Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster Cycle” is full of elements that one would never connect in a standard movie. In the five films, we are carried from Boise to Budapest, and along the way we encounter such diverse themes as bees, fetal development, Masonic rituals, Gary Gilmore, Celtic mythology, Harry Houdini, motorcycle and horse races and, of course, the Mormon Tabernacle.
It is very possible to enjoy the “Cremaster Cycle” as long as two points are kept in mind. First, these films should be considered as a piece of art rather than as a story – the filmmaker is a sculptor by training and it would be easy to consider these films a sculpture in motion. Second, there is no moral or plot that will become clear at the end. It provides symbols and themes, but no story.
That is a very large warning with which to start a review, but the “Cremaster Cycle” defies description if one does not approach it in this state of mind. Barney has not provided a great movie but rather a great work of art, one that points out the abilities of cinema to provide us with more than stories.
The overarching theme for this cycle is the fetal ascendance or descendance of the gonads – the point at which a fetus truly becomes male or female. This is addressed most clearly in the final two films, but pops up throughout the cycle. Barney is playing with the idea of defying this decision, retaining the potential to be both.
These films are long and require a lot of patience, but are definitely worth seeing. This series is not necessarily recommended for film connoisseurs, but for those who enjoy gallery showings and visual art, this cycle is worth every minute.
Before watching these films it would be helpful to understand the references. If you are not familiar with these themes, looking up some of the basics of each subject – for example, Gilmore or the Loughton Ram – would help one’s understanding greatly. This reviewer, who had the advantage of watching the cycle in his room next to his computer, would have been lost without frequent Google searches.
“Cremaster 1” is a somewhat vague introduction to the series, wherein we meet Goodyear, trapped in a womblike cage under a table in the lounge of each of two blimps floating over a stadium in Barney’s hometown of Boise, Idaho. Dancers on the field, under Goodyear’s control, introduce some of the images that will recur in the later films.
“Cremaster 2” is the circular story of Harry Houdini and his descendant Gilmore. We see Gilmore’s existence compared to that of a drone bee, and we are shown the night of his first killing. Convicted in the Mormon Tabernacle, Gilmore is taken to the Bonneville Salt Flats where his execution is portrayed by the riding of a bull. The film opened with Gilmore’s parents summoning Houdini – played in this film by Norman Mailer – and it closes with Houdini’s seduction.
“Cremaster 3” was the last film made and is the epic of the series. The film shows the creation of the Chrysler Building, but it is told through the story of the Masonic initiation ceremonies. The construction is sabotaged when the Apprentice, played by Barney, cheats in his creation of a perfect stone for the building. After a slapstick scene in the tower’s bar, the Apprentice is punished for his betrayal by having his teeth knocked out. The building’s architect – Hiram Abiff, played by fellow modern artist Richard Serra – then installs a bizarre replacement for the teeth, after which he returns to his work.
In one of the most visually stunning scenes of the series, a maypole dance ensues around the tower and inside the tower around the architect. After this, the story goes to the Guggenheim Museum for a bizarre re-enactment of the initiations of the Masonic degrees and, finally, back to the top of the tower, where the Apprentice murders Abiff and is then killed by the collapsing tower.
“Cremaster 4” goes to the Isle of Man, where two motorcycle teams are in a race – one representing the ascending fetal gonads, and the other the descending. They are converging on a finish line where a Loughton ram, whose two sets of horns represent the possibility of ascendance and descendance, waits for them. Meanwhile, Barney, representing a candidate for development into the Loughton ram, tunnels his way to the finish line.
The operatic final film takes place in Budapest, where the Queen of Chain remembers her fallen magician lover – a foreshadowing of Houdini – and encounters the final determination of gender with a symbolic descent, in the pools below the opera, of the cremaster muscle.
These images lend to the theme, but fail to provide a conclusive ending. The film does not follow the norms of traditional cinema, but gives viewers a cavalcade of symbols to take in and interpret. Indeed, the movie, like any good piece of sculpture or performance art, is counting more on the audience than on itself to provide meaning.
“Cremaster 1” and “Cremaster 2” will play on Dec. 12, “Cremaster 3” on Dec. 13 and “Cremaster 4” and “Cremaster 5” on Dec. 14. Tickets are $6 or $5 with student ID, and each showing starts at 8 p.m. at the George Eastman House
The Dec. 12 screening will also feature a 6:30 p.m. lecture by Mark Denaci, Assistant Professor of Art History at SUNY Geneseo. The lecture, titled “Transmogrifying Sexuality: An Introduction to Matthew Barney,” will discuss some of Barney’s early works and motifs that recur in the “Cremaster Cycle.” Admission to the lecture is included in the ticket price for the first night. The lecture should be very helpful in setting the right mindset for the films.
Additional information about the series, including full synopses and stills, can be found at the cycle’s Web site at http://www.cremaster.net.
Brown can be reached at email@example.com.