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Maybe canvas is a better venue

Commentary on rituals and traditions in `Drawing Restraint 9' is more suited for museums than movie screens.

April 21, 2006|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

In June, Matthew Barney's "Drawing Restraint 9" will be shown as part of a larger exhibit comprising paintings, drawings, videos, sculptures and photographs at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The installation will take up the entire fourth floor, with walls removed so that visitors can enjoy "a non-linear experience of the art," according to the museum's announcement. But first, IFC Films will provide the linear experience of watching the movie on its own in theaters. Fans of the "Cremaster" series, and moviegoers of a more stoical bent, will be happy to hear it. Others may find that the film, which clocks in at 2 hours, 15 minutes, makes them yearn for the relative boundlessness of a museum gallery, where one is free to roam, wander, take a break to go to the bathroom.

I don't mean that facetiously. A narrative thread runs through the movie, but as narrative threads go, this one is gossamer filament. The film is more of a comment on tradition, ritualized worship, violence and the movies than it is a movie itself. Barney's first collaboration with Bjork -- his real-life partner, who provided the soundtrack -- and almost entirely silent save for the score and a few inconsequential remarks toward the middle, "Drawing Restraint 9" is much more atmospheric than it is plot-driven. Also, it's gorgeous -- much more interesting to look at than to watch.

Still, "DR9" looks epic, which is either the film's main selling point or its biggest drawback. Its title, and Barney's preoccupation with discipline and limits notwithstanding, the movie begs to be called expansive. It's as large and pudding-edged as the huge, bisected Vaseline suppository at its visual and symbolic center. It's safe to assume the Vaseline pool represents what the artist has previously referred to as "the orifice and its closure -- the body and its self-imposed restraint." The shape has also been likened to a football field. Athletics and sexuality represent Barney's fixation with pushing boundaries.

The movie takes place aboard the real-life Japanese whaling ship, now a research vessel, the Nisshin Maru, one of the last built before the international ban on whaling took effect. The film begins with Will Oldham singing text of letters from postwar Japan as a woman wraps a fossil, then follows the two "occidental guests," Barney and Bjork, as they make their separate ways onboard the ship. Once they arrive, they are ministered to and groomed in preparation for a traditional Shinto wedding. Meanwhile, on deck, the crew busies itself with the petroleum jelly mold. After the ceremony, the ship is rocked by a storm, and the Vaseline begins to melt and seep into the cabins below. Flooded by viscous liquid, the occidental guests join in a grisly but tender love-death, slicing at one another's lower extremities with flensing knives and breathing through spouts on the backs of their necks.

The whaling and flensing lend a sacrificial aura to the elaborate wedding ritual, especially as the couple lovingly hack away at each other until they are no longer the people they were when we first saw them. Or so it occurred to me a few days afterward. The experience is at times taxing, but the imagery -- especially in its surrealistic combination of quasi-documentary with a kind of Warholian industrialized art-making built into it -- is undeniably arresting and sticky. I'd like to say that the ideas linger, but instead they force you to chew on them until you arrive at something. Ultimately, the scale of the production and the expectation built into the release don't entirely justify the effort.


MPAA rating: Not rated. Nudity and graphic images of mutilation.

An IFC Films release. Writer-director Matthew Barney. Music by Bjork. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

Through Thursday, exclusively at the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. (310) 281-8223.

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