Wednesday, September 6, 2006

What price vanity?

Björk and hubby navel-gaze and actually prevail

Posted By on Wed, Sep 6, 2006 at 12:00 AM

Is there a celebrity couple alive that can resist the lure of a vanity project? Movie audiences avoid them like the plague, music fans dread them and yet there still seems to be someone in the entertainment industry ready to fund the next Gigli, the next Swept Away, the next Britney and Kevin: Chaotic.

OK, so artist Matthew Barney and his wife, pop-vocalist savant Björk, don't exactly qualify as tabloid royalty, although her wearing a swan dress to the Oscars and beating up a reporter in Thailand certainly brings them closer. And it's doubtful that any other couple — say, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie — would ever think to cast themselves in the roles of "occidental guests" in an expensive film-multimedia art experience that incorporates clothing made out of intestines, vigilante barbers and a 20-foot-long specimen of whale puke.

But still, there's a certain amount of ego — or at least hubris — involved in making a nearly two-and-a-half-hour epic devoted to you and your significant other. Luckily, Barney, the reigning king of weird in any medium, knows how to put a vice grip on an audience's attention. In Drawing Restraint 9, his latest filmed project, the artist creates a steady, sustained atmosphere of wonder and dread, as his "characters" — humans, shellfish, gelatinous blobs — substitute bizarre rituals for any sort of conventional conversation or interaction. It's nowhere near as revelatory as the movies from his last magnum opus, The Cremaster Cycle, but as a parade of hypnotic, sometimes stultifying images and sounds, Restraint achieves its desired effect.

More of a movie than Cremaster but less of a spectacle, Restraint actually does cleave to a narrative, albeit a bizarre, threadbare one. Barney and Björk are introduced waiting for two small boats to pick them up on the Japanese shore. After an eternity of screen time — intercut with a sequence involving sailors filling a giant, oval-shaped tank with a slowly hardening liquid — the two board the whaling ship Nisshin Maru. Soon after, they're stripped down by a pair of women in kimonos and prepared for an extended, gory ritual that's something like a scene from Kill Bill Vol. 2 on heavy sedatives.

Where Cremaster hinged on its preoccupation with Americana — Goodyear blimps, football, showgirls, limousines and punk music — Restraint is obsessed with all things Japanese. At first, the ever self-conscious Barney seems to be drawing attention to the Western world's tendency to fetishize all things Eastern. But eventually the movie itself seems to succumb to a sort of arty "Orientalism," with the ship's mostly subservient crew and smiling children enabling the passage of the artist and his beloved into the cold, inviting sea.

But with Barney, it's sometimes best to leave the analysis to art professors and just let the experience wash over you. He taps into that primitive, childlike part of all of us that longs to operate heavy machinery, or to slice open golf balls just to see what oozes out. And his technique is faultless. Restraint practically throbs with anticipation: As the director's camera slowly zooms and pans across the parade of strange images before it, Björk's score juts in and out, offering a jagged counterpoint to all of her husband's postmodern hypnotism. This is one vanity project where one-half of the couple in question actually does bring out the best in the other — which is more than we may ever be able to say about anyone attached to Madonna, J. Lo or (shudder) Tom Cruise.


Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre, (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Sept. 8-9, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 10.

Now showing at the Michigan Theater (603 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor; 734-668-8463).


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