ArtsATL > Film > Review: The epic ambiguity and cinematic genius of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle

Review: The epic ambiguity and cinematic genius of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle

The elevator in the Chrysler Building ascends. Riding on the top, the Entered Apprentice mixes cement, then descends into the elevator with a bucketful and throws it against the wall. Climb back up, more cement, climb down, and repeat. Slowly, he fills the elevator car with cement until it begins to sink back to the ground floor.

Meanwhile, in the building’s lobby, a demolition derby is going on. Five different 1967 Chrysler Crown Imperials repeatedly crash into a vintage circa 1930 Imperial, brutally reducing it to a tiny pulp. Inside the old car is a female corpse: the undead reincarnation of Gary Gilmore. Later, the reduced bit of metal that was the car will be inserted into the mouth of the Entered Apprentice as a new set of teeth, by the Chrysler Building’s architect, who is actually the maker of the Temple of Solomon.

I think I got all that right, or most of it; but it doesn’t matter. In the Cremaster Cycle, now showing at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema, filmmaker and artist Matthew Barney is so in control of his vision and his medium that the question of what it all means just gets in the way. What’s important is that it’s clear to him. In fact, as a movie viewer resistant to hyper-imaginative scenarios, heroic auteurs, epic dramas and epic budgets, I was still drawn in. I both enjoyed and was moved by much of the cycle, without necessarily knowing the meaning of the images, and I suspect this is partly because Barney and I both attend the same church: that of pure form, in which all differences are subsumed.

In its extravagant imagery and leisurely pacing wedded to a hermetic narrative, its burlesque of gender roles in the service of an idealized prenatal state of not-yet-girl-or-boy, and especially in its unclassifiable relationship to cinematic categories — in short, in its epic ambiguity — the Cremaster Cycle has caused many overlapping (and productive) confusions. So as a practical matter, to address several of the common questions that arise: yes, you should go see as much of it as you can, if you are interested in cinema as an art form (and as a motivator, the distributor states that the Cremaster Cycle is not now, nor will it ever be, available to consumers on DVD); no, you needn’t see the five films in numerical order; and as for which film is best — the “must-see” if you can see only one — well, it depends. Personally, I’m glad I saw the whole thing.

First, the question of the films’ order. The Landmark Midtown is playing the entire cycle of five films once a day, in numerical order, split into three programs of feature length. While it’s desirable to see them in this order, it’s not necessary, for several reasons. First, Cremaster’s narrative has been aptly described as hypertextual. There is linearity and an emotional as well as geographical arc to the narrative. But all the while, the series shifts in place and time, from the period of Celtic mythology up to (at least) 1977 and the execution of murderer Gary Gilmore. Throughout the cycle there is a network of visual images, themes and characters that repeat in various ways, giving a continuously circular feel to the work. In addition, while the fifth and final part of the cycle does have a climactic moment, quite recognizable as such if you know the basics of Barney’s iconography (more on this below), the cycle intentionally lacks a definitive conclusion to all of its concerns.

Deepening the interrelationship of each film to the others is that, famously, Barney made them out of sequence. (For those wondering, the order of making was 4, 1, 5, 2, 3.) So if you were to watch them in the order in which they were made, instead of the cycle’s narrative sequence you would see Barney’s progression as a filmmaker. And the progression is considerable — that of a unique, talented video artist to near-master of the quite different realm of narrative film. The episodes were made with increasing resources, confidence and narrative scope. The last film made, “Cremaster 3,” with an epic scale and access to architectural landmarks (or one-to-one reproductions), is followed by the first made, “Cremaster 4,” before Barney had access to high-definition video and which looks a lot like traditional video art, albeit with a larger budget. That five films, made over eight years of constant growth and evolving priorities, should range so widely yet still relate to one another this scintillatingly, is very impressive.

So what exactly are they? They are hard to situate. Are they video art? Avant-garde cinema? Or something closer to traditional narrative film? They’re playing at the Landmark Midtown, after all, and Barney has an explicit credit as writer and director, auteurist terms that hardly any gallery artists (and few avant-gardists) would use. Yet the films are considered by Barney as “the moving image component” in “a single sculptural work.” And the cycle has been presented as a series of museum exhibitions in which a proliferation of drawings, photographs, sculptures, books and other objects have a role equal to that of the films.

I find the “open question” of what the Cremaster films are rather appealing, actually, and I think it goes to the very source of the cycle’s narrative. As anyone who has looked into the cycle knows, the cremaster is the muscle that raises and lowers the testicles within the scrotum, in response to changes in temperature or emotional states such as fear. But the cycle’s concerns are even more primal than that. The key to the narrative is a prenatal state — specifically, the first few weeks of pregnancy. During this time, the sex of the fetus is undetermined, at least by appearance. Each fetus has two gonads that in females will descend into the pelvis to become the ovaries or in males will descend further, into the scrotum to become the testes. (While technically the gonads descend in both sexes, Barney characterizes the female gonads as ascending, apparently to illustrate the binary nature of this gender distinction.)

