For anyone who doesn’t believe that film qualifies as visual art—as I once heard a local artist argue on a WRVU call-in show—there’s a cool new movie in which beautifully sculpted objects move together through a constantly recalibrating space, shifting at times from photorealist representation into a realm of almost pointillist abstraction. But The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift is almost gone from local theaters, so you may have to settle for Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint 9.
Maybe I’m being a smart-ass, but I’m not joking. The Fast and Furious threequel, a hot-rod-a-palooza made purely to rock the newly pubescent’s socks off, and the latest in Barney’s series of cinematic installation pieces would appear polar opposites. Each probably represents the biggest pet peeve of the other’s audience—irrelevant Hollywood trash vs. pretentious egghead nonsense. As studies in color and space and motion and sculpted form, though, that trump anything resembling a plot or character development, they’re closer to each other than either is to anything else playing currently in cinemas.
Perhaps the least obvious difference is that Drawing Restraint 9 arrives with the imprimatur of art. (Tokyo Drift, by comparison,got the luster of a grand-prize giveaway by the movie’s “official car wax.”) Barney, the much-vaunted sculptor and artist in multiple media, started the “Drawing Restraint” project in 1987 with an apparatus that physically impeded his progress up an incline as he made sketches along the way. Barney famously was a high-school football jock, and an element of manly conquest surges through his work: the title “Drawing Restraint” refers to the principle that resistance builds muscle.
And what’s the key to a weight-lifting regimen? Repetition. Like his previous Masonry-inspired film-slash-installation-piece Cremaster 3—and like Tokyo Drift’s recharging cycle of races and chases—Drawing Restraint 9 proceeds not so much by plot as by ritual. Barney, bearded and gazing like Ahab out to sea, and his real-life partner Bjork are “Occidental guests” brought on board a Japanese whaling vessel. As the crew tends to a giant tub of molten petroleum jelly, which hardens into a gelatinous, blubbery mass to be carved and bisected, the guests undergo ceremonies of meticulous preparation—shaving, outfitting with furs and Velcro-tuft eyebrows—like porn stars getting fluffed endlessly for their big bang.
Is this the working-out of an intricate personal mythology, or an enormous private joke? It may be both. In Barney’s recent work the scale of the project is inversely proportionate to the goofy task at hand: nothing manifests an artist’s will (and status) like commanding an entire whaling crew to lug around haybale-sized hunks of Vaseline—unless it’s then mustering a film crew to shoot it. It’s like ordering the Army Corps of Engineers to build a five-story gazebo of Jell-O. You marvel at the guy who had the clout to give the order, even as you wonder why the hell he bothered. At the same time, it’s hard to think of a more vivid demonstration of the simultaneous heroism and lunacy present in the creative process.
As an expression of Barney’s obsessions—and his ringmaster’s imagination—Drawing Restraint 9 is often arresting. For all his outsized mania, you could argue that Barney is undercutting his own primacy as the artist as he incorporates the team-effort assembly into the piece. (Pity the poor bastard left to swab all that Vaseline.) He makes a deliberate show of submission to the symbolic order of his work—represented at various stages by a Japanese tea ceremony, an enigmatic logo (a stylized whale, maybe, or a runaway tire) and a flesh-cutting finale in which the guests strip each other into human sashimi.
But as moviemaking, the lockstep editing rhythms and the timid creep of the camera turn from hypnotic to tedious, even with Bjork’s eerie, impressive minimalist score as metronome. Occasionally, the ponderous direction offsets the zany content (e.g., Barney tottering down a hallway in sandals that resemble bone dustpans). After the dozenth shot of Barney and Bjork flaying each other in a tank of viscous goo, however, the visual repetition produces not muscle but flab. The unexceptional camerawork reduces Barney’s vision to ornate eccentricity. And as hooty as Tokyo Drift’s hack plot and awful dialogue are, I prefer the visual splendor of its gleaming surfaces and three-dimensional space and sinuous curves—a wonderland erupting from a junkyard—to Barney’s hermetic, oppressive formalism. In some ways the opening sequence of Drawing Restraint 9 is emblematic—the laborious wrapping of an obscure object.