How does a film critic -- or any film viewer -- come to terms with Matthew Barney's Cremaster films? The thirty-something Yale graduate has apparently been a major figure in the New York art scene for nearly a decade. I say "apparently," because my aversion to the New York art scene is so total that I'd hastily cross against the light and take my chances dodging speeding taxis if I saw it coming down my side of the street. But major pieces in the New York Times magazine and even, God help us, Time suggest that his annointment as "artist" has reached some level of critical mass.
Barney's work is a combination of sculpture, performance art and film, but since he is neither bringing his frozen Vaseline gym equipment (no kidding) to town nor planning on crawling naked around the floors and ceilings of the Mayan at midnight (as he did in at least one early exhibition), let's deal with him strictly as a filmmaker. Barney's latest, Cremaster 2, is part of a planned five-part series that he's shooting out of order. He started with 1, then did 4 and 5. The final installment, Cremaster 3, has yet to be completed. Judging from 2, 4 and 5, though, there's no apparent rationale behind the numbering, and given the wryly arbitrary nature of many of the film's components, it's quite possible that the out-of-order numbering is simply a private joke. That sort of gag is a longstanding tradition in surrealist art: The Luis Buñuel-Salvador Dali silent, The Andalusian Dog, used title cards to indicate time lapses that were totally at odds with what was on the screen. The notion that the most recent Cremaster is somehow number 2 makes about as much obvious sense.
In most ways, Barney's films are firmly in the surrealist tradition. They lack any sort of normal, orderly story, though they often hint at some kind of narrative or thematic structure. Cremaster 4 intercuts shots of a half-human tap dancer (called the Loughton Candidate) who dances his way through the floor of a seaside pavilion, with footage of a sidecar race through the Isle of Man. The dancer is surrounded, perhaps taunted, by three sexually ambiguous figures (played by female bodybuilders) and must eventually fight his way out of the muck-filled underwater pit into which he falls. Cremaster 5, which had a much bigger budget, takes place in a European opera house, where a figure known as the Queen of Chain (Ursula Andress, no less) observes the trials of three identical suitors (all played by the director).
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With Cremaster 2, Barney makes another budgetary leap. The film is said to have cost $1.7 million -- paltry by Hollywood standards, but incredibly extravagant for an art piece. Once again, Barney presents a series of sounds and images that suggest a story -- in this case, the life and deeds of executed killer Gary Gilmore. While it helps to know the back story, the movie stands on its own. Such is the power of Barney's crisp, hyperreal images (shot on high-definition video and transferred to film) that they can even enthrall viewers who have no idea of their intended context.
Barney opens with a tight closeup of an object that is eventually revealed to be an incredibly ornate saddle. It takes him three or four minutes to pull back from the saddle, as the music grows from a lone clarinet note to an orgy of dissonance. He later moves to a mirrored octagonal room, where we witness a seance as well an act of copulation in which the male ejaculates bees. (You don't even want to think about how they shot some of this.) Barney also gives us a bee-covered record producer; Harry Houdini (played by Norman Mailer) in a huge exhibition hall; a mockup of the Mormon Tabernacle choir; a rodeo Brahma bull-riding event; a pair of country dancers doing a graceful two-step; and, most memorably, a man (played by Barney himself), presumably Gary Gilmore, trapped in a claustrophobic pair of classic Ford Mustangs -- positioned like in utero twins -- that are conjoined by a plastic tunnel.
While none of this makes much sense -- even if you prepare by reading up on Gilmore and on the artist's intentions -- it often feels as though it's heading toward some kind of sense. Like any great surrealist work, the images create their own internal logic. In their enigmatic clarity, they are reminiscent of both Peter Greenaway's work and Kenneth Anger's Lord Shiva's Dream. While we almost never see this kind of thing anymore -- it's become so rare as to feel wholly original -- it also has roots in Ed Emshwiller and the other experimental filmmakers who thrived in the '50s and '60s.
Like the best of those artist-filmmakers, Barney manages to enrapture his audience by making real objects appear abstract and imaginary constructions appear real. It's the true language of dreams, a language in which the Cremaster films are dazzlingly fluent.