Barney’s job, in his various guises throughout the Cremaster Cycle, is to preserve this suspended state of undifferentiation as long as possible. It is a doomed attempt to resist differentiation and definition against overwhelming forces. The cremaster muscle itself is not present in this early phase; it forms later. What Barney has done is superimpose the cremaster, as a metaphor, over this prenatal phase, and this is the engine of the entire cycle. In fact, as Barney has stated, the cremaster is a character in the films, playing “the role of the will in the story of a developing system.”

I think, but am not sure, that what Barney is saying via the cremaster metaphor is that the creation of form — biological, architectural, sculptural, artistic, cinematic, the shapes of lives — has as its fundamental component the use of will in resistance to strong forces. Form equals force divided by will. (The reason I’m not sure is that Barney also seems to idealize that suspended, undifferentiated state.) Part of what makes the Cremaster Cycle so much fun is that its thematic tension between definition and suspension spills over into the films’ production and reception: Barney admirably refuses to let them be bound by anyone’s preconceptions about multiplexes and galleries, all while availing himself of any specific cinematic genre, trope or reference he might need. In any case — back to practical matters — once you know the significance behind this simple motif of gonadal ascension against descension, many of the images in the Cremaster Cycle become quite clear. They appear everywhere: cars traveling in opposite directions, elevators, tall buildings being built, birds tied to strings, wall climbing, cave dwelling, and on and on.

Dozens of other characters and motifs recur regularly. Take, for example, the long sequence from “Cremaster 3” involving an elevator in the Chrysler Building and car destruction in the building’s lobby. Taking apart this imagery a bit, we see that there are five cars destroying the vintage car. Remembering that there are five films in the cycle, we see that each car is painted a different color, corresponding to the color schemes of the five films. The cars are 1967 model Imperials, the year of Barney’s birth, and the vintage car they are pummeling is from 1930, when Barney’s father was born. Barney portrays the Entered Apprentice, a first-level Mason who is pursuing the building’s architect, a third-level Mason, played by sculptor Richard Serra. At a fateful moment, Barney will dispose of this father figure. Later in the film, Serra — now playing himself — re-creates one of his most famous works and a key influence on Barney, a 1969 piece in which he flung molten lead into the corner of a room and let it cool, thus letting the architecture of the room define the shape of the sculpture. Only now, in re-creating the piece, Serra is using molten Vaseline — Barney’s preferred sculptural material.

Remember that the car demolition sequence is intercut with Barney’s filling of the elevator car with cement — a clear reference to Serra’s lead sculpture piece. Oh, and those Imperials happen to be the same model owned by one Gary Gilmore, who is a main character in “Cremaster 2” — along with Harry Houdini, Barney’s living embodiment of will, who described his mind-over-matter escape performances as “metamorphoses,” and who just may have been Gary Gilmore’s grandfather. Houdini is played by Norman Mailer, whose book on Gilmore, “The Executioner’s Song,” contained definitive descriptions of the Western landscape of Barney’s youth. See what I mean?

I’ve been describing mostly “Cremaster 3,” the middle film in the cycle — the one that was made last, is the longest and grandest, and the center from which the others fan out. (It even contains several witty mock contests among the five films.) Its first 90 minutes is also, to my mind, the only significantly flawed sequence in the cycle. The entire cycle is slowly paced, but “Cremaster 3’s” elevator and demolition section, while visually indelible, goes on for so long that I finally lost touch with Barney’s rhythm. A later sequence, set in a bar, features some almost willfully unfunny slapstick that makes me wonder just how Barney feels about some of his cinematic sources. But “Cremaster 3’s” second half picks right back up. Barney uses the Chrysler Building the way Woody Allen uses Manhattan, and the notorious sequence with Barney climbing the ramp of the Guggenheim Museum — the hard way, of course — must be seen to be believed. (This particular sequence, excerpted and titled “The Order,” is the only part of the Cremaster Cycle to be released on consumer DVD.)

“Cremaster 1,” the only film in the cycle not to feature Barney’s athletic (though oddly modest) screen presence, is a 40-minute homage to Busby Berkeley, Stanley Kubrick and the feminine. Two airborne Goodyear blimps signify the ideal, suspended gonadal state, and they are mystically connected to a football field far below, where a chorus of dancing ladies form symbolic shapes amid sweeping camerawork. The iconographic and idealized female forms here — flight attendant, chorus ladies, a mysterious blonde who seems to be controlling the events — are an explicit contrast to Barney’s hypermasculine activities in the later works.

