The Series Project: The Cremaster Cycle
Film essay by: Witney Seibold
Ah yes. Matthew Barney‘s epic Cremaster Cycle. Part artistic powerhouse, part surrealist tour-de-force, part impenetrable mindgame, and often considered Barney’s own self-indulgent, pretentious ego trip, The Cremaster Cycle is, it cannot be denied, a unique force in the world of art and a notable footnote in the world of cinema. I can’t say that I am yet an astute enough critic to unlock or decipher all of the high-minded mythologies and oblique images that Barney poured into his five-film cycle, but I have done some reading on the subject, is I feel I can act as a relatively informed guide through these rare oddities.
First off, a warning: The Cremaster Cycle demands a colossal amount of patience from the viewer. The first two chapters (4 and 1) are 40 minutes apiece. The third (5) is 55 minutes. The fourth (2) is 80 minutes, and the fifth (3), the magnum opus of the series, is a whopping 182 minutes, and usually runs with an intermission. There is nearly no dialogue at all in any of these films, and long stretches of slow-moving cameras panning over large, glittering vistas of complete inaction. While Barney does seem to have a handle of actual pacing, making the surreal films surprisingly cinematic, he doesn’t bother to give any direct connection between certain images, unless you have the patience to see all five parts, and only then will connections begin to emerge. Sit through them all, and you may feel rewarded.
Here’s the rundown, such as it is:
The Cremaster Cycle was originally a series of sculptures that were displayed in The Guggenheim museum in New York City. Each turn of the museum presented another level of the cycle. With each layer, Barney made a film to match, which would only be viewable in the museum. These films rarely get theatrical runs, and, Barney has stated categorically, that they will never be available in any form of home video, although you can purchase a 20-minute portion of “Cremaster 3” on DVD. If you’ve seen any of these films on video or online, you have seen a pirated version.
The cremaster muscle is the muscle in the male body that controls the ascent and the descent of the testicles. It’s also, I read, a muscle that develops in conjunction with the gonads in a human fetus, and will ultimately be the physical catalyst as to whether the gonads will drop, making the fetus a male, or ascend, making the fetus a female. Barney uses the muscle as a grand metaphor for artistic potential. If you must, add your own masturbation joke here. The five levels of the Cycle range from 1, fully feminine, to 5, fully masculine. 3, the final part, is the state in the middle, when all is potential.
Despite being about the rift between femininity and masculinity, Barney only carries this metaphor through the first three parts of his cycle (there’s a lot of gonad-heavy imagery), choosing to abandon a lot of it in the final two parts in favor of Irish myths, heavy metal, serial killers, and oblique Masonic rites. Also, the images in all the parts, with the exception of “Cremaster 1,” are all very male images, and come from a very male place. Perhaps I will make this clearer along the line.
Barney’s preferred sculpting medium is refrigerated petroleum jelly, and we will see gallons of the stuff throughout these films. It does have a neat look: kind of milky, ever so slightly off-white, and ever so slight translucent.
“Cremaster 4” (1995)
Barney plays a red-haired satyr in a white tuxedo who tap dances in a small shack on the end of a pier. The more he dances, the more the floor wears away. Some androgynous pixies put weights in his pockets. Simultaneously the same pixies seem to be having a picnic on The Isle of Man. Also simultaneously, a pair of motorcycles (one yellow, one blue, both with sidecars) race in opposite directions around the island. While the racers race, we see their gonads escape through openings in their leather suits, and creep either up their body, or down off of their motorcycles. There is a tire with testicles. The satyr eventually tap dances through the floor into the ocean below, finds an underwater hatch, and lands in a birth-canal like tunnel full of Vaseline. The film’s final image is a real-life scrotum in a sea of Vaseline being unthreaded. You heard me.
As the shortest of the films, this is a easy art film to take, and, as I said, Barney knows how to pace it. He also uses such striking images (satyrs, pixies, ever-escalating motorcycle racing), that you feel drawn in, and start to enjoy it all.
