Björk to the Future

Matthew Barney's girlfriend inspires his most coherent film

There's a fine line between artistic genius and pretentious wankery, and most cineastes will tell you that the films of Matthew Barney exist right around that line. Those who like Barney's work usually admit that it's almost too insufferably pretentious to bear; those with no patience for it generally acknowledge that, although the man has a gift for imagery, it might be better enjoyed in smaller doses. Renowned as an artist in the traditional, gallery-exhibiting sense, Barney moved on to movies with The Cremaster Cycle, a series of five films shot out of numerical order that dealt with dancing, racing, Harry Houdini, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and...well, I'm not totally sure, as I never made it past the first two. He refuses to put them out on DVD, which is a shame: They're the sort of thing that might be best enjoyed in the background while doing something—anything?—else.

Drawing Restraint 9 is part of a series of 12 artworks; none of the rest of which are films. Some involve Barney putting himself in some sort of harness or restraint system while trying to create a drawing (hence the title), but by the time he got around to part nine, that concept appears to have evolved into his favorite standby: petroleum jelly sculptures—in this case, large ones that slowly collapse like glaciers when removed from the mold, and become hellishly difficult to clean up after (clean-up being part and parcel of the artistic experience of the piece). Imagining that the crew of a whaling ship might have to deal with analogous experiences led to the inspiration for the film.

Running more than two hours, it's a movie with more narrative than some of Barney's previous works, but "more" in this instance is relative, like saying a chicken crispy strip is better for you than a McNugget. The story, such as it is, involves a man (Barney) and a woman (Barney's longtime girlfriend Björk) who make individual voyages to a whaling vessel, the Nisshin Maru, where they are elaborately primped and prepared for what may be a type of wedding ceremony, which they consummate by cutting great chunks of flesh off one another's legs. Then they turn into whales, possibly.

She don't use jelly: Björk in 'Drawing Restraint 9'
IFC Films
She don't use jelly: Björk in 'Drawing Restraint 9'

Things begin with a lot of low rumbles on the soundtrack (the Eraserhead rule of low-budget surrealism is that you can never have enough rumbling), as goop oozes from a stone. Then another stone—or possibly the same one, who knows?—is opened, revealing what looks to be a trilobite fossil and a white oyster shell. An old man starts wrapping the fossil as though it were the world's most elaborate gift, while a song plays on the soundtrack about how it is indeed a gift. (The lyrics come from an actual letter sent to General Douglas MacArthur. Don't ask.) Next we visit what appears to be an oil refinery. There's a big tanker truck with giant blue pipe cleaners sticking out of the top; also, petroleum jelly is being melted and shaped by the workers, though in the context of the movie it may be whale blubber. Inside one of the tanks, we are given an image of a whale being sliced in half with a scissor blade; the ensuing blood combines with the blade to form the movie's title.

And then on to the Nisshin Maru, which we are told is the fourth ship to bear that name, but is not numbered because four is unlucky in Japan. Along the shore, women draped in white sheets and wearing scuba masks on their heads paint each other's faces, then go diving for oysters, using wooden buckets as flotation devices. Barney and Björk journey to the ship, undergoing various grooming procedures once there. She gets naked in a bathtub full of oranges; he has his beard cut off by a barber and his head shaved while he sleeps. Meanwhile, the ship's crew members are making a giant mold of one of the movie's recurring symbols, which might best be described as a flattened oval turned on its side and bisected with a thin rectangle, or the Greek letter Phi rotated 90 degrees. The mold is to be filled with petroleum jelly and then allowed to collapse, as is the motif of the project. The crew also collects a huge chunk of ambergris, a derivative of sperm whale vomit used in perfume. For real.

Björk appears to have been a good influence on Barney: The soundtrack, which she supervised and participates in, is well worth the time for fans of experimental music. As to what the whole thing means, you're on your own. It boils down to something about society pampering and then victimizing its celebrities, perhaps, combined with a skewed take on elaborate Japanese rituals. Barney's constant use of Vaseline invites obvious masturbatory comparisons, and there is a sense that he and Björk did this primarily to turn each other on. Ultimately, it's like watching an alien courtship ritual.

 
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