Matthew Barney: No Restraint
IFC Films // Unrated // $24.95 // May 1, 2007
Review by Preston Jones | posted May 13, 2007
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The Movie

Acclaimed artist Matthew Barney creates a sort of freakish, mesmerizing world that's impossible to look away from and all too easy to demonize as pretentious -- for example, his infamous, five-part cinematic Cremaster cycle, spread over nearly a decade, is set in iconic New York City landmarks like the Guggenheim and the Chrysler Building, focused on sprites and faeries. But art is more than simply sculpture in a garden or paintings on a wall -- it can take many forms, be it Robert Mapplethorpe's provocative photographs or Damien Hirst's bracing installations. Barney's work, as he (sort of) explains in Alison Chernick's biography/documentary Matthew Barney: No Restraint, stems from a very simple, almost elemental desire: to create art in an effort to overcome self-imposed limitations.

Of course, such an explanation makes the acquisition of 45,000 pounds of petroleum jelly all the more odd, as does creating a filmic narrative that climaxes with two lovers slicing each other's flesh off to reveal whale blubber, but in its own odd way, it does make a certain kind of sense. Or perhaps Barney is just an exceptionally good salesman, able to tell you whatever it is you want to hear; gifted with the kind of rugged looks that landed him modeling gigs on the pages of GQ, Chernick's film traces the production of Barney's 2005 film Drawing Restraint 9, which he made with assistance from his partner Bjork, and a loose biography of the famous but mysterious artist, complete with droolingly laudatory comments from gallery owners and art critics.

Lean at just over an hour, Chernick's narration-free exploration of Barney's process reveals little in his motivation, other than what he verbalizes, and quite frankly, those experts who speak about him can only praise what he's done, rather than offer any penetrating insight. Watching him work with the crew of the Japanese whaling vessel upon which Drawing Restraint 9 is set or the film crew you gather have been with Barney from the beginning, you see glimpses of a man eager to create, but no real understanding of what drives him. Sound bites provide context for the occasionally bizarre imagery -- Barney fans will be pleased to know that plenty of Cremaster clips turn up here, as do images of his earlier student work -- but you're left not knowing much more than when the film started.

For those wholly unfamiliar with Barney or his work, Chernick's doc is a great primer into one of the 20th century's more exhilarating and unpredictable artists (I think the DVD cover indulges in a bit of hyperbole: "A voyage into the imagination of one of the century's most important artists."), but those who've followed Barney's career or enjoyed his films will want more, a more revealing examination of the mind behind the madness. It's worth picking up as a curiosity, but not quite essential. As an aside, for those Barney fans interested explicitly in the Cremaster cycle of films, Matt Wallin is preparing a documentary -- I Die Daily: The Making of Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle -- for release later in 2007.

The DVD

The Video:

Presented in mostly clean 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, Matthew Barney: No Restraint suffers slightly from that inherent digital look most films shot on DV have -- that said, it's still a clear image and one that conveys the weird beauty of Barney's world with no horrifying defects.

The Audio:

Although Barney's films probably cry out for the full surround treatment (the artist talks passionately about sound design at one point in Chernick's film), this glimpse of the artist at work doesn't require much more than what's on board: a perfectly serviceable Dolby 2.0 stereo soundtrack that renders all dialogue without no problem. Optional English and Spanish subtitles are included.

The Extras:

I wish that Chernick sat for a commentary track or an interview; I'd be intrigued to know what inspired her to make a film about Barney. As it is, there's not much in the way of supplements here: an interview gallery comprised of seven segments with Barney, one with Bjork and one with New York Times chief art critic Michael Kimmelman is here as are two brief time-lapse segments -- a two minute, 44 second clip detailing construction at Barney's Brooklyn space and a 17-second clip detailing petroleum jelly hardening aboard the Japanese whaling vessel.

Final Thoughts:

For those wholly unfamiliar with Barney or his work, Chernick's doc is a great primer into one of the 20th century's more exhilarating and unpredictable artists, but those who've followed Barney's career or enjoyed his films will want more, a more revealing examination of the mind behind the madness. It's worth picking up as a curiosity, but not quite essential. Recommended.



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