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'sa 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 eventthe molding and then the crumbling of a 45,000-pound mold of petroleum jellysuch that the movie conveys Barney's own enthusiasm for this sight, and even better, his own styles of seeing and feeling.