“Cremaster 2” is the closest thing to a standard feature-length narrative film in the cycle. It’s the most lucid and fully realized, and along with “Cremaster 5” it carries the greatest emotional impact. Anchored by the dual stories of Houdini and Gilmore, it also takes in Mormonism and the American West, all while sustaining the cycle’s underlying themes of ascension and descension. As with “Cremaster 1” and “3,” the filmmaker who most comes to mind is Kubrick: the queasy weightlessness and sense of suspended dread so familiar from “2001” and “The Shining” are uncannily captured here. As for Barney’s portrayal of Gilmore . . . well, I’m no fan of art about serial killers. But it must be said that the murder depicted onscreen here has little of the cynical fetishization of violence that I’ve come to expect as a matter of course in American filmmaking. There might even be — is it really possible? — some compassion involved. “Cremaster 2’s” final sequence — a couple dancing a mournful two-step in a gilded room, the death of a bull on the flooded plain of a Utah salt flat, Mailer as Houdini in a fateful confrontation with Gilmore’s grandmother, and an enigmatic coda of vast landscapes — is a high point of the cycle. Even when I didn’t know the “meaning” of the images, I was still very moved — which is how I know that Barney has mastered the cinematic form that by this point in the cycle has become his obsession.

Following the fought-to-a-draw excess of “Cremaster 3,” described above, “Cremaster 4” brings us back to earth but quick. As stated, “4” was the first of the films to be made, and the lack of high-definition video defines its look — suddenly we’re in Bruce Nauman or Chris Burden territory, only in color and on location. (All of the Cremaster films were shot on video, then transferred to 35mm film for exhibition.) Also, possibly because “Cremaster 4” was made before Barney started radically widening his thematic and cinematic ambitions, it’s the film that presents the cycle’s gonadal descension theme most explicitly. Over its 40 minutes, we see two cars in a race, circumambulating the Isle of Man in opposite directions, explicitly symbolizing the binary genders that result from inevitable sex differentiation. Meanwhile, Barney slowly tap dances his way through the floor — there is nothing this man won’t do to entertain an audience! — only to fall into the sea below, then undertake a perilous underground journey through sculptural spaces filled with various disgusting goos and jellies. As an artist, Barney’s relationship to humor is uncertain, though there are many witty moments in the cycle. I have a feeling that “Cremaster 4” gets funnier with repeated viewings.

How does it all end? Stick around for “Cremaster 5,” where we veer to the Budapest Opera house for the film’s final, hour-long movement. In fact, “5” is an actual opera, and appropriately so as Barney considers the sex differentiation that finally occurs here to be tragic. Yet, for this dreaded moment Barney nearly outdoes himself in his relentless sumptuousness. The literal testicles are onscreen by this point, and quite real. Remember those birds tied to strings? Well, the strings are tied to the testicles of the Giant (played by Barney) by the water nymphs, while the Magician (played by Barney) is preparing to leap from a bridge, all watched over by the Queen of Chain, while the Diva (played by Barney) climbs dangerously across the stage proscenium, and . . . oh, you just have to see it.

The scores for all the films were composed by Jonathan Bepler, and they are extraordinary — almost worth the price of admission by themselves. Whether providing an entire opera, various pastiches of movie musics, tension-inducing experimental sounds or Bepler’s own lush compositions, the score is always present, in charge when needed, never in the way, the furthest thing from Hollywood bombast — and a perfect analogue to Barney’s own screen presence.

Finally, as an added inducement, Barney’s film distributor has added a bonus feature to the cycle. “De Lama Lamina” is a 50-minute record of a 2004 collaboration among Barney, the great American-Brazilian musician Arto Lindsay and the Brazilian Carnaval group Cortejo Afro, presented in Salvador, Bahia during Carnaval. Staged as a moving drama on and under a trio elétrico, a moving truck with amplified music, in the traditional style of Carnaval, the work is a comparatively loose affair and a fine companion to the Cremaster Cycle: where the cycle is concerned with the gravitas of biological form, “De Lama Lamina” is explicitly erotic, and the musical performances are excellent throughout. “De Lama Lamina” plays on each program after the end of “Cremaster 5,” so be sure to stay for it.

Note: For those wishing to parse the narrative details of the Cremaster Cycle, Nancy Spector’s catalog for the Guggenheim Museum’s 2003 Cremaster exhibition is the definitive source; I depended on it for much of my own information on the meaning of the imagery. Unfortunately, it’s out of print and collectible; try your library or interlibrary loan. In addition, quotes from Matthew Barney included here come from the video “The Body as Matrix: Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle” by Maria Anna Tappeiner. A.D.

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