Shadow Boxers (1999)

Tobias Peterson

Brings this talent, laboring in obscurity, to light.

Shadow Boxers

Director: Katya Bankowsky
Cast: Michael Bentt, Lucia Rijker
Studio: Swerve Films
First date: 1999
US Release Date: 2003-01-14

Never hit a lady. It's a rule intended to enforce chivalrous codes of behavior in men. Like most mores, however, it's more complicated than simply separating brutish men from delicate women. The rule rests firmly on the ideology of separate spheres, in which women be "protected" from the rugged, masculine world. As "the weaker sex," women must be sheltered from violence and physicality, just as they are to be kept out of the workplace, politics, and all things not directly related to being a housewife.

Today, this notion is antiquated, though far from vanquished (see this year's Master's Tournament). Thanks in large part to feminism (however one might define it), much traditional thinking has weakened and crumbled. As in the workplace and in politics, women have made inroads into the world of athletics, overcoming sexist notions with the help of the now besieged Title IX.

Still, barriers remain for women entering the most overtly physical sports. Boxing is chief among these. Frequently assailed as too brutal, violent, and dangerous for even men to undertake, let alone women, its effects can include bloody cuts, broken bones, and concussions, and death is not an unheard of consequence. Until recently, the only women who have been accepted in the ring are the bikini-clad models who hold up signs to show which round is coming up.

Despite (and perhaps because of) this history, women are forging a new place for themselves in the sport. Shadow Boxers documents these fighters as they challenge a well-established legacy of exclusion and segregation. Specifically, the film follows the career of Lucia Rijker, a Dutch-born former kick boxer, as she moves through the ranks of her fellow female boxers, trains with men, and, in the process, rips apart stereotypes of women as docile and passive athletes, if they are even considered in the popular imagination to be athletes at all.

Rijker's socially progressive endeavors are the film's focus, but Shadow Boxers is neither explicitly political, nor didactic in its presentation. While the introduction showcases interviews with several unnamed women boxers and their emotional responses to both their victories and defeats in the ring, the film soon departs from this general overview of women in boxing to Rijker's specific experiences. As a result, the film leaves its audience to draw its own conclusions about the place of women in boxing and turns instead to Rijker's own story.

As the film progresses, she emerges as a competent spokeswoman for her fellow fighters and a good choice for the documentary's attention. Successful, thoughtful, and attractive, Rijker appears dedicated to her training and resolved in the face of other fighters, discriminatory comments, or any other obstacles she may encounter. Despite the film's positioning of Rijker as the model of a successful, independent woman fighter, however, we learn that it's the last of these qualities (her looks) that gave Rijker her break in the fight game. In a ringside interview, her promoter Bob Arum reveals his feelings that women boxers, as a rule, lack talent or appeal. He remembers that when she appeared in his office wearing a "real sexy dress," however, Arum was convinced to change his tune and promote Rijker's fights.

Arum's comments typify the stereotypes women boxers face, as they continue to be seen (and objectified) first as women and only secondarily and reluctantly as fighters. The film itself, though, manages to blend examples of Rijker's and other women's raw aggression in the ring with slow motion depictions of their grace, coordination, and, ultimately, beauty. The title of the film could refer to one of several slow motion scenes in which Rijker, in dramatic, black and white chiaroscuro, weaves in and out of light and shadow, practicing her boxing technique to the strains of an atmospheric soundtrack (composed by an artist known as Zoel).

The film similarly slows down color footage of her fights, demonstrating through Rijker the sport's emphasis on flexibility, footwork, and hand speed over mindless pummeling. Through these images, Shadow Boxers successfully refigures boxing as less a contest of brutality and more a match of technique and style. The film at once complicates the sport for those who would decry it as merely excessive violence (though violence is certainly a major aspect) and situates Rijker's place in boxing (and the place of women, by extension) as that of a competent, confident competitor.

In other words, Rijker looks like a natural. Even when the camera follows her to an all-male boxing retreat, to prepare for her next fight, Rijker is relaxed and focused around her training mates. Seated around a dinner table, laughing and joking with the men, it's clear that the group is bonded by their shared experiences as boxers, rather than separated by considerations of gender.

If scenes like this surprise viewers, still more jaw-dropping is the film's discussion of the Women's International Boxing Federation (WIBF), which operated as early as the 1930s. Rather than a recent fad in the sport, then, the film shows that women have been in the game since the days of Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, and not just as ring girls.

The beneficiaries of this legacy, today's women boxers are now able to command significant purses and support themselves solely by fighting. Although much of the attention paid to women's boxing goes to Laila Ali and Jacqui Frazier-Lyde (daughters of male boxing stars Muhammad Ali and Smokin' Joe Frazier), or to fallen figure skater Tonya Harding's recent foray into the sport, Shadow Boxers is an important reminder that the sport also boasts accomplished, though lesser known fighters like Lucia Rijker.

Women's boxing still may be less popular than its male counterpart, and Rijker may similarly fight in the shadows of more celebrated -- or notorious -- women fighters. Shadow Boxers, however, brings this talent, laboring in obscurity, to light.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

Keep reading... Show less

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.