What Frederick Wiseman is doing barely constitutes as documentary filmmaking anymore — there are no talking heads, no narration, all sound is diegetic, and only barebones context is provided. His camera seems to observe interactions between people instead of instigating them, and while that commitment to realism is an admirable one, it’s also inherently flawed: We never can be sure that the people on camera would act the same without a camera present. Thankfully, this doesn’t lessen the intensity, the near hypnotic power, of watching patrons at Richard Lord’s Boxing Gym partake in their physical routines. Newbies to the gym are instructed to bounce a sledgehammer against a rubber tire (a means of finding a comfortable rhythm for them, but also a tempo-setter for us), while more accomplished athletes spar with each other inside the ring, and bodies of all builds and experience test their limits and work to surpass them.
The pleasures of Boxing Gym are almost entirely elemental; repetition becomes ritual, representing human resilience, body, and soul. Boxing Gym‘s greatest failing is that most are more familiar with the atmosphere of a gym than, say, the interiors of a ballet school, as chronicled in Wiseman’s previous film, La Danse. Thankfully, Wiseman’s latest is half the length of that three-hour document, but it still doesn’t offer much in the way of insight beyond such startling truths as “Hey, just ’cause they all throw punches ‘n stuff doesn’t mean they’re, y’know, actually violent.” In other words, if you go to a gym yourself there’s really nothing new here. As a friend suggested to me just before the film, “It’s Wiseman. You know exactly what you’re in for.” While efficiently engaging and even memorable, it’s tough to deny that the film in my head before seeing Boxing Gym is nearly identical to the one in there now.