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Originally published November 11, 2010 at 3:02 PM | Page modified November 11, 2010 at 4:16 PM

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Movie review

'Boxing Gym': a knockout of a documentary

A review of "Boxing Gym," an absorbing documentary about the rituals of boxing training, set at Lord's Gym in Austin, Texas. It's by filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, who directed "La Danse."

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3.5 stars

'Boxing Gym,' a documentary directed by Frederick Wiseman. 91 minutes. Not rated. Northwest Film Forum, through Thursday.

For legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman to follow "La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet" with a film set in a down-market Texas boxing gym seems unlikely — until you see "Boxing Gym," and how it and its subjects dance. Feet, in close-up, delicately hop and prance up on the toes, never pausing, seemingly weightless; knees are soft; legs are ever-alert.

There's a certain choreography to boxing, and a dedication to its physical rigors that's much like that of a dancer. We see rows of athletes methodically doing sit-ups, push-ups, sparring with a punching bag — the kind of endless repetition that gets results, slowly and steadily.

Wiseman, in his fifth decade of filmmaking, has a now-familiar style: no title cards, no outside music, no talking-head interviews. He immerses himself in an institution, watches what happens there, and crafts a nonlinear story from what he finds. Here, he's chosen Lord's Boxing Gym in Austin, Texas, run by Richard Lord, a former professional boxer and low-key, amiable presence. His gym, its walls densely hung with fraying posters and fading photographs, is inhabited by "white-collar, blue-collar workers, students, mamas, secretaries, doctors, lawyers," as Lord explains to a potential member. Dues are $50 a month, nothing complicated, and "you can come anytime you like." It's a friendly place, but Lord keeps an eye on things. "You ain't doing this to get some vengeance on somebody?" he asks a man interested in boxing lessons; that's not what the gym's about.

Though we see no blood in "Boxing Gym," the ever-present threat of violence hangs over the film; these are people who are learning, in simple language, to punch each other out. But Wiseman's emphasis is on ritual and dedication, on the way Lord makes two small boys who've been sparring "congratulate each other" on a good bout, or how the duct-tape-ringed medicine balls get wordlessly tossed back and forth, finding a rhythm. Watching them, you can see why so many artists — the writer Joyce Carol Oates, filmmakers Martin Scorsese ("Raging Bull," a poster for which hangs at Lord's) and Clint Eastwood ("Million Dollar Baby"), among others — have been fascinated by the sport and how it transforms those within it. One young man, clearly thrilled, describes a bout the previous day in which he "felt fantastic" despite getting punched in the face. Marveling, he says, "I've done something I've never done before."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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