Sunday, April 23, 2006

Picked Flick #55: The Cremaster Cycle

Matthew Barney's five-part Cremaster Cycle hurricaned its way into Ithaca, NY, in the spring of 2004, powered by a tremendous reputation that was nonetheless, at least to my hinterland ears, vague in its details. With apologies to all the visual artists and museum devotees who probably roll their eyes at Cremaster fans like me—the same way I am nonplussed when, say, people learn of Toni Morrison when she pops up on Oprah—I had heard that the films were not made in the sequence implied by their titles, that they were collectively named for the tiny muscle that raises and lowers the testicles in moments of arousal, and that they aggregated all manner of sculptural, digital, narrative, mythological, and material experiments into a behemoth visual undertaking that anyone curious about the future of movies should take some pains to see. And so I saw. And as opposed to the letdowns I have experienced in the face of other curator-approved, "post-cinema" movies (for example, Bill Morrison's Decasia, a series of arresting ideas and images that persist at least three times too long), the Cremaster movies were truly electrifying: baffling but terrifically engaging in their more arcane motifs, and persuasive as the kind of tout court double-dare to filmmakers and audiences everywhere that avant-garde classics like Un chien andalou or Meshes of the Afternoon or Dog Star Man or Empire must have been in their own days.

While an oft-promised DVD collection from Palm Pictures remains a dream perpetually deferred, I have only my two-year-old recollections of Barney's formidable imagery and curiously interwoven "plots" to write from. Of course, the whole reason why the Cremaster Cycle ranks so high on this list is that Barney's outlandish mise-en-scène, forever emphasizing the organic, the amorphous, the massive, the adhesive, and the fluorescent in quite literal ways, also retains those very qualities in my memory. I saw the movies in superficially "numeric" order (i.e., 1 and 2 on one night, 3 the next, and 4 and 5 after that), but even following that schema, you implicitly sense that 4 and 1, the first films produced, supply the erstwhile Rosetta Stones to what more fully follows. These, the shortest installments, condition the viewer into the remarkable plasticity of Barney's visions, his outré cosmetic mutations of his own body, his recurring propensity for gonadal tropes and visual puns, and his fusion of mass-cultural signifiers like zeppelins, stadiums, land-speed races, and flight attendants with his carefully considered though highly subjective apprehensions of specific occult histories: drawn from the Isle of Man in Cremaster 4, but also from Hungary, Utah, and New York City in subsequent iterations. Both within each movie and across the whole series, Barney expectorates a kind of gestalt system that no one can comfortably articulate—not even he, I suspect, based on the "synopses" at the entrancing but opaque Cremaster website. What is remarkable about the project, then, are its eerily instantaneous claims on your sensory life and your sense-making apparatus. Fashioning febrile touchstones out of the illusionist Harry Houdini, the murderer Gary Gilmore, the architectural peculiarities of the Chrysler Building and the Guggenheim Museum, the mating rituals of bees, the salt flats of the Western U.S., the emerald archipelagos of the Irish Sea, the Lánchíd Bridge of Budapest, and a full MGM cast of satyrs, nereids, headbangers, and anthropomorphic hybrids, the Cremaster films summon a force of subconscious recognition that is perversely hard to account for in anything we see or hear. The linchpin materials—smelted Vaseline, Victorian couture, body paints and plasters, shimmering silks and satins, rolling grapes, twittering birds, Art Deco surfaces just waiting to be scuffed, a lattice-work of seminal and fallopian passageways—all express the pliability, viscosity, impermanence, and unresolved becoming of all things. Thus, the potent emotional resonance of the Cremaster Cycle is due as much as anything to these media of expression, their constant flights and drops, their splittings and mergings, their plyings and smashings, and, perhaps most of all, to the melancholy flattening of every gummy resin and lofty spire and shaggy wig and crenulated frieze into two-dimensional flickers.

Every Cremaster fan harbors a favorite installment, and mine is certainly the second. Even though I lack much of a compass for navigating Houdiniana, Mormon lore, or the strange career of Gary Gilmore, Barney's figurations of Gilmore's murderous loneliness—as a mucous membrane encasing his car at a gas station, as a penis shrunk to paper-clip size, as a plaintive rodeo in desolate surroundings—evoke a blend of pathology and extraordinary pity on a par with Patty Jenkins' Monster, despite how fully Barney challenges every extant recipe for transmitting moral and psychological concepts on film. I also love the sad, grand riffs on the generic staples of the Western, and as a hard-and-fast Cronenberg disciple, I take a simpler, half-disgusted interest in the colloidal jellies and creepy supernaturalism of the opening "conception" scene. When I first composed this list, I meant for Cremaster 2 to occupy its own spot, but then—partly by noticing that I had misidentified a still from Cremaster 3 in the banner image for this feature—I realized how much my investments in every Cremaster segment seep and pour into the others. Having therefore proven inept at compartmentalizing my memories of these movies, I am now opting for the more cowardly but also more truthful position of commemorating them all in their uncanny wholeness: a totality far greater than the sum of its prodigious, elliptical parts. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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Blogger tim r said...

A great pick. I quite agree that they blur into one. To the extent that I can separate them out, 1 did the most for me with its joyous Busby Berkeley-isms and blimps (and inspired easily the most bizarre dream I've ever had, involving Jeff Bridges, a stadium and a bunch of pigs), 2 seemed the most ambitious if ultimately bewildering, and 3 (available as a stand-alone DVD, right?) strikes me as a little overrated: there's something sterile and cramped and repetitious about it, and I didn't think it had the wild suggestiveness and kind of mythic breadth of the other instalments. Anyway, in sum it's quite an amazing achievement, I can only agree.

10:02 AM, April 24, 2006  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

Thanks for chiming in! You have actually spoiled my theory that no one could possibly enjoy 1 the most—I think I experienced it so consciously as "prologue" that I tend to short-change its own internal delights.... and, now having seen the whole cycle, I'd love to go back and watch it with fresh eyes. Which is where Palm Pictures is supposed to come in. Hello!..... Hello?? Anybody? Ever?

1:56 PM, April 24, 2006  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

Oh, and the DVD of The Order is, if I understand correctly, only the part of Cremaster 3 where he scales the tiers of the Guggenheim, and therefore lacks the beginning and ending sequences.

1:57 PM, April 24, 2006  
Blogger Yaseen Ali said...

I share in the plea for these titles to finally make an appearance on DVD. I knew back in September at the Toronto Film Festival that Barney's Drawing Restraint 9 was a must on my schedule, because of the way his other films seem to disappear entirely.

3:46 PM, April 25, 2006  
Blogger Dr. S said...

Oh, remember when we saw Decasia together? I remember going into some sort of vaguely hallucinatory trance-state and drafting whole pages of my dissertation while we watched that guy shadowboxing the hole burned in his film. Those were weird times.

9:12 PM, April 26, 2006  
Blogger Glenn Dunks said...

I've seen the segment of Cremaster 3 that's on DVD - as you say, where Barney scales the interior of the Guggenheim.

I... was baffled and bored out of my mind. Hated it. Visually interesting but I had no clue. It didn't really enthuse me about eventually seeing the rest although I suppose I may.

10:35 AM, April 27, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I bought cremaster 3 the order but to my understanding the only way you can watch the full cycle is if you bought one of the 10 copies that were sold. Or if you attend one of the screaning every Wednesday in Germany. I hope there is another way I can watch it. Someone help me out here please.

8:59 PM, June 15, 2008  

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