While officially operating under the all-encompassing rubric "media artist," one suspects that Matthew Barney's business cards – if, indeed, the mind behind the astonishing, lovely, and often off-putting Cremaster
cycle even deigns to sully his billfold with such petty artifacts of the status quo – must also announce his life mission as "provocateur," "genius," and "epic mindfucker." (I like to think they're printed on a waxy scrap of ambergris which, once proffered, dissolves in the warmth of the hand, the ecstatic, blood-red typeface swiftly smearing into illegibility before pooling crimson streamers in your palm, through which one might divine the future of modern art in the fleeting moments before the goop oozes downward, besmirching your pant cuff and forcing you to cancel all other plans in a desperate bid for a scalding shower. Out, damn spot, indeed.) Barney is all those things and more, and his gift for creating unforgettable and (try though one might) visually visceral imagery is quite simply breathtaking. We may never fully appreciate or understand what, exactly, is going on in Barney's intricately regimented mind, but the word made flesh that arrives upon the screen is never less than spellbinding. Drawing Restraint 9
finds the artist and his paramour Björk (who supplied the film's hauntingly obtuse score) embarking upon a hyper-ritualized sea voyage-cum-marriage-and/or-tea ceremony aboard a gargantuan Japanese whaling vessel. The narrative, such as it is, lazily ricochets between the onboard preparations of the ship's crew (symbolism and repeated visual motifs abound, but they are often arcane and frequently downright inobvious to the viewer) and Barney and Björk's matching, metered preparations for connubial bliss of a particularly hellish sort. There are other things occurring here – Barney remains a master of layering surreal subtexts atop one another – some of them readily apparent, many more or less so, but the one thing his film is most assuredly not is dull. It's unlike anything you've ever seen, and it skillfully manages to feel utterly alien (the bizarre marriage/tea rite) and charmingly pedestrian (the ship's crew going about their daily routine). Throughout, Barney drowns the screen in arresting images – a mysterious opening parade; the ship seen from high above and seemingly alone amidst the dark green sea; the final, horrific act of consummation – that nail your eyes to the screen. You might want to at times, but it's awfully difficult to tear your gaze away from these strange and evocative proceedings. As a work of art, Drawing Restraint 9
(the numeric designation is, like so much else in the Barney oeuvre, unexplained and therefore open to interpretation) is brilliant and fluid and engrossing. As a narrative film, it's confounding and oblique – but still gorgeous to behold. Fans of Adam Sandler's newest will likely explode on contact with this film, a fact of which Matthew Barney should be rightly proud.