I must confess that I lacked the patience for the Cremaster Cycle. Quite literally. In 2003, I traveled to New York City with the singular intention of watching all five films in succession at the Guggenheim, which had opened its entire exhibition space to Matthew Barney and his meticulously crafted films, sculptures and photographs. I spent hour after hour bombarded by bizarre performances, ritualistic processes, lavish sets and costumes, and an utter absence of dialogue. I couldn't help but nod off here and there, and it didn't seem to matter. The pacing was self-consciously slow; Barney's apparent disinterest in the sort of editing and rhythm that now define cinema seemed like a cheap way to "push the envelope" and score brownie points in the innovation-addicted high-art market.
In retrospect, Barney's career-defining film series suggests a portrait of the performance artist as a premature superstar. Positioned at the climax of his forced entry into the art-historical canon, with a self-defined conclusion to a body of work, and bravely wielding a vast arsenal of tools and processes, he remained, somehow, Not Quite There Yet. The academics loved him for the endless entry points into critique his dense-yet-nebulous films provide; the patrons loved him for hustling the wallets right off them, with set props re-cast as precious art objects and astronomically priced edition prints of endlessly reproducible films and DVDs. Everyone else drawn to the Barney spectacle left his world interested and confused.
It is an exciting development then, that Matthew Barney is actively aligning his latest film with a theater-going audience. Drawing Restraint 9 bites the bullet and displays itself in select venues across the country, loosening its standoffish grip on fine art and surrendering to its identity as a movie. Barney teams with real-life partner Björk, a musical pioneer with a more solid footing in popular culture, and shoots the majority of the cinematically spellbinding Drawing Restraint 9 aboard Nisshin Maru, in actuality the last "factory whaling" ship in the Japanese fleet. Rather than invent the film's environment through a loose hybrid of American cultural references, a la Cremaster, Barney inserts his world of esoteric performance art into a carefully excerpted construction of Japan, capitalizing on the complexities of rich traditions involving that nation's own esoteric performance art (Shinto-based ritual and practices) and their tenuous relationship with a contemporary industrial landscape.
This brash colonization of another culture's traditions, however well researched, certainly begs the question of exploitation. But this transplantation of Barney's free-associative universe from normative American culture into structured foreign territory has the tremendous effect of focusing and refining his choices. The very real possibility of creating an ass of himself pushes him toward more explicit metaphors, more direct narrative, and more purposeful cinematic decisions.
Don't get me wrong ... this is not a narrative film. Barney is still, at his ambitious and self-aggrandizing core, a performance artist. Moreover, as a director he is mostly a choreographer of other people's performance art. Most of Drawing Restraint 9's 135 minutes depict speechless action, blending the purposeful (diving for pearls) with the absurd (filling a giant mold of the Cremaster logo with petrolatum) in a tapestry of labor and systematic processes.
The ubiquitous logo and the still-passionless Barney himself are again employed as narrative devices, creating relationships across otherwise irreconcilable terrain and materials. A welcome addition is Björk's mesmerizing score, which sutures seams where Barney's visuals get clumsy, and crescendos into hauntingly epic backdrops for the film's climactic moments. As characters, Björk and Barney are jarring and unmistakably themselves in this otherwise naturalistic rendering of a diligently laborious community. Fittingly, they put their star power to work: Their bodies become focal points for an elaborate meditation on preciousness, waste, and all of the wondrous and unnerving ways we go about deciding which is which.
The overwhelmingly industrial Nisshin Maru navigates an icy ocean with our two effortlessly iconic stars nestled inside its elegant quarters, diligently attended to as visitors to a foreign culture. The movie's gradual unfolding leads to their ultimate ceremonial union, which culminates in a viciously beautiful spectacle (with particular emphasis on the vicious; those opposed to self-mutilation should take a bathroom break when the time comes). Perhaps the most unexpected climax is when Barney's vocal chords produce intelligible sound, during a fascinating tea ceremony that ruptures his long-standing Dialogue Restraint and serves as an accessible reference point for his exploration of performance. Throughout the journey, the camera transports us through the various chambers of the vessel, from the divers whose vessel is ocean itself to the large-scale skilled labor diligently building metaphors upon the ship's deck.
The welcome focus on narrative, however, trips itself up dramatically just as the film concludes, with major themes converging into a surprisingly simplistic storybook ending. It is here that Barney's facility with film and theater is most embarrassingly inept, and also where his traditional posture of detachment is broken, his ideals or intentions becoming awkwardly exposed. It's an exposure unrivaled by an earlier sequence in which his physical body is completely naked before the camera. This is the risk that his work has been heading toward steadily for over a decade, and it is refreshing to see it transpire, even as it needlessly robs the film of a graceful exit.
Drawing Restraint 9 is stunning, boring, captivating, deftly composed, innovative and even lucid. And Matthew Barney, with the necessary assistance of Björk and a small army of collaborators, just might be pushing the envelope in the best way possible, creating space for new possibilities to emerge.