During the final weekend of the San Francisco International Film Festival, Matthew Barney (“Cremaster Cycle” and “Drawing Restraint 9”) was presented the annual “Persistence of Vision” award to accompany a discussion with art critic Glen Helfand and the North American Premiere of “Drawing Restraint 17.”
In regards to the title of the award, Barney hesitantly admitted to it being right up his alley. He explained, “Recognition like this is complicated. It usually feels inaccurate in some way, but I feel like persistence is probably something I do have… I think it’s usually called something else, obsessiveness or delusion.” Backing up his claim are the five part “Cremaster Cycle” series, which took eight years to create, and the “Drawing Restraint” series which has been ongoing since he started in 1987.
Opportunities to see Barney’s work only come up on rare occasions as official releases of his films have been extremely limited. Even “filmmaker” is a title he dodges. As he considered his place in the film world, he said, “I feel somewhat like a trespasser when I come to film festivals. But it’s always really interesting to see how these pieces function among films. Because they are narrative and they build in a narrative way. I don’t feel like I’m working in the tradition of film as much as I’m working in the tradition of durational performance, video based performance, and video art. Those are the things that inspire me to do what I do.”
After working through and getting burnt out on longer form narrative films with the “Cremaster Cycle” and the feature length film co-starring his wife Björk, “Drawing Restraint 9,” Barney started looking for different ways to continue his work. Post ‘Cremaster,’ Barney has begun a seven-part series based on the Norman Mailer book, “Ancient Evenings.” After meeting Mailer on the set of “Cremaster 2,” Barney was urged by the author to consider his novel as a source for an adaptation. Locking onto the book, Barney took the opportunity to break out of the film world and started considering doing a series of live performances in collaboration with “Cremaster Cycle” composer Jonathan Bepler. At first the pair considered organizing an onstage performance of the story, but Barney quickly found it to be too restricting. Recalling the struggle to make the format work, Barney admitted, “I don’t respect theatre or opera. That’s a problem. Although there was something about it that excited me. I guess it’s just the ingredients of opera… it has everything one would want in a way.”
After reformulating their approach to the adaptation, a live durational piece was organized titled “REN” to get the series rolling. Barney explained, “I immediately started thinking of constructing these scenes that couldn’t be repeated, that were durational, that would bring a group of witnesses into that ritual and in that way they would become part of the work. The first act was done in a car lot outside of Los Angeles. I think there were about 500 people in attendance… What we did was take Mailer’s text which has a protagonist that is reincarnated three times. We replaced that character first with the Chrysler Imperial from ‘Cremaster 3.’ That was our starting point.”
Stills projected above Barney and Helfand revealed the scene as Barney talked the audience through the May 2008 performance. Despite his commitment to having the “Ancient Evenings” performances stand on their own, Barney has been documenting them along with ‘Cremaster’ and ‘Drawing Restraint’ Director of Photography Peter Strietmann. Doing their best to separate the documenting of the performance from the performance itself, Barney and Streitmann devised a plan to keep the filming from interfering with the live piece. Barney disclosed their approach in the Los Angeles-based production of “REN,” first in the “Ancient Evenings” series, saying, “We set up 9 RED cameras on hotheads [remote controlled camera rigs] and put them in surveillance housings and made them invisible to the audience. It was important to both Jonathan and I that the thing could function first as a live performance and there wouldn’t be a kind of self-consciousness for the audience that they were on camera and that it was a film shoot.”
As much as Barney had planned on using “Ancient Evenings” as a means to escape long form films, the process has looped around to put him in the position to use the footage from the performances as new films. Having most recently completed the second portion of the series in Detroit this past October with a CSI-like investigation into the “death” of the car from “REN,” Barney found himself reconsidering the form the series could take, saying, “I think that, and I am realizing this more as I edit the material from LA and Detroit and probably more than I was willing to admit at first, that it’s a way back into making work for the screen again by sort of changing the rules for myself.”
From the sound of it, we’ll have the opportunity to see how the “Ancient Evenings” performances turned out after all, though who knows under what circumstances. The stills shown from both the LA and Detroit performances looked fantastic, with the latter including a rejuvenated steel mill to literally pour the melted remains of the Chrysler Imperial that met its end in LA into a mold for another car. With live running times upwards of 8 hours, a condensed video version would be quite welcome.
Photo Credits: Matthew Barney Photo and Glen Helfand & Matthew Barney Photo by Pamela Gentile, Courtesy of San Francisco Film Society. “Drawing Restraint 17” Still Photo by Hugo Glendinning, courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York