I was recently at the Haus der Kunst, the hulkingly beautiful Nazi-era museum that sits on the edge of Munich’s largest park, the Englischer Garten. My companion and I arrived late in the day and had neither the time nor the wherewithal to stick around for long. After some dithering over our options, we decided to check out a video exhibition in its basement.
We descended into the depths of the museum on the suggestion of the kind woman working the reception desk—the basement is an unreconstructed horror of a bomb shelter, designed for the NSDAP top brass to use in the event of a mid-exhibition air raid. Quite the experience, she assured us. Sure enough, it was hard not to hyperventilate while slinking past the enormous steel doors with their femur-sized bolts and latches that punctuated each turn of the basement complex.
Yet the video art we encountered there—at least to me—was disappointing. To my mind, the gallery context quite often encourages and fosters the worst impulses of contemporary artists dabbling in film: a concepts-over-ideas, gimmicks-over-form stripe of filmmaking that I despise. The very nature of these spaces compels us as spectators to float through different rooms, interacting with the work in a loose and unrestricted fashion. In doing so, we absorb these installations as a constituent part of a coherent artistic space, untethered by the imposed demands of runtimes and dark cinemas. In the basement of the Haus der Kunst, I cocksurely tried to avoid, as usual, the explanatory plaques adorning the entrance to each screening space, only to realize that the majority of what was showing there was indeed all about “getting it.” As opposed to, say, anything intangible and relayed prima facie by the makeup of the work itself.
After emerging from the basement, we happily wandered through the place’s enormous lobby in search of some postcards. I could not help but gawk in awe at the breathtaking monumentality of this space, which was largely bereft of artworks or advertising and seemed so much more impressive and self-contained as an aesthetic experience. So well-imagined was this tribute to the supposed superiority and purity of the Nazi ideology (and therefore of the "Aryan race" in general) that the routine act of walking through the lobby and pausing to study the contours of the room felt akin to standing before the chancel of an empty and horrifyingly austere cathedral.
The place is still a striking, if unnerving, monument to aesthetic principles of order, clarity of line, and symmetry. You could argue, therefore, that even this gargantuan work of art—intended to transmit a single idea both subliminally and overwhelmingly—was as much about “getting it” as the uninspired video art in its basement that I had only moments before dismissed as worthless. Yet I found myself bowled over by it nonetheless, even though I am not, at the time of this writing, a Nazi.
Matthew Barney's films are of a higher caliber than those previewed in the basement that day in Munich. His work inspires many adjectives from excitable critics and he is the kind of contemporary artist around whose work in film—not his sole focus, it should be said—an aura cultivates. Its lingering impression causes even cinephile admirers of his to place the movies outside the normal tributaries of cinema. And like many celebrated contemporary artists who work in film, Barney’s movies have featured stars going through their late career “experimental” phases; are often safely embedded in or alongside gallery exhibitions, implicitly partitioning them off from the rest of world cinema; have starred Björk; and most distressingly, compel prominent newspaper critics to grab the ball and run, so to speak, when it comes to the evident “themes”—i.e. breadcrumbs—scattered knowingly through the films.
No matter my reservations about bringing all this to bear on the actual experience of sitting down with Redoubt, I confess I found it difficult to quell a deep suspicion about the whole thing, even if I admit to being basically sympathetic to Barney’s program. With this latest work in particular, I could not help but think that the guy ought to have devoted more of his energy to the unsexy demands of scene-making, rather than mere conceptualizing or chasing after an idyll of what might look or sound right in a given moment.
It is worth saying also that Redoubt, an adaptation of the myth of Diana and Acteon shot in and around the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho, is Barney’s most “conventional” film by some margin. The main role of Diana belongs to the steely Annette Wachter, who is not a performer but a member of the U.S. National Rifle Team (asked by NRAWomen.tv whether she prefers guns or shoes she responded: “Guns. I actually think when I buy shoes what part of a gun that could buy”). Barney himself plays opposite her as Acteon, a mysterious copper engraver who lives with his wife in isolation, bathing his creations in acid baths and inciting Diana’s wrath with his voyeuristic tendencies. Oh, and there are two women who play The Virgins, bathing half-nude in hot springs and impersonating the wolves hunted by their master. In the best scene, we see a pack of wolves let loose inside a log cabin to tear and smash everything in slow motion while Barney cuts back and forth between a ghostly eclipse.
And as much as there is a whiff of Twin Peaks: The Return about Redoubt—among other things, both feature uncannily similar sequences in which unspeaking, introspective rural types sit in diners and tinker away at inscrutable tasks as if in a trance—it often also bears an unflattering resemblance to a Rockstar Games cutscene. Why unflattering, you might ask? Well, are those cutscenes not, above all, technical demonstrations of virtuosity on the part of the animators, legions of whom had to grind away for years to make every quiver of a fir tree and every tumbling flake of snow seem hyper-realistic? It often feels like for all its occasional inspiration or eccentricity, Barney’s style is born out of similar imperatives. Much of Redoubt would be at home as a demo-reel on a 60-inch flat screen in an electronics store.
One interesting idea that Barney leaves underexplored is the connection to guns, clearly suggested by their centrality to every aspect of the movie. Given the extreme fetishization of the experience of "the hunt"—see for reference the many indulgent slow motion images of cartridges shattering as they hit their target or animals shuddering as a bullet pierces their flesh—it is inevitable that his choices and emphasis raise certain questions about his undefined relationship to the material. There is, of course, the casting of three-time NRA champion Wachter (also known for her blogging under the nom de plume 30CalGal) in the main role. And the title itself is seemingly taken from "American Redoubt," a paranoid right-wing survivalist movement with exclusionary religious overtones based in the environs of the American northwest, including the specific landscapes in the film, and described by their founder as a Puritanical society of "pistol-packing Amish." And then there is the film's very structure, built as it is around six "Hunts," demarcated as such in hammy on-screen fonts, in which wolves are stalked and struck down by rounds from Wachter's high-powered rifle.
But the movie is neither as promising nor as juicy as that sounds. The significance of all of this is beyond me. Its posture is exactly that—a posture, both calculated and ambiguous, never working on a level that would give it any significance beyond spectacle. Perhaps if Barney had truly succumbed, Morrissey-like, to the evil delusions and venal brain-rot of far-right ideology—in this case, that of the NRA—we might at least have got some kind of Haus der Kunst out of it.