Saturday, April 08, 2006

Friday Night and Saturday Afternoon

After leaving the John Ashbery reading last night, David and I walked over to the IFC Film Center (at right, formerly the Waverly, now swanked out with an adjoining bar), to see the newest Matthew Barney film, Drawing Restraint 9. We'd gone together to see the final entry in Barney's Cremaster films Cremaster 3 (the one starring sculptor Richard Serra, which also included a giant, lots of Celtic imagery, a car destruction derby in the Chrysler Building, and one of the most ennervating, interminable scores I've ever sat through) a few years back at Film Forum, and I'd concluded that Barney's dreamlike narratives and images were interesting and technical prowess and determination to realize them remarkable, he seemed like someone who was being praised because the critics really didn't understand what the hell he was up to but didn't want to end being on the wrong side of critical history. He also struck me as someone who had access to way too much money. Still, I think some of the Cremaster films, especially Cremaster 4, which stars Ursula Andress, is brilliant, and the idiosyncratic symbolism in the service of a sustained personal mythology that opens out to public interpretation and as a device to link the films together intrigues me quite a bit. So I'm not writing off or hating on Barney by any means.

The new film is a collaboration between him and his wife, the Icelandic singer and actress Björk. It's received a lot of praise from the usual quarters, including the New York Times. It is an arresting film, though I was troubled by what seemed to me to be yet another, highly elaborated strain of Orientalism, in the form of a 21st century avant-Japanoiserie, that at least one critic, Steven Holden, is reading as an enlightened East-West encounter (cf. his Times review). Hmm. Is my compass set to always detect or misdetect misreadings and misrepresentations of the Other? What would a better, non-Eurocentric cinematic encounter with Japanese life and customs look like, and would I know it if I saw it? Am I missing Barney's irony, his comparison of the "frivolity" of one kind of ritual, to another? Might not a real(istic) attempt to come to terms with the incomprehensibility and incommensurability of the other result in just this sort of film, so perhaps am I not giving him enough credit? These are things I've been thinking about.

In the film, Barney and Björk play these (very fashionably accoutered) attractive westerners who get on launches, then board a Japanese whaling ship, where they perform an elaborate Shinto marriage-tea ceremony (as imagined by Barney), which requires them to shave off facial hair, wear octopus undergarments, and in the case of Barney, faun-like horns, and then remain in the tea-ceremony room, which slowly fills with liquified petroleum jelly, which is Barney's preferred sculptural medium. As the room slicks up with the viscous amber fluid, the two lovers perform a horrifying (too mild a word, really) self-transformation. Meanwhile, the crew of the whaling ship sees and seizes a giant piece of ambergris (fake ambergris, or whale vomit, since the real stuff would be astronomically expensive, and not even Barney has those kinds of of millions), and then places it in a huge congealed petroleum sculpture, which is in the form of the "drawing restraint" emblem that Barney has been developing since he was in art school. The more I think about it the more it starts to make sense, at least the inner logic of the film, though the description, as I reread it, sounds almost nonsensical. At any rate, after the transformation, the two lovers have united with nature, and there's a charming shot of two whales following the whaling ship, which was both ironic and almost a bit naive, cutesy and sentimental. Björk in Kennedy's Times piece describes the film as representative of her aim of rejoining with nature, and this comes through, yet any real sense of a non anthropocentric engagement with nature, whales, or, to get back to what the Times was championing, a centrifugal exploration of Japanese culture, anthrological, zoological or otherwise, seemed to be missing, but then with Barney's work, I don't think that's the point. It's all about his (interior) vision, though this time, it's also fused with Björk's.

After the film, I felt utterly drained. Part of it was that it was 135 minutes, but it felt like 300 and at times moved glacially. This seemed appropriate during the run-up to and during the tea ceremony, but at times the longueur was just that--and too long. Then there was the wrenching "transformation" scene in the oily tea room. Let me not forget the music. While Drawing Restraint's score was often haunting and memorable, and nothing like Cremaster 3's score, which included unbearable bagpiping and grating metal--it was enough to make a person go completely insane--the repetitiveness and loudness of the music also took their toll. I can take throat-singing in small doses, and Björk's singing and songwriting in large ones, but this film overdid both. One of the best musical bits was the lower octave brass bursts that announced the whaling ship's approach to the ambergris and the beginning of (exciting) action. David concurred in feeling drained--and dazed. We walked around the neighborhood a little bit afterwards to get our bearings back, but as we walked up Hudson St., I felt almost as if I were rising from a very deep and heavy REM sleep. Seeing this film did make me want to see more video art, though, as well as find out what Barney was going to do next with this "restraint" theme.

