The Cremaster Cycle (1995 - 2002)
“I’ve never seen the films the way you’re going to be seeing them tonight. So good luck to you.”
– Matthew Barney, TIFF Bell Lightbox, June 7, 2014.
The Cremaster Cycle is a collection of five films of various lengths. It takes its name from the cremaster muscle found fully developed in males (and found in a different form in females), that raises and lowers the testes in its response to temperature. Honestly, the title alone is but a tiny allusion to the overall framework of these works.
Art house fans of the films covet rare marathon screenings of the pentalogy (much like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings fans). Although the amount of metaphors and symbolism can be overwhelmingly complex to navigate, visually the films are gorgeous at the rendering. However, The Cremaster Cycle isn’t a mishmash of obscure references. There’s a method to madness and in it the true potentiality of experimental film is displayed.
Luis Buñuel and artist Salvador Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou (much critically referred to when talking about the Cycle), the artists attempted to bring a type of surrealist psychoanalysis to film. In The Cremaster Cycle, Matthew Barney brings a collection of various things: the execution story of Gary Gilmore; the biological and mental struggle with gender and gender-ness; his personal and humanity’s evolution/history in a variety of levels; love and human connections; and well, I could go on. Barney places a strong emphasis on the biological as a driving force that connects us all (ie. for many scenes in the film, mucus and blood are a thread between different representations and views). Vaseline is also a preferred method of sculpture for him and can be a standing trope for the lubricant that heals, binds, and becomes a part of a person when it’s used.
The Cremaster Cycle isn’t a mishmash of obscure references. There’s a method to madness and in it the true potentiality of experimental film is displayed.
Cremaster 1 is set up as a musical review in the Astroturf of Bronco Stadium, (a place where Barney played football as a kid). Two Goodyear blimps hover over the stadium as chorus girls dresses like embryonic eggs dance to an orchestral theme. In each blimp, a table is set with purple grapes in one and green grapes in the other. A Vaseline centerpiece shaped like the reproductive system stands in the middle while a white tablecloth hides a woman credited as Goodyear. She is dressed in white lingerie and clear Manolo Blanhik high heels. Also, in each blimp, four hostesses sit and watch the chorus girls below.
The scenes are symbolic of the cell divisions that occur as a fetus develops. It’s fascinating stuff to think about, but I was taken in more by the stylistic way the women moved and the calculated gestures each took in their very obsessive compulsive environment.
Cremaster 2 is where we are introduced to the character of Gary Gilmore. Gilmore became famous in the 70s for being the first person executed in the United States in ten years. It sparked a lot of debate and fascination for society in those days, and continues to affect society in its notoriety (Nike’s slogan of “Just Do It” is said to be in reference to Gilmore’s last words, “Let’s do it.”). The characters all have some connection to Gilmore: Baby Fay La Foe was Gilmore’s grandmother and claimed to have had an affair with Harry Houdini (played by Norman Mailer here), Gilmore’s parents; and Gilmore himself played by Barney. Beyond the circumstances to Gilmore, associations are made to Mormonism (Barney comes from a Mormon upbringing); bees represent the hierarchy of the religion; and even one of Canada as the origin of the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, where some of the landscape of the film is placed.
The power of this film lies in the atmospheric transfers between scenes. The pace is slow and the lens almost melodic in its complimentary dance. There’s an erotic interplay between the objects and character in this film that captures the senses, but the most striking of all is the soundtrack that follows it all. One scene in particular caught me: Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo thrashes at his kit while a giant hive of bees swarm in the other room. In the room just ahead, Steve Tucker, drones on into a phone in ominous death metal fashion as bees cover him. You don’t need a plot or a reason to watch this part. Scary and arousing the scene carried me throughout this film.
There’s an erotic interplay between the objects and character in this film that captures the senses, but the most striking of all is the soundtrack that follows it all.
