Posted on: 17 June 2010
What to do with Matthew Barney? Seven years after the completion of his sprawling multimedia project, The Cremaster Cycle, Barney remains a divisive figure—or probably not so much divisive as largely dismissed. The art crowd widely sniffs at his Hugo Boss-sponsored blockbuster exhibitions and apparent middlebrow movie-mogul pretensions; film people express indignation at the idea that some kind of self-proclaimed “artiste” should even have the audacity to consider himself a filmmaker.
Of course, part of the confusion arises from the fact that Barney does not quite make films. Though it’s often exhibited in rather quaint theatrical tours, even in video-to-35mm transfers, his Cycle is comprised of five globe-spanning video works, each with its accompanying sculpture, photography, and assorted knickknacks, and little regard to narrative, dialogue, or dramatic craft. In spite of its movie-franchise veneer – with sequels and logos and international location-shoots and Goodyear and Chrysler product-placements – Cremaster is about as remote from American commercial cinema as it is possible to be, though it so often borrows from the megalithic mythology of Hollywood.
But while many resent the often crass grandeur of Barney’s project – to say nothing of his square jaw and his status as Mr. Björk – his business-model itself is always part of the show, an inextricable function of and commentary upon the work itself. Cremaster is in every way the Star Wars of the art world – and knowingly so – with a ubiquitous brand that generates all kinds of swag, from factory-honed sculptures and play-sets to portrait photographs and sketches, each in something called a “self-lubricating plastic frame,” the pre-sales and proceeds from which financing each subsequent sequel. In this way, Barney’s is an internalization of the 1990s art-world’s quasi-corporate largesse that’s as self-conscious and dead-serious as Warhol’s own internalization of the expansive emptiness of advertising and commercial culture. And this is only driven home by Barney’s shrewd and perverse distribution scheme. You won’t find Cremaster on Blu-ray any time soon: exhibition is limited to galleries and select art-house theaters, and DVDs are (or rather, were) available only in numbered and ultra-exclusive “collector’s editions.” And if you’d like copies of the original tie-in books for each film, Amazon Marketplace currently has a complete set for $4,600 (plus $3.99 for shipping).
This seemingly patrician distribution model means that only way to see The Cremaster Cycle is if it comes to a theater (or gallery) near you—which in turn means that most people will simply download a torrent of it. And while such nefarious piracy seems to puncture Barney’s careful calculus of the collector’s market, it also strangely moves his work closer to its roots in the relatively humble, if revenant practice of video art. In most circles, this sphere still has only the most shadowy of profiles, mainly comprising the often irritating and blandly shot videography of performance art and the amorphous chaos of the dangerously unmonetizable YouTube. But Barney is nonetheless its haughty cousin, oddly at home in the internet’s easy traffic of information, a landscape of conspiracy theorists and know-it-alls, where football and freemasonry meet square-dancing and Harry Houdini, and all the data is streamable.
For all its cinematic bombast and periodic rollouts in actual movie theaters, Barney’s aesthetic is a digital one, which along with plenty of funky latex gore and prostheses, makes particular use of computer animation and compositing (especially in the wonderfully plastic and portentous title sequences). Jonathan Bepler’s scores, which form the fluid sound design of four of the five entries, provide rich and maddening counterpoint to the action with increasingly complex use of digital sound-editing technology, often sustaining mood and attention when Barney’s visuals become repetitive. This is to say that, The Cremaster Cycle is as fixated on the digital in its cinematic sensibility as it is on the ooze and crinkle of the materials – vinyl and Astroturf, salt and honey, cement and steel, rubber and tapioca, glass and leather, and always petroleum jelly – that make up its glorious, absurd fetish-sculptures.