This is the most testicle heavy film of the series, and I’m astonished at my use of the phrase “testicle heavy.” Barney was clearly setting out to make a complex sexual metaphor, and nowhere else is it stronger than in this film. I can see how speed and a race may relate to sexual development, and I can see how a satyr would come into play (they are known for being sexual beings), and I can see how the androgynous pixies might play a role. The images come together in the intellect, although their natural connections may still seem oblique to the casual observer. I’m still not sure how the Isle of Man setting comes into play, and we’ll see more Isle of Man stuff in “Cremaster 3.” Most importantly, though, the images seem to flow into one another in a natural way. You’ll be baffled by the images, but they all seem to be coming from the same level of Barney’s mind; he clearly has a plan of some kind.
“Cremaster 4” was shot on low-quality digital cameras, and looks a little odd, but it still intriguing and striking.
“Cremaster 1” (1996)
At the most fully feminine position, this film features all women, sculptures of ovaries, and a gentle musical score. It seems strangely happy. Shooting on a football field in Boise, ID, Barney stages a Busby Berkeley-style floorshow, arranging dancers in elaborate hoop skirts into elementary flower patterns.
There are two twin Goodyear Blimps hovering above the field. Inside the blimps are matching rooms with matching tables and matching Vaseline sculptures of ovaries, fallopian tubs, and uteri. The tables are both surrounded by bored looking women in flight attendant outfits that teeter somewhere between the classical and the fetishistic. Underneath each table is a woman (Marti Domination) wearing complex white undergarments. This seems to be a theme with The Cremaster Cycle: despite being a sexual metaphor, there’s little in the way of actual sex or nudity. I guess Barney’s libido only allows for a very mannered version of sex. The only difference between the two blimps is that one has a table full of red grapes. The other, green grapes.
The woman under the table, credited as “Goodyear,” discreetly pulls grapes from on top of the table, which causes them to fall magically from a bell on the bottom of her shoe. The falling grapes form patterns on the floor, like circles and flowers. On the field below, the hoop-skirted women form however the grapes have fallen.
I suppose this is either a comment on the camaraderie of women, or perhaps juts a general comment on the power women have over their surroundings. There is little in the way of build-up, however, and the film repeats all of its actions until you find yourself in a trance-like state, made all the more soporific by the charming old standard playing tinkily on the soundtrack. Still, at a mere 40 minutes, it’s utterly bearable.
“Cremaster 5” (1997)
This is the first more professional-looking film in the series, and far more ambitious than the previous two. Shot on location at the Budapest Opera House, and featuring the Budapest Opera, not to mention the series’ only legit movie star, Ursula Andress from “She” and the 1966 “Casino Royale,” “Cremaster 5” is an opera in an of itself, featuring a strangely hypnotic and musically bold score by Jonathan Bepler. It’s a beautiful chapter, and features some of the most lush photography of any film. It’s unfortunate, then, that the film seems to be the most pathetic of the series, as it all seems to be a self-pitying metaphor for losing your erection. Or, as a friend succinctly put it, “That must be how you feel after you jizz.”
The Queen of Chain (Andress) arrives at the Budapest Opera House to see a show. She is the only on in the audience. She is perched on a fleshy mound by twin usherettes (Joanne and Susan Rha). She sings the opera herself. The lyrics are all in Hungarian. On the stage, a figure (Barney) makes an arduous climb up and around the stage’s proscenium. Through holes in the fleshy mound, the Queen can see another figure (also Barney) wading into a pool of cheery water nymphs. The nymphs, it must be noted, look almost exactly like Sea Monkeys: pink-skinned with antennae, frolicking merrily under the water. The figure below has no penis, but a pair of testes, and the nymphs tie ribbons to them. There are a lot of ribbons in this series. A lot of ribbons.
The ribbons are attached to tufted pigeons, who try to fly away, but are helplessly tethered.
Simultaneously, The Queen seems to be having flashbacks to the time spent with a half-naked lover (also Barney), who is now locked in Houdini-like manacles, and is perched to fall off of a bridge. He eventually falls.
