Drawing Restraint 9

on March 29, 2006 by Mark Keizer
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Years ago, automobile enthusiasts would say that if you described to an alien race what a car looked like, they'd design a Saab. Similarly, if you described to an alien race what a movie looked like, they'd crank out the entire twisted oeuvre of experimental filmmaker Matthew Barney. The Yale graduate's most notable creation to date (sorry, fans, not his 1998 short "March of the Anal Sadistic Warrior") is the five-part "Cremaster Cycle," released between 1995-2002. In the series (produced out of order, which is to say "Cremaster 4" came before "Cremaster 1," etc.), Barney unveils a dense thicket of visually striking images in the service of a story that seems to have strong sexual or pre-gender-determinate overtones (cremaster is the male muscle that raises and lowers the testicles) -- but only he knows, and he's not telling. Barney starred in all the "Cremaster" films except the first one. He always appears as something strange, strangely alluring or both, such as a ram, a pig-like creature in a cream-colored suit or, believe it or not, executed murderer Gary Gilmore. The "Cremaster Cycle," which has the obtuseness of an art installation that everyone nods at in appreciation but no one actually understands, cemented his reputation as an acquired taste.

However, as a visual director, Barney is often stunning, an attribute that his thematic impenetrability tends to obscure. Always of particular note are his exterior landscapes, which thankfully comprise a large portion of "Drawing Restraint 9." The film takes place on the Japanese whaling ship Nisshin Maru, the actual flagship of the Japanese whaling fleet. The ship's purpose is not to catch whales, but to store the meat caught by other, smaller whaling vessels. Of course, little of this information is actually conveyed in "Drawing Restraint 9," because the film has only one dialogue passage. The rest unfolds with only music, effects and the indistinct chatter of the ship's crew.

The movie begins with a beautiful sequence chronicling the launch of the vessel. Once out to sea, the crew tackles their primary task, filling a giant mold with Vaseline. The mold looks like a Tylenol capsule with a horizontal line slicing through its middle and is a recurring image in most of Barney's work, sort of his corporate logo. While the crew pours, shapes and tends to the Vaseline structure, the ship takes on two nameless Western visitors (played by Barney and his wife, the singer and red carpet train-wreck, Bjork). In a film with strong ritualistic overtones, the pair is separately prepped for a mysterious ceremony. She is bathed in a tub sprinkled with oranges. His head is partially shaved. Finally, both are dressed in ornate costumes. While the whole thing is reminiscent of a Shinto wedding ceremony, Barney has something different in mind, as the two characters' humanity is literally sliced away and their beings reborn.

It sounds simple in the explaining, but is vexing as it unspools. Like his other films, "Restraint" is edited with a deliberateness that borders on prissy indulgence. Revel in the images that comprise my obtuse brilliance! But he does make us consider texture, shape and flow, which is preferable to just counting the seconds until the next edit. The Nisshin Maru is a character in itself, and as Barney roams the her decks, we're reminded of Jack Torrance roaming the Overlook Hotel in "The Shining." In a film with almost no dialogue, Bjork provides the all-important score. And it's a wild and flavorful Cobb salad, comprised of multiple elements, including pulsating, clanky, metronomic rhythms and traditional Japanese musical forms. The film opens with Will Oldham singing the contents of a letter sent to General MacArthur by a Japanese citizen thanking him for lifting the U.S.-imposed ban on Japanese whaling.

"Drawing Restraint 9" is a push/pull experience: The storytelling, what there is of it, pushes us away, but the hypnotic visuals pull us back. Unlike most of Barney's work, the movie has a gentle narrative flow and an almost-recognizable structure. Its beauty forces you to stay with it for the promise of some eventual grand explanation. But, of course, Barney is not one to provide a Rosetta Pebble, let alone a Stone. He may never let us understand the function, but at least he's providing a more accessible form. Starring Matthew Barney and Bjork. Directed and written by Matthew Barney. Produced by Barbara Gladstone and Matthew Barney. An IFC release. Drama. Unrated. Running time: 143 min

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