On Saturday, I decided to venture back over to the City catch the reading of Ashbery's rarely performed play (farce?) The Heroes at the Bowery Poetry Club, mainly because Patricia Spears Jones (at left) and Chris Stackhouse were in it. Unfortunately, it took me so long to get over to the Bowery that by the time I arrived, the staged reading was over. I did get to see Patricia, who said that the performance had gone off with aplomb, and mentioned that her new book is coming out in May (wonderful news!). She also was kind enough to introduce me to two writers whose names and works I'm quite familiar with but had never met, Dara Wier and Vincent Katz. Since I missed the play, I figured I'd catch Ashbery read his long, two-columned poem "Litany," which was originally published in As We Know and which I've always thought of as an experiment that didn't exactly work out, with poet Ann Lauterbach. I'd forgotten our camera at home, so I used my cell-phone camera, which requires the kind of steady hand I lack, but which does take video, so I actually have three micro-clips of Lauterbach and Ashbery reading this work that achieves what Satie aimed for with his music, and which Tan Lin is aiming for with some of his pro(s)etic work, like Blip.Soak: lyric background noise or aural furniture.

Only Lauterbach and Ashbery (at right) both have expressive voices (and Wier and James Tate were also sitting at the tables and I guess were going to spell the two lead voices at some point), and the combination made me think not only of Thomas Glave's, Samuel Delany's and Chris Mazza's double-columned fictions, but of a really amazing fictional piece that one of my most brilliant honors students, Tai L, wrote a year-and-half ago, based on a technique that was used in a youth mental treatment facility. It involved piping two distinct dialogues into different earphones that a young patient had to wear, to supposedly therapeutic effect (I think I'm getting this correct), but as I immediately said to Tai when she told me about it and I read her rendering of it, I thought it might have the opposite effect (especially, now that I think of it, depending upon the content of the texts and the sound and pitch of the voices, etc.). When she performed it with another wonderful former student of mine, Eileen K, the effect was derangingly mesmerizing. The competing voices, combined with the simple lyricism, created a feeling of simultaneous confusion and bemusement. I have written texts of this sort myself, with the aim of creating the very sensations I felt as I heard Tai's and Ashbery's texts, though I hadn't known about Tai's rationale and justification at the time; Ashbery's was one I was quite familiar with.

Patricia left to get some food, and after a little while, Chris and I decided to head uptown to an opening in Chelsea. The abstract painter Ed Clark, a New Orleans native, was showing new paintings in his "Rebirth" exhibit at the G. R. N'Namdi Gallery at 526 W. 26th St. On the C train heading up there, we ran into poet and critic Geoffrey Jacques (in the center of the image below, Chris is at left) who was also on his way to the show. At left is a general scene at the opening.

As the N'Namdi Gallery's exhibition notes say:

Clark has always been an inventive and creative artist, experimenting with techniques--his innovative use of the push broom, for example, and his method of working on paper with dry pigment, inspired by the "pouring sand" technique of the Pueblo tribe of the American Southwest.

Because of Clark's technique, the canvases give the effect of the acrylic's horizontal movement in space, and where there were patches of impasto or layering, vertical mobility. The almost glamorous quality of the beauty created by his choice of colors yields develops greater depth through the visible marks of the painter's action in creating them. Chris mentioned the abstractionist Richard Mayhew; Mayhew's images, if I'm recalling them correctly, float and hover more, and offer a sense of stillness, whereas Clark's seem as if they're heading somewhere, drawing my eye right towards the edges and off the canvas. I thought and could see moods, and music, and movement. I plan to revisit the gallery soon to look at the works again.

The painter Ed Clark, at left, speaking with two unID'd women

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