But how, then, to account for those critics who routinely say that Barney’s works have no eye for cinema? Criticisms of the Cycle usually single out Barney’s editing, which displays video art’s preference for functionality and adopts a distinctive, if puzzling strategy of montage that has little to do with narrative or chronology—all tension and no tense, in a curiously atemporal present. And, sure, the Cycle seems idiosyncratic in this regard, but it is still well within the bounds of what we call cinema. The cinematography (lensed by the otherwise underemployed Peter Strietmann) and staging have as much in common with the totalizing symmetry of Riefenstahl, Busby Berkeley, and Stanley Kubrick as they do with the videography of performance art, and his stylistic pathologies neatly align with those of many narrative filmmakers (Cronenberg, Jodorowsky, and Powell & Pressburger) as well as a number of prominent avant-gardists (Warhol, Jack Smith, and Kenneth Anger). Even the performances, often the most indigestible aspects of Barney’s films, are easily comparable to a style of affectless modernist performance (think Bresson or Dreyer)—though it may be simpler to say that Barney isn’t particularly interested in the movies’ dramatic function. As Barney himself – in his characteristically cryptic manner – partly explains,
These characters are conceived to evoke the notion of arresting character development at the point just before it really defines itself. I write them that way to free them from having to deal with issues of gender, biology, destiny and mortality. It’s about freedom, I suppose, but I’m hesitant to say it’s about freedom from biology or any other condition, because it’s simpler than that. It’s about freedom in general.1
Barney favors performances that resemble operations, that complete arcane tasks or physical challenges that themselves reveal character. While this sometimes strikes critics and audiences as leaden and self-absorbed, at its best it comes off as deadpan and refreshingly kitsch-free. With Barney’s interest in bodybuilding, car culture, Vince Lombardi, and The Shining, not to mention his flair for high heels and whatever the male version of “vajazzling” might be, the Cycle might easily have become a more medically knowledgeable version of John Waters. And, at times, when Barney is not mesmerizing us with his maddening symmetries and Fortean arcana, and Bepler’s face-melting drone cycles, he’s often plainly camping up a storm. After all, Cremaster is nearly seven hours of obtuse pageantry devoted to the artist’s own genitals.
Indeed, very few critics on the art or the film worlds give Barney sufficient credit for his sense of humor: the satyr’s goofy tapdancing in 4, the barman’s Guinness-gushing pratfalls in 3, and Gary Gilmore’s hilariously tiny prosthetic penis in 2. And it should be noted that with each successive episode – made out of order, beginning with Cremaster 4 in 1994 and concluding with 3 in 2002 – his interest or facility with more conventional cinematic genres increases, culminating in the truly creepy murder psalm of 2 and the through-the-looking-glass 3,the Cycle’s centerpiece. These films, especially 3, play with genres from horror to vaudeville, western to sports movie. All of these tropes and iconographies play out – sometimes elegantly, at other times ridiculously – within Barney’s uniquely airless and deliberate atmosphere, an operating theater of the absurd.
Introduction by Leo Goldsmith
The primary narrative of Cremaster 1 is more or less dispatched through a single character, named “Goodyear” in the final credits. She is dressed in silk lingerie, which matches her platinum hairdo precisely, and we first see her in one of two Goodyear blimps hovering above a football stadium. She’s curled up underneath a white table in either blimp, which is also inhabited by four hostesses—brunettes, and dressed neatly in grey suits and hats. Atop each table is a sculpture, which abstractly resembles the female reproductive system, surrounded by bundles of grapes, either red or green to denote which of the two blimps a given sequence takes place in.
Goodyear is unseen by the hostesses, but she will cut a hole into the tabletop in order to collect grapes. These are passed through her body, out of a spigot on her right foot, and assemble on the floor in precise shapes: a circle, for example, or barbell. These shapes correspond with what’s happening on the sharply blue football field below: set to an orchestral composition of a Busby Berkeley persuasion, dozens of dancers choreograph the arrangement of the grapes that Goodyear has prescribed. All the while, the hostesses observe the actions beneath them, and Goodyear passes spectrally between both blimps and the field below, where she’s ultimately seen escorting a pair of miniature blimps around the perimeter of the field.
