Following up on the surprise commercial success of La danse, Frederick Wiseman's 38th documentary is a compact, rhythmically propelled immersion into Lord's Gym, an unpretentious boxer training facility in Austin, Texas, where the ritualistic exercises and friendly conversations of its clientele create a realistic yet also idealized ethnic melting pot. Equally attuned to the physical repetitions and laidback interactions of its customers, Boxing Gym is one of Wiseman's most straightforward, optimistic documentaries; its uncharacteristically compact length and La danse's recent success could mean a potent limited release.
Wiseman's approach will surprise none of his veteran viewers: no voiceover, no real narrative, just a pure evocation of a place that acts both as a specific site and a microcosm of a larger sphere. Presided over by the benevolently rat-tailed Jack Lord, the gym hosts everyone from babies to the middle-aged, whether paunchy and struggling to get back into shape or wiry and trim. Bellicosity is discouraged: as one friendly soul puts it, anyone who comes in and acts like a "tough-ass" doesn't last long. Such proves to be the case: racial boundaries disintegrate.
Class and economic concerns don't: even in a low-expense city like Austin, we see people sitting, pensively wondering if they can afford the $50 a month fee. Some are training for bouts, others just come for the exercise; a woman comes in to buy a guest membership for her husband's birthday, since in his 40s he finally has the money to not just watch but learn true boxing form. Much of that is on display here: Wiseman hones in on the micro-calibrated movements of feet shifting in repetitive motions or the wary circling of training partners. This is as much about people learning how to control their bodies as anything else; the sense of slowly discovered potential is uplifting. The hypnotic soundtrack layers beeping timers, whooshing jump ropes, gloves being punched and all manner of other rhythmic time-keepers.
The film examines what violence looks like when it's a controlled outlet, as opposed to a spontaneous one: the shooting that took place during 2007's Virginia Tech massacre is sorrowfully discussed and provides a useful counterpoint. Outside is a world of inexplicable, unchanneled rage and uneasy racial frissons; inside, surprisingly, is a safe space.
Director/Producer: Frederick Wiseman
Running time: 91 min
Release date: October 22 NY, November 15 LA