This is a deeply-colored and gorgeous film. The music is heartrending, and the performance and music is all first rate. Again, it’s really a pity that it all seems to be the most groveling boner metaphor. It plays like either an extended apology to the woman he couldn’t get it up for, or a paranoid loss-of-potency litany. The woman is peerless, perfect, Her sexuality is mannered and clean and operatic. She is, almost literally, put on a pedestal. The man’s potency, conversely, is ephemeral, sad, weak. Oh how can a weak penis like mine stand in the light of your glorious vagina?
A further clue, Barney’s mustache seems to have labia-like folds. His legs most definitely resemble vaginas.
“Cremaster 2” (1999)
We’ve now left the sexual metaphors behind us in favor of a film that nearly resembles a legit drama, and relates closely to recent American history: The more you know about the Mormon Church, and the notorious Utah murderer Gary Gilmore, the more comfortable you’ll be with “Cremaster 2.”
In an introduction we see Harry Houdini (Norman Mailer, of all people) being locked in a box. We also see Gary Gilmore’s parents (Lauren Pine and Scott Ewalt) visiting a creepy psychic, Baby Fay la Foe (Anonymous) who reads fortunes by sitting at a table that looks suspiciously like a pelvic table. Baby Fay seems to implant the parents with some sort of evil, represented by bees. We even see them having sex, and a bee escaping from Frank Gilmore’s penis. Their bodies, though, are not depicted erotically; the sex act being diminished to a mechanical representation of sex.
Here’s the rundown on Gilmore: He was a killer in Utah in the late 1970s. He was notorious for several things including a) perhaps talking to Johnny Cash just before his killings, b) writing songs and poetry for his would-be lover Nicole Baker, c) demanding the death penalty for himself at his trial, d) becoming the subject of Norman Mailer’s book The Executioner’s Song.
We fast-forward to the mythical call Gary Gilmore once received from Johnny Cash. Johnny Cash, though, is actually a faceless heavy metal musician, singing growly songs over the phone with thousands of honeybees buzzing in the background. We see Gilmore kill a gas station attendant. Then we see a cardboard model of a Mormon church for a long time. Then we see a lot of interminable aerial photography. Then we see Baby Fay confront Houdini, and they have a cryptic conversation about the nature of escape and transformation. Hearing dialogue after so much silence is kind of jarring. Gilmore’s execution is represented by a bull riding rodeo.
This is the most gorgeous film of the series so far, and the music is amazing. The images are easily interpreted… perhaps… and the history if Gilmore is oddly accurate. What’s more, Bepler bothered to make ballads of Gilmore and Baker’s old songs; yes, the songs were written by a notorious murderer. The only problems with “Cremaster 2” arise when Barney clearly becomes a little too enamored of the aerial photography. Nearly a fifth of the film is devoted to long slow shots of Canadian mountain ranges, lakes and glaciers. The pacing become, well, glacial in itself. The opening scenes of the Gilmores at Baby Fay’s antiseptic parlor are really great, though.
A note about the nature of the images. Barney’s worlds are, to reuse a word, antiseptic. Many surrealists tend to allow their surreal images flow directly from a very organic place; the idea behind a lot of surrealist art is to allow the connection to flow, unfettered from your mind. See “Eraserhead,” or read the works of Andre Breton for the full effect. The result is usually a messy amalgam of fears, obsessions, and organic drives.
Barney’s version of surrealism is of the opposite variety, being pointedly inorganic. Everything seems constructed, artificial, deliberate. It can be frustrating. In something like “Eraserhead” or Mad Love, one may not be able to sort out the images, but one can easily be swept up in the abstract emotions being presented. “Eraserhead” makes no realistic sense, but leaves one feeling queasy and fearful. Mad Love makes no logical sense either, but we get an almost Proustian memory game of a love lost. Barney’s works don’t seem to make any kind of direct sense, but he’s not giving us any emotional gateway. Barney’s gateways are all intellectual, and benefit with extra study, extra interpretation, extra discussion, extra – and I’m sorry to use the word – pretense. These films are the very definition of pretentious. They don’t have the earthy, feminine, emotional angle one might need to enjoy them, and opt for an Apollonian, masculine, brainy approach.
