“Japan” as the hipster’s paradise has lately been spoon-fed to Americans by a variety of high- and lowbrow entertainers. Sofia Coppola gave us an impossibly chic Tokyo after-hours scene with Lost in Translation, Memoirs of a Geisha played into many existing stereotypes about Japanese women; and Gwen Stefani fetishized Harajuku Girls. If Gwen Stefani says Japan is cool, you better believe it’s true.
Matthew Barney offers a more “cerebral” appropriation of Japanese ritual and style in his Drawing Restraint 9. Set aboard a Japanese whaling ship headed to Antarctica, the film is like nothing you will see onscreen, this year or any other. More a filmic gesture than a conventional narrative, Barney’s three-hour art extravaganza follows protagonists played by Barney and Bjork in a disjointed series of peculiar rituals. These include preparing for an elaborate tea ceremony (which takes nearly an hour and a half, all wordless), getting washed by their Japanese attendants, and putting on intricate costumes made of fur. At this point, they fondle each other’s prosthetic blow holes and make whale-like love. Are they whales? Is the audience supposed to draw some sort of parallel to the state of the whaling industry? The film doesn’t explain.
Drawing Restraint 9 is a curious experience. Adhering closely to source material (Shinto, an ancient Japanese religion, and whaling sacraments), it is quite inaccessible without explanation. I saw the German premiere at this year’s 56th Berlinale; following the screening, Barney answered audience questions. Some 10 years ago, the first film in his Cremaster Cycle took the “art world” by storm, and his core audience remains art school students, collectors, connoisseurs, and hipsters from every continent. Everyone at this exhibition was gossiping and flitting about like flies near a carcass, droning on about Art and Technique. Barney, a former football player and Yale grad, looked both surprised and annoyed while trying to answer odd queries like, “Moby Dick: did it affect your perception of whales during filming?” (Perhaps the question that should have been asked was, “Do you ever regret trying to explain your art to rabid mobs of students?”)
He did say that the titular “restraint” refers to a series of experiments he created in art school, involving self-set formal and physical limits. As he didn’t specify the “restraint” he had in mind here, the beautiful images (courtesy of Peter Strietmann’s ornate camerawork) often seem hollow. The costumes are breathtaking, as are the sets and backgrounds (Bjork’s first appearance, waiting at the edge of the ocean to be picked up by a fishing boat, is lovely). But is it possible for a film to be both visually arresting and mind-numbingly boring at the same time?
While Barney was quick to discuss other inspirations, such as Friday the 13th and The Evil Dead, a major contribution he did not address was that of Bjork, his partner in life as well as this endeavor: she served as composer as well as co-star. Her score pushes into bolder and more avant-garde territory than her previous work. The sound palette complements the elaborate set pieces Barney constructs. Austere and subtle, the compositions are cold, processed, and sinister. One particular highlight, the song sequence “Storm”, a harrowing electronic scramble of inaudible words and spaced-out sound, dominates a very long scene in which Barney and Bjork cut one another into pieces and proceed to eat said pieces while the ships sails into rough seas. At times like this, the film seems a lengthy Bjork music video—confusing, beautiful, and somewhat ridiculous.
Given its impenetrability, Restraint will likely remain where it belongs: sequestered away in a metropolitan museum. For all its visual impact, Barney’s film keeps a traditional film-going audience at arm’s length. Given his immense affection for the outré and gift for complex societal commentary, it’s disappointing that Drawing Restraint 9 comes off as a bland exercise in social studies.