The film’s compositions are rendered with meticulous respect to symmetry, color, and mise en scène—as the view draws out of one of the blimps and onto the field below, for example, the shot sequence is edited in such a manner that the movement feels fluid and uninterrupted, each shot dissolving or fading into the next. There is also consideration given to how each scenario is scored: the blimps are largely silent, save for when the compositions center on Goodyear, cramped underneath the table in either one, in which the sound is comprised of a simple glockenspiel melody. On the field below, there is more classical orchestration.
The film has no dialogue, and yet it remains clearly, if abstractly communicative. It is replete with symbols, each contrived with some potency, and these are presented in such a way that they recall Jodorowskian tableaux. The football and the fashion accord a certain polarity – the beautiful and expertly fashioned women populate a fundamentally masculine context – but although the film clearly encourages interpretation, its various symbols and ciphers are appreciable for their aesthetics alone.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you at last,” we hear, in a rare instance of dialogue in a Cremaster film. 2 will contain other instances of spoken dialogue, chiefly in its finale, prefacing it as a potential entry point into the series proper. Despite its occasional affordances of comprehension (this dialogue will ultimately prove as clear as its symbolism), it remains a varied, tonally fluctuating film that includes, for measure, cowboys, glaciers, bees, sexual penetration, and the death metal band Morbid Angel.
2 also possesses the first indirect allusion to the series’ namesake, the cremaster muscle, which controls the height of the scrotum and testicles in order to facilitate pregnancy: among a cluster of bees a pair of bodies is locked in intercourse, at the end of which the male figure disengages and ejaculates a single bee from a hive-shaped phallus. Each film in the Cremaster series is concerned, however abstractly, with the processes and physicality of sexual differentiation and reproduction. Only this is an instance in which this concept is unfettered by metaphor. The bees will overwhelm the aural ambience for the ensuing minutes, which find a metal drummer and singer (the latter’s face is covered in bees) communicating via phone to a soon-to-be killer (played by Barney himself) supine in the cocoon-like interiors of two conjoined Ford Mustangs.2
This killer is unmoving the first time he’s seen, and the following moments may amount to his birth: he changes into jeans, exits his car, and shoots the sole gas station attendant squarely in the head. Outside the window is a view of the Goodyear logo (a reference to Cremaster 1). The killer is named Gary Gilmore in the credits, an allusion to the man of the same name who, in 1976, murdered a gas station employee in Orem, Utah. Gilmore’s rather bathetic two-day killing spree and subsequent incarceration and execution form the subject matter of Norman Mailer’s book The Executioner’s Song, and Mailer himself appears as Harry Houdini, trapped in a plastic beehive by Canadian Mounties.
From the dark, neon-lit landscape of a solitary gas station, the scene travels west to the Bonneville Salt Flats, complemented in Barney’s signature tendency for mirroring landscapes. In a salt-constructed arena, Gilmore’s execution is restaged as a bullride to the death, choreographed by a collection of horseback riders and bison in geometric shapes that reiterate the pill-shaped Cremaster icon. This is but one of the film’s array of elaborate set pieces—most all of them melds of organic landscape, sculpture, and incongruously added characters. My difficulty in interpreting the overall scheme notwithstanding, it is these sets that complement Barney’s work with some level of interpretation. They are filmed objets d’art, and regardless of whether or not they house a central action in the film – a death, a birth, spoken or sung dialogue – the camera pivots within and around them serenely, much in the same way as an audience would a sculpture, replicating the process by which art is observed.
The central and most ambitious entry in The Cremaster Cycle, and indeed the longest (it’s three hours long, with an intermission) and last to be made, Cremaster 3 is also the fulcrum of the cycle’s antagonistic energies. Gary Gilmore’s violent masculine onanism and frustration in 2 serve as a prelude to 3’s power struggle, and here it is staged in a variety of formats: as a mythic battle between giants and dwarves, as a crypto-Masonic clash between Master Builders and Apprentices, and as a video-game competition for art-world supremacy set in the Guggenheim Museum.
