Friday, March 24, 2006

Drawing Restraint 9

Until now, I had seen only bits and pieces of Matthew Barney’s films and so his latest, Drawing Restraint 9, was my first real introduction to his work. It was made in collaboration with Björk, who both appears in the film and composed its soundtrack.

I’m still pondering the film and Barney’s aesthetic, but here are a few preliminary impressions. The "narrative" goes something like this. On the deck of a Japanese whaling ship, 25 tons of hot liquid vaseline are poured into a mold, the shape of which is apparently a recurring Barney motif called a “field emblem” (see my doodle). Meanwhile, two “Occidental Guests” (Barney and Björk) arrive at the ship on separate vessels. In an elaborate ritual, they don furs and other accouterments and then sit down for a formal Shinto-style tea ceremony below-deck. An electrical storm breaks out, the vaseline starts to disintegrate and melt above-deck, and two flensing (whaling) knives make their appearance at the ceremony….I will stop here and let you see the rest on screen.

A few thoughts:

  • The film takes place in an anti-realist and visionary space. I’m not exactly sure what Barney’s vision is but clues abound. For one thing, he loves ceremony. Nearly every scene is staged slowly, deliberately, ceremonially. (And did I mention that the film has only a half dozen lines of dialogue, all in one scene?) The camera appears to have one function in this film: that of recording ritual. This serial ritualism is signalled in the very first scene, when a pair of hands fastidiously gift-wrap a fossil for several minutes, accompanied by Will Oldham singing lyrics drawn from a letter written by Japanese fishermen to General MacArthur. (Sounds wacky on paper but works quite well in the movie.)

  • Some googling revealed that the Drawing Restraint series was created by Barney when he was still a student at Yale in the late 80’s. The idea was born when he learned about the phenomenon of muscular hypertrophy: when you exercise a muscle, you are breaking it down so that when it grows back again, it does so a little bit stronger than before. Resistance and restraint build strength, by metamorphosis. Initially, Barney would tie or suspend himself from difficult angles (for example, from wall or ceiling) and attempt to draw in these physically demanding (“restraining”) positions. But later installments of the project—including this film—are less literal and more metaphorical.

  • This is going to sound kooky, but my favorite “character” in the film was not Barney or Björk or even the colossal whaling ship but the beautiful 25-ton petroleum jelly sculpture mold. It is a large, sensuous, textured object and when it cools and sets during the voyage, its surface resembles that of a frozen ocean. (It reminded me of the photograph on the wall that is the climactic destination of the “zoom-journey” in Michael Snow’s Wavelength.)

  • The “field emblem”—the shape of the above sculpture—is a sort of creative energy field, with the bar across the center representing a kind of obstacle. Removing the bar does three things: (1) It destroys the “form”, thus resulting in (2) Slow disintegration, but also (3) Making the way for the regeneration of a new (and improved and stronger?) form.

  • This three-stage ritual I’ve described could also be applied to the metamorphosis that Barney and Björk undergo in the film. In fact, the editing strategy of the film is built upon this very idea. Barney generates a sustained cross-cut rhythm to underline the parallel. (The last time I saw this much cross-cutting was in a D.W. Griffith film.)

  • There are things here that I’ve never seen before in a fiction film, specifically the use of scientific metaphors. Biological life-cycle processes, material transformations, mammalian physiology, marine life and fossils, chemical production processes, physical processes of liquefaction and crystallization—these are all woven into the (private) mythological and cosmological space of the film.

  • A word about Björk’s music. It’s not in the pop vein of her Selmasongs for Lars Von Trier’s Dancer In The Dark, but instead much more experimental, closer in its abstraction to Medulla. She employs unusual instrumentation (like harp, harpsichord, celeste, choir) and the sound is—like the “field emblem”—very textured, much more so than is customary in a piece of pop music. She also uses electronic instruments but does so subtly, in “folktronic” fashion, by eschewing strong beats. The music is evocative and moody on film, but I’m curious about how it might sound on the home stereo, divorced from the images.