The movies have always been attracted to the brightly lit spectacle of fight night, and Rocky made the training montage a melodramatic cliché, but in Boxing Gym, which opened on Oct. 22 in New York City, the great documentarian Frederick Wiseman has finally done cinematic justice to the gym as a place of teaching and learning.
Wiseman (La Danse, Welfare) uses no voice-over, makes no attempt to impose a narrative arc. Instead, the cyclical rhythms of the gym (Wiseman filmed at Lord's Gym in Austin) structure the movie. It's all about the repetitive sound of gloves striking bags and pads and bodies, jump ropes clipping the floor, the sparring ring creaking like a frigate under sail as fighters move in it—all regulated by the buzzer that marks off time into three-minute rounds. Then there are the longer-wave rhythms of boxing careers, from the optimism of novices to the wary, punishment-smoothed look of a nub-nosed pro who's about ready to hang it up.
The rhythms of life beyond boxing also register. Babies fuss in their carriers while Mom wraps her hands or Dad bangs the heavy bag. Gym denizens talk about getting old, getting even, getting sent to Afghanistan. Between strenuous lessons in the art of using technique and ritual to contain violence, fighters discuss the Virginia Tech shooter.
Many of the men and women who train at Lord's go just for the workout and the life-ordering discipline. But some are serious fighters, and it comes as a revelation when, near the end of the movie, two of them start throwing hard punches at each other. We're reminded that all the day-to-day diligence in the gym, all the serene Zen-like rigor, equips a fighter to compete in the brutal drama of rip-offs, paydays and damage we know so well from boxing movies. The point, after all, is to hurt and not be hurt.
Carlo Rotella is director of the American studies program at Boston College and the author of Cut Time: An Education at the Fights.