But lest we should think that Matthew Barney is entirely humorless and self-regarding, the first sounds we hear in Cremaster 3 are of ridiculous Irish babble-wailing. A diminutive Fionn mac Cumhaill lounges placidly in the tall grass somewhere along the Irish Sea, while the menacing giant Fingal, emerging from his wavebound Cave, taps his golden forefinger on a slate-grey pill-shaped object holstered near his groin. This first conflict is explicitly portrayed as antagonism toward the artist: Fionn and Oonagh’s quiet sanctum, in which they weave tartans and sculpt with petroleum jelly – surely Barney’s idyll of work and domesticity – is menaced by the thunderous, sheep-eating Fingal.
This conflict will be resolved at the end of the film, but for now Barney shifts our attention to New York in the 1920s and the Chrylser Building, still under construction (or, if you prefer, erection). Here, a hideous blue, black, green female corpse emerges from a dirt pile and is carried to the lovely Art Deco lobby of the Chrysler Building (recreated on a soundstage by Barney’s company, of course). Here, pallbearers her corpse inside of an early-1950s black Imperial, which is then crushed into a coffin by a quintet of 1967 models of the same car in a lengthy demolition derby. This operation, staged throughout the first half of the film, then initiates a series of seemingly parallel actions for Barney and double-amputee athlete Aimee Mullins. The former scales an elevator shaft, gets his teeth – quite literally – knocked in, undergoes some kind of horrific rectal prolapse surgery, and finally runs the aforementioned obstacle course in the Guggenheim; the latter carves potatoes with an intricate contraption hooked to her prosthetic foot, and later appears as a vampiric princess with clear-plastic legs who metamorphoses into a feral leopard woman slithering on a museum pillar.
The museum sequence, known as “The Order,” is the only part of the Cycle to have been released on DVD and is a formidable set-piece: Murphy’s Law and Agnostic Front engage in a kind of battle of the Irish punk bands, Richard Serra recreates his molten lead-tossing early work with hot, liquified petroleum jelly, and the Rockettes and some Busby Berkeleyesque, sequin-swimcapped waternymphs as dual embodiments of Kracauer’s notion of the “mass ornament.” This overt eclecticism makes for an unusually giddy sequence, certainly one of the boldest and most hilarious scene in the whole cycle, with Barney running about in a hot-pink kilt and fuzzy Grenadier’s bonnet with a bloody hanky in his mouth. (It’s also a credit to the remarkable work of composer Jonathan Bepler that he is able to follow Barney’s whims with a truly eclectic score and sound design that begins with coy, Irish tomfoolery, metamorphoses into a screaming wall of e-bows and theremins, mellows into a breathy aria for harp and wind-tunnel, canters into avant-dixieland, and winds up in the blips and beeps of vintage video-game music.) But “The Order” also finds the artist at his most random, and the fact that the Guggenheim soon became the venue for the exhibition of the complete cycle smacks of a winking art-world insiderism that’s excessive even for Barney. (That Cremaster 3 is also structured around a hypermasculine face-off between Barney and Serra, archetypes of the macho, white, American artist, may be all the more galling for some audiences.)
Far more effective is the intense central, intermission-bridging sequence in which Barney’s Entered Apprentice is, well, entered. Following a zombie horserace at the Saratoga Racetrack – yet another tip of the cap to the sort of supernatural and body-morphing horror films of which Barney is so fond – scrappy thugs bust in the Apprentice’s teeth with a metal bit and porcelain rod, in crunchy close-up. They then return him to the Chrysler Building where Serra subjects him – in a weird nod to Marathon Man – to some grisly plastic-and-metal dentistry that forces his large intestine to come out of his anus and to emit a pink fluid containing several pearly incisors. Here, the obsessively reiterated iconography of the Chrysler Building – figured both upright and upside down in the 3’s iconic miniuniverse – becomes a fairly clear phallic symbol, its spire ornately adorned with ribbons like some gargantuan corporate fetish object. Where better to stage a parable about the antagonistic relationships of art and commerce?
