Barney Goes Shinto

Filmmaker, high-art mastermind goes adrift with Björk

The IFC center has, up until this point in its existence, prided itself on showing low-budget independent features. In fact, they are so proud of being the place for low-budget independent films—despite the fact that they are owned by Cablevision—that they have displayed them without much regard for their quality. Budget and high quality production were not the issues facing their newest acquisition, “Drawing Restraint 9”—but other questions emerge.

“Drawing Restraint 9” is the new film from artist/filmmaker Matthew Barney, architect of the infamous “Cremaster” cycle and high-art mastermind. It is also the first of the Drawing Restraint cycle to be put into the form of a feature film. “Drawing Restraints 1” through 8,”” featured, for a few examples, the artist jumping on a trampoline, satyrs in the back of a limo, and erotic panel instillations.

“DR9”’s plot, which is not given through dialogue—there are approximately 10 lines of speech in the film—follows Barney and his lover/musical collaborator Björk on their exploration of the culture of a Japanese whaling ship. After boarding the ship, the couple are bathed, shaved, and dressed in skins and what seems to be Barney’s idea of a parody of classical 17th century Japanese garb. The shaving and the dressing the duo undergo take up the majority of the film; the film’s climax—the part with the 10 lines of dialogue—happens quite late in the sequence of events.

What follows is a strange but simple escapade out of Barney’s head that is fully realized, grotesque, beautiful, and entirely unnecessary all at once. Barney should be commended for compelling an audience with imagery, and so too should Björk’s excellent musical work here be seen as generally adding to the enticing oddity that pervades the film. But what’s the point?

Just because Barney—whose work is widely celebrated and whose art sells for large amounts at auction houses like Sotheby’s—has the capability to produce a film like “DR9” does not necessarily mean the film has to be so extravagant; the production features many crane and helicopter shots, ridiculous art design, and—of course—a gigantic Japanese whaling ship. A hundred other films that would play at the IFC Center could have been financed, shot, and distributed for what it cost to make “Drawing Restraint 9.”

The counter argument is that Barney’s vision is great and encompassing and that his collaboration with Björk is important. As a colleague pointed out, they are in a bizarre way, “a cute couple.” However, this critic would argue that Barney’s vision has become so extravagant that it has transcended what an audience would find engrossing.

“Drawing Restraint 9” is important because it reminds us what independent film is and what it is not. Independent film should be a unique vision of the world, a new perspective to contrast with Hollywood clichés. However, independent film still has to follow the same rules as classical cinema, in that it has to compel an audience and give them back something, a message, in return for their attendance and their $10.75. Barney’s piece, while visually stunning, would be more appropriate screening at MoMA, where more witting audiences might be up for a two-and-a-half hour whale tale.

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