Boxing matches have been captured on film practically since the birth of the medium, which may explain the primal thrill of Frederick Wiseman’s “Boxing Gym.” The legendary documentarian’s latest portrait takes place in Lord’s Gym, the scrappy Austin establishment run by former professional boxer Richard Lord. A somber, focused instructor, Lord’s momentum spreads to his disciples. The opening sequence, a noisy montage of hands punching bags and feet squeaking across the floor, never really ends until the final shot. Wiseman, credited not only as director but as producer, editor and sound guy, makes the gym’s rhythm of motion and chatter into his chief subject — a ballet of sweat.
From vintage Wiseman subjects like the mental hospital in 1967’s “Titicut Follies” to 2009’s “La Danse,” Wiseman has aimed his intentions more at capturing a setting rather than the narrative arc of the individual characters within it. “Boxing Gym” fits that trend with a slow, meditative vision of the gym, which his camera occupies for almost the entire running time. After fifteen or twenty minutes, the possibility that Wiseman plans to build on the scene quickly dissipates, and mood takes the place of story. The lack of action is alternately mesmerizing, boring and oddly poetic: Scores of blue and white collar individuals drift through the frame, babbling about work, culture or politics in between their frenzied breaths, without sharing the slightest hostile gaze. Their pacifism is almost enough to make “Boxing Gym” the anti-“Rocky,” a naturalistic reprimand to viewing the sport exclusively as a masculine cartoon.
At times it seems as though “Boxing Gym” could have worked better in short form, since so many of its details are interchangeable. But isolated scenes hold their own: One boxer bounds away from his punching bag to gaze lovingly at his infant child in a stroller nearby; another shows off his dance skills between reps. The consistent sights and sounds sustain an ongoing redundancy.
At the core of “Boxing Gym” lies an admiration for the unifying nature of Lord’s business. Various ethnicities enter the gym as a kind of cathartic escape from the grind of their outside lives. (Recalling a recent bout in the ring, an aspiring fighter describes getting bunched in the nose as a “fantastic” experience.) The result is an intriguing blend of American personalities, which led a French critic to compare the film after its Cannes premiere to the observational photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson, but it would make more sense in this context to link “Boxing Gym” with the 1950’s post-war American portraits of Robert Frank.
As they gear up and leap across the mats, Lord’s trainees represent a diverse sample of national identity. (Two older white men discuss the writing process, and another trio philosophize about the shootings at Virginia Tech.) In the mundane attributes of their casual behavior, Wisemen uses the framework of nonfiction filmmaking to create a stream-of-consciousness essay on the relationship between physicality and the individual. The result is an ethnographic snapshot of restless people in their natural habitat.