Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Best Films of 2006

Matthew Barney's Drawing Restraint 9 was one of two exciting, fiercely idiosyncratic films in 2006 in which carnal, compulsive love spanned wide dimensions of time and place, etching itself into lavishly syncretized idioms of east, west, and south, and casting the director's own real-life lover as the muse of erotic, ironically ambivalent abandon. Not content as Darren Aronofsky was with indirect (albeit insistent) authorial signatures, Barney plasters himself into his own images, characteristically using his own body as a canvas for graphic, cosmetic, and cultural bricolage, but injecting a level of self-conscious ardor and outside-observerism that the Cremaster films, greater pieces though they are, didn't often attempt. This movie is a sort of spiritual and artistic heir to Greenaway's Pillow Book, not just reflecting an Anglo fascination with Asian tropes and cultural currents, but critiquing that fascination through its own peculiar codes and complicated figures, which are just as often repellent (Greenaway's guttings and obese bodies, Barney's floating log of whale detritus) as they are sensuous (calligraphy, ceremony, costume). By adopting the central and controversial motif of whaling, Barney installs bright, cutting questions into his movie about which of these tropes and artifacts are properly Japan's, which belong more properly to nature or the world or prehistory, and which arise from that deep, aquatic, associative imagination of Barney's—a metaphorical ocean, which he trawls and patrols for inspiration in ways that are not themselves immune from critique. After all, who does this spectacularist think he is? What are the boundaries of what he can recruit as "art," or spend in the name of frequently obscure expression, or expect an audience to tolerate, particularly in the long, guignol climax?

I credit Barney enormously for planting these questions in his art, for cultivating a form of art that is premised on self-reflexive questions instead of just prompting them from a rightfully skeptical audience (like so many movies do), and for working at the scale and at the extremities that are necessary to make his artistry salient. Drawing Restraint 9 certainly has the courage of its strange, unique convictions, and if, like The Pillow Book, the movie extends itself a little too long, allowing too many of its conceits to grow overripe, the movie furnishes more than its fair share of images and sounds and ideas and juxtapositions for us to ponder. Best of all, in a way that Barney rarely gets credit for, he is shaping up terrifically as a filmmaker, not just a sculptor or gallery artist with a camera in one hand while the other is stuffed into Barbara Gladstone's big, fat purse. In the very way it is shot and edited, Drawing Restraint 9 echoes its own thematic and visual investments in tension, duration, and detail, and the film does an elegant job of showcasing its center-ring event—the molding and then the crumbling of a 45,000-pound mold of petroleum jelly—such that the movie conveys Barney's own enthusiasm for this sight, and even better, his own styles of seeing and feeling.

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Blogger Yaseen Ali said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

12:53 PM, February 09, 2007  
Blogger Yaseen Ali said...

Hmmm, very interesting pick, Nick. It's been more than a year since I saw it, and even then it was towards the end of the festival when I am usually the least responsive/accomodating - long story short, I don't recall that much besides flashes here and there: bathing, dressing up, the tea ceremony... But I do know that certain shots and Bjork's murmuring, droning music bounced around my head like disembodied echoes for months afterwards (not to mention that traumatizing ending.) And that quivering petroleum jelly was absolutely hypnotizing.

12:54 PM, February 09, 2007  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

It's hard to fault Barney's obscurely motivated but intense and fascinating visuals but I just couldn't fall into this world the way I could with Cremaster which grabbed me on more than just the visual level.

I usually reject the notion/complaint that people have about difficult art "i don't understand. i don't get it. what am I supposed to be feeling?" because I don't think it's the artists job to give you all the answers but for me, Drawing Restraint 9 was a touch too impenetrable.

But I'll happily watch it again at some point with your notes in mind.

4:09 PM, February 09, 2007  
Blogger Glenn Dunks said...

Hmm. Well, I could barely make it through the Cremaster segment in the Guggenheim, so I doubt I could handle Drawing Restraint 9.

I think it's because I have a negative reaction to "art" that is just splashes of paint, or random images thrown around and then being told "it's art, stupid!".

9:21 PM, February 10, 2007  
Blogger Glenn Dunks said...

I should mention that the Guggenheim segment was the only segment I have watched. As far as I know, the rest of it isn't available here.

It may not have been long, but my eyelids sure felt it was.

9:22 PM, February 10, 2007  

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