RED is a short film by one of Australia’s most prominent figurative artists Del Kathryn Barton, who is best known for her intricately and richly decorative treatment of subjects which have won her a national reputation as winner of the Archibald Prize in 2008 and 2011.
Her imagery comes across as a fusion of the closely observed world and a feverish imagination which translates people, plants and creatures into cyphers for mythic fables and psychological states of mind. Within a buzzing force field of motifs, Barton’s Earth Mother figure reigns supreme like a Faerie Queen, presiding over an unruly congregation of blissed out kangaroos and possums, set on a field of magic mushrooms and blooms of deadly nightshade.
The artist’s restless imagination has turned more recently to the possibilities of film. With filmaker Brendan Fletcher she has made the human dress (2012) and an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s enchanting story The Nightingale and the Rose (2015). Themes of fertility and the psychology of relationships have always been embedded in Barton’s work. In RED they are uppermost.
There is a plot. On the way to girl meeting boy she turns into a spider. After some foreplay it’s cut to some real spiders going at it. Cut back to our professional looking couple behaving like Rake characters after a boozy lunch. Cut back to the spiders, who only have eyes (and jaws as it turns out) for each other. Being both of the red-back persuasion we know it’s all going to be tears at bedtime.
The soundtrack at this stage does the spider equivalent of a Jaws theme, cue more ‘kkkk kkkk’ than ‘nerna nerna’. At some stage, Cate Blanchett, who plays a Spider-like Woman with frightening conviction, cuts her way out of her Armani suit with the aid of full-on dressmaker’s shears (the spookiest part of the movie), is now revealed in a full body fishnet stocking number complete with an acrylic fox Gaga wig – and closes the deal.
Before you know where you are, the chap’s strung up like prize boar with his dangling hand attracting some wistful post-coital stroking from Spider – now Business Woman. Then, just when you feel ready for a Bex and a good lie down, another kick ass Spider Woman in red leather bondage kit suddenly launches onto the bonnet of a red Euro sports car and performs the Tarantella. A girl (the artist’s daughter Arella) makes a late cameo appearance to set up some speculation about generational cycles.
In the spirit of the short ‘experimental/experiential’ film, RED pushes all the buttons in terms of being a visceral assault on the senses and imagination, driven by Tom Schutzinger’s fantastic, blow-torch-take- no-prisoners soundtrack. I didn’t care if it did or didn’t make sense. The more insane the better with this genre I say. The David Attenborough moments certainly did. If you want to know what goes on when two red-backs do the woo, then you’ll get your answer.
RED has the characteristic Barton hallmarks of instinctive juxtapositions of suggestive imagery. The advantage of film over 2D pictorial depiction is that the metaphoric power of transitions is enhanced. This is particularly evident in the sequence where Blanchett cuts herself free from a carapace of psychic enclosure and in doing so, as Barton describes, “her female energy explodes into the universe”. Cue macro imagery of spinning constellations and dying suns.
There are a lot of back stories to this film. Barton’s own creative trajectory has absorbed lessons as diverse as Patrick White’s exploration of an Australia riddled with complex binaries of fertility and aridity, William Blake’s archetypal renditions of humanity’s destiny and Louise Bourgeois’ desire to express her innermost feelings about her mother (the spider as the clever weaver). Her immersion in film lore has meant that there are multiple points of reference for film buffs such as Edward Scissorhands, A Clockwork Orange and a touch of Kiss of the Spider Woman. Throw in some Bergmann riffs and rage clips.
Arts-wise you can go to lots of places – symbolist art in particular (try Egon Schiele for starters) and numerous tropes from modern dance choreography. The flakier levels of popular culture such as B-grade horror (Kingdom of the Spiders starring William Shatner and hungry spiders deprived of natural food due to pesticides), lots of manga, various Harry Potter/Lord of the Rings eight-legged villains, not to mention Creepy Dolls. To cheer the spirits, try Charlotte’s Web.
The artist has described this film as a “brutal chronicle” which spoke to her “of the poetics of female power as an inherent and indeed, elemental force in the universe”. Be that as it may, the dynamic, as with Barton’s pictorial work, lies in the combined weight of “things that are over-active and dense and humming a lot”. Don’t expect a neat fable for our time but do buckle up for an assault on the senses and some of the best robotic dance grooves you’ll see this side of Thriller. And surely – Oscars for the spiders?
RED by Del Kathryn Barton
Art Gallery of South Australia
Presented as part of the 2017 Adelaide Festival
Until Sunday, April 30