If you missed Matthew Barney’s surreal opus The Cremaster Cycle on the festival circuit, tough luck. It’s understandable if you missed it; after all, the experimental, storyless structure and the four-hour running time of one of the five segments made it a hard sell. Though some of us are sorry to have missed it, once it was gone, it was gone. Barney notoriously refuses to allow Cremaster to be released on DVD (exception: half an hour of part 3 is available on DVD as a sort of teaser).
I made sure to catch Barney’s latest opus, Drawing Restraint 9, while I could. (The movie was shot on digital video, so perhaps he will be more generous to his home-video fans this time.) If you want to make sure you don’t miss it, see it this week in Denver.
Like Cremaster, Drawing Restraint 9 is a surreal movie, heavy on imagery and sound, and short on plot or story. That’s not to say there is no story. Two “occidental” passengers (Björk and Barney) board a Japanese whaling ship. They prepare for, and participate in, an elaborate tea ceremony (is it also matrimonial?) The climax of the movie sees the two consummating their... whatever... by flensing each other with knives, while their stateroom fills up with blood, flesh, and ambergris and/or petroleum jelly (I’ll just call it gunk, for short).
There are side “stories” having to do with the capture of raw ambergris (presumably), the distillation and molding of gunk on the deck of a whaling ship, and general construction and celebration by anonymous uniformed Japanese.
The movie is also “about” this shape:, and about the texture, state, and color of ambergris and/or petroleum jelly.
But Is It Art?
The New Yorker seems to find Barney and his work pretentious and self-promoting, but I’m inclined to give Barney the benefit of the doubt (although that “9” in the title does seem like a gratuitous reference to The Beatles’ more out-there experiments).
As a work of art, Drawing Restraint 9 has form. It has internal consistency. The aforementioned shape and substance are repeated, varied, and riffed on like a musical composition. Running through the film is a theme of mankind’s relationship to whales. Drawing Restraint 9 even has a feature-film structure; the emotional level fluctuates from scene to scene, all the while building to the big emotional climax, and then coming back down to ease the audience back into reality.
The biggest problem is that it seems important that the audience know the word “ambergris,” (whale excreta used as a base in perfumes) and recognize it as the gunk used throughout the film. Since few of us know what ambergris looks like, we require an explanation, which Barney clumsily adds to the tea ceremony. The explanation is not integrated into the movie, nor is it provided in an introduction. It’s added in some of the film’s only dialogue, and it consists of Barney asking a direct question of his host about the ship that they are on. A more subtle approach would have worked far better.
Though Drawing Restraint 9 can be mesmerizing, once that crack is revealed, it’s easy to see other cracks. The seasick boy is inspired, but never repeated, and it feels like an afterthought. The elaborate dress for the ceremony starts to seem silly when the “eyebrows” are stuck to Barney’s forehead. Even Barney’s Japanese helper seems to be trying hard not to giggle as she dresses him.
The soundtrack, consisting of music and sounds (most composed by Björk) does a lot to add weight and seriousness to the film, where otherwise it might seem absurd.
Drawing Restraint 9 is film art, and as such it’s a refreshing break from the mind-numbing stuff coming out of Hollywood. It’s one of the few big-screen offerings of film art you’ll be able to see this year. It’s good — alternately gorgeous, repulsive, intriguing, and embarrassing — but it’s not great. There are other works of film art that hold up much better. If you’re not up for something surreal and visual, you shouldn’t try it, because it may fail to win you over.
Then again, you might kick yourself for not seeing it on the big screen when you had the chance.