And all of this comes to a head in the epic…
“Cremaster 3” (2002)
Three and a half hours long, including the intermission, this is the series’ single masterwork, and if you must see a single chapter, see this one, as it is the most baffling, the most beautiful, and the most clear-headed of the series. Letsee if I can sum it up sufficiently.
On an ancient island, a dwarf, Finn McCool (The Mighty Biggs) and a giant, Fionn MacCumhail (Peter D. Badalamenti) prepare for some kind of confrontation. In the basement of the Chrysler Building, Gary Gilmore’s corpse (Kesrin Karanouh) is resurrected and put in the backseat of a 1947 Chrysler. Several Chryslers engage in a demolition derby in the building’s lobby. The Entered Apprentice (Barney), in an recreation of some obscure Masonic rite, begins climbing the interior of the building. An architect Hiram Abiff (architect Richard Serra) waits for him at the top of the building, and builds metal spirals. There is a scene in which a harp is constructed out of an elevator and some piano wire, and an elevator attendant sings a song in Gaelic. A mysterious legless woman (model and athlete Aimee Mullins) makes a sculpture out of potatoes. A comic bartender attempts to pour drinks, but accidentally begins to destroy his bar. It’s a rather funny sequence.
The remnants of the Chrysler downstairs is brought to Barney, and his teeth are knocked out. He digests them, and they form into a white rod. There is a zombie horse race, and mysterious mob types lurking about.
Then there’s the 20-minute portion available in DVD, subtitled “The Order.” In in, Barney recreates, briefly, the entire Cycle anew. He wears a pink caftan, and climbs in interior of the Guggenheim, while doing video-game style battle with the real-life Rockettes, the bands Murphy’s Law and Agnostic Front, a sexy cheetah woman (Mullins), a caber toss, and a man in black flinging Vaseline. This is the quickest moving part of any of the films, and is jaunty and bizarre and even kind of fun. The music even changes tone from second to second, giving one a delightfully off-balance feeling. However, those used to the deliberate, classy images of the earlier films might find “The Order” a bit immature.
Eventually Barney makes it to the peak of the Chrysler building, where he dies by getting impaled through the head by the building’s needle. Then there’s an epilogue back with Finn and Fionn, and how the giant threw a stone into the ocean after being duped by the dwarf. That stone, it is said in legends, is the Isle of Man, bringing the series full circle.
Despite its obliqueness, it’s hard to hate “Cremaster 3.” You may not understand the images, but their beauty carry them along way. Plus, as the series progressed, Barney seemed to improve as a filmmaker, so “Cremaster 3” has a strong cinematic quality that even a lot of Hollywood blockbusters lack. What’s more, the epic soundtrack by Jonathan Bepler is amazing. If you can track down the soundtrack, I encourage you to buy it.
Pretentious like crazy, and oddly addictive, I have to say, I kind of love the Cremaster Cycle. While they may be antiseptic and inorganic, I find their epic exploration of the human mind through such disparate sources to be one of the pinnacles of cinematic ambition. It’s rare that an artists has the time, the thought, and the resources to put together a project so large and so personal. Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” looks like a quaint children’s novel in comparison to the endless ambition of Barney’s Cycle.
What’s more, the images are so striking, the sculptures so impressive, the shock so palpable, that it’s hard to not, occasionally, feel caught up in it all. You may feel like you’re being jerked around by a sex-obsessed young artiste with an overinflated view of his genitals, with too much time and grant money to burn. You may feel like the art world is being cracked open, and that the image-staved universe is finally getting something new; Werner Herzog once said that we’ve been creating them for so long, that the human race is running out of new images. The Cremaster Cycle finally brings something new to the table.
Me? As you may guess, I feel somewhere in between the two poles. I can see an ego at work, but I can’t deny the power and originality of the images.
If they come through your town, you may want to catch them. If you have little patience,. See “Cremaster 3.” It’ll certainly give you something to talk about.