The best parts of Matthew Barney's Cremaster films are arguably their trailers, which distill hours of extravagantly abstract imagery into stunning five-minute samplers. Along those same lines, the average moviegoer may want to skip Barney's recent Drawing Restraint 9 in favor of Alison Chernick's behind-the-scenes documentary Matthew Barney: No Restraint, which includes many of the film's jaw-dropping images of massive gelatin molds, whaling ship rituals, and compulsive Björk-manipulation, with the added bonus of context and explanation.
And that context gets more helpful the further away it gets from Drawing Restraint 9. Barney has had an unusual life and career for a fine artist. He's a strapping athletic type who played quarterback in high school and modeled professionally, and he became an art-world star straight out of Yale, thanks to otherworldly sculptures and installations described by one curator in Chernick's film as "images that have never been in the world before." Because of his rapid rise—and because he's been given enormous sums of money by patrons to create aestheticized versions of B-movie gore effects and Cirque Du Soleil routines—Barney has become a controversial figure.
Chernick merely touches on those controversies, mainly by having Barney-supporters dismiss them, and though she shows some members of Drawing Restraint 9's Japanese crew cocking quizzical eyebrows at Barney's methods, this documentary comes squarely from a place of acceptance, not skepticism. And maybe that's the best way to approach Barney, who himself seems so low-key and agreeable. Even when he's supervising the construction of realistic body parts that he can flay on camera, he's like a guy building bookshelves in his workshop—all while nudging his buddies and asking, "Does that look level?"
Nevertheless, No Restraint misses a lot of opportunities, like the chance to contrast Barney's work with artists working on a lower budget, or to examine his positive and negative influence on modern art, or to break down an economic model based on selling off the pieces Barney discards along the way. Mainly, Chernick misses the chance to follow in the footsteps of documentarian Thomas Riedelsheimer, whose essential artist-at-work films Touch The Sound and Rivers And Tides meditate on the ephemeral nature of the creative act. What better artist for that kind of treatment than Barney, who pours thousands of pounds of congealing jelly into a tub, hoping it'll look cool when he destroys it?