Cremaster 3 is by far my favourite of the films and also the longest at three hours. It also has the biggest budget of the five and was the last one of them made. From miraculous views/conceptual sets of the Chrysler building and actual settings in the Guggenheim, you almost wonder if Barney chose these locations just for the opportunity to scale them.
The “plot” concerns itself with ascension of order starting with the reincarnation of Gary Gilmore as a decaying woman. Scenes in this film are rife with symbolism and heavily embellished with filigree. Anyone who’s ever visited the Chrysler Building would understand the attention to detail shown here. Scenes develop almost randomly, but connect somehow: vintage Chrysler cars from the sixties demolish an even older one, an Imperial, from the thirties; a battle and judgment within Freemasonry; an apprentice must pass several tests before scaling to redemption; and a slapstick routine develops within the old Chrysler Cloud Club interior. It all starts off and ends of with an old Irish mythology that is both surreal and borderline comical. Overall, while the film can be disjointed in many parts, it’s incredibly beautiful to watch. Brilliant in its color and clearly lush in its portrayal, Barney’s dreamscape is a pleasure to behold.
Cremaster 4 was the first and probably my least favorite of the five, although it is the most recognizable one. Set in the Isle of Man, the film’s central character is a Manx satyr. He’s got orange hair and wears a spiffy white suit. Some might seem him in odd memes that people have made of the film. The satyr tap dances as genderless sprites attend to him. Eventually the satyr falls bores a hole in the floor and falls into the ocean below. He ends up digging through a tunnel covered in Vaseline while motorcycle sidecar teams race to an eventual finish line above. The images called forth are reminiscent of ascending and descending testicles, all very Freudian and fun to watch.
Cremaster 5 is the last in the series. Set in Budapest (where Houdini was born), the film centers around the character played by Ursula Andress, an opera singer who sings to the orchestra below. Barney plays three characters, all which allude to the characters he’s played in the films before. Here Barney scales the stage of the Hungarian State Opera House as a character called, the Diva. Sexual, reproductive, and psychological allegories explode in this film. The opera house can be interpreted as a womb or the central point of possible pleasure (the female and male perineum – an area between the sex organs and the anus which is rich with nerve endings – a place to enhance sexual arousal). Gorgeous costumes and highly romantic sights of Budapest frame this visual masterpiece. For many, this film is the high point of the series since it’s the most approachable of the works.
Looking back at the series, what I take with me is the digestion of them. Barney utilizes universal Jungian archetypes and personal ones as well that it’s hard to dismiss them as chance. Nothing, as in all film works, is accidental. This is the reason that I cannot view these as just mere art installations. These are visual essays on fictional and non-fictional experiences. A big chunk of the film doesn’t make sense without some sort of researched background or context, however, in this day and age of multi-media experiences with film (Donnie Darko and its website comes to mind), there’s much to disprove Cremaster pundits who proclaim it to be “just art.”
Barney himself proclaims himself as a sculptor first and foremost and hasn’t really declared himself as a filmmaker per se. Film is a sculpting medium for him. If we go back and think of Buñuel and Dalí’s collaborative work with Un Chien Andalou, painting and poetry come to mind. Go back to Cremaster and one can see a distinct impression of that previous work and a significant experimental film godmother, Maya Deren. Deren used her body and the camera as a poetic medium to tell a particular narrative. Barney uses the camera and his body, symbolic objects, and the bodies of the supporting characters in much the same way. The car crashes and chorus girl routines play out like the dreamy opera score: The Cremaster Cycle is a visual epic.
Much of the seven hours I spent enthralled by repeated scenes were full of wonder and thought. I questioned my idea of what film is supposed to do and what stories are supposed to tell. The Cremaster Cycle showed me that there are stories you can tell that go beyond an interpretable brain: tales that are multi-dimensional need not be obscured for there is an audience that watches them continually in their dreams.
The Cremaster Cycle showed me that there are stories you can tell that go beyond an interpretable brain: tales that are multi-dimensional need not be obscured for there is an audience that watches them continually in their dreams.