The first entry of the Cycle that Barney made, Cremaster 4 is also probably the slightest, though its literal and figurative brightness, its whimsical tone, and its coy collection of icons and materials do much to frame Cremaster as a whole. For one thing, in spite of the cagey, “serious artist” persona Barney often effects in public, it is hard not to see Cremaster 4 as the work of a slightly puerile trickster, especially in its combination of a now-quite low-res video format with gender-based button-pushing and a schoolboy’s fascination with gear.
Here, the setting is the Isle of Man – a mere stone’s throw from the final setting of Cremaster 3 – and the principal characters in 4 are few: there is Barney as the Loughton Candidate, an orange-haired, clipped-horned, tap-dancing satyr with a sly grin and an arched eyebrow; two motorcycle sidecar teams – one yellow, one blue – who race each other around the island in opposite directions; and a trio of fairy-like, makeup-pancaked female bodybuilders, also orange-haired, who perform what seem to be obscure pranks on the other characters and giggle about it.
The vertiginous shots of this threesome lolling on a blanket beside a cliff – along with the general overuse of a fisheye lens – sets the tone for a much more off-kilter visual style than the other entries. The action throughout is borderline antic: the Loughton Candidate aggressively tap-dances his way through the floor of the Queen’s Pier and drops into the water below where, after some nonchalant wandering around, he finds an amorphous tubule to convey him – through much petroleum jelly and tapioca – back to the surface. (It’s interesting to note that Barney also makes very brief and almost corny use of stop-motion animation here, to suggest the Candidate’s burrowing underneath the sand. It’s a very campy touch, and one that he wouldn’t replicate elsewhere in the Cycle.) Meanwhile, gelatinous gonads migrate about the uniforms of the motorcycle riders, and the fairy-bodybuilders position a Loughton Ram (a uniquely Manx breed) at the race’s finish line.
This action is achieved rather anti-climactically, but Barney concludes with a rousing finale: an obscure and gooey procedure in which multicolored threads are braided through the flesh of a very tight scrotum and then affixed to each of the motorcycles. And indeed, there is a certain poetry to the fact that this rather goofy 40-minute short video work should initiate a whole multiverse of associations and abstractions with this image of a very physical sort of suspense.
Structured as a multi-part opera, Cremaster 5 concerns The Queen of Chain. She is cloaked in black garb, and flanked by two Asian assistants (in red) and fluffy Jacobin pigeons. She is in a large, ornate, and vacant opera house, and sings the film’s narrative in Hungarian verse to an audience of only the orchestra – accompanying her voice with music – and a single other character, named The Queen’s Diva, who’s climbing about the perimeter of the stage’s proscenium arch.
The Queen’s lyrics presumably clarify the ensuing actions in the film—for the purpose of this writing, and since I know no Hungarian, my response is uninformed by the story she describes. But this much is deducible: the Queen expresses either great regret or sorrow, and during the hallmarks of the opera we are greeted with images of either the Magician, perched precariously on the lip of the Széchenyi Chain Bridge in Budapest, or the Giant, an undressed, ivory-skinned man with a grotesque, porcine countenance, gills, and a mustache. The Giant is seen entering Gellért Thermal Baths, also in Budapest, to his waist, at which point sprites – four aquatic women, also with amphibian-like features – adhere the aforementioned pigeons to his deformed genitalia via ribbons.
The meaning of these actions remains abstrusely related to the descent of the testicles before birth, but whatever their symbolic value, they produce vivid, ecstatic images, and Barney’s preoccupation with symmetry is clearly at play here. I find it curiously of note, however, how well he chronologies and stages actions according to a specific space and time—the actions in the opera house are in conjunction to those in the bathhouse and on the bridge. But although Barney’s use of parallel montage clearly associates the different locations, it doesn’t sufficiently clarify any relationship between them. The abstruseness remains, but everything combines into a comprehensible, spacial whole.