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A Long, Strange Trip 

Matthew Barney's Cremaster cycle concludes with three hours of outrageousness and unfamiliarity

Wednesday, May 21 2003
Cremaster 3 is the final installment of Matthew Barney's five-part Cremaster cycle. If that reads like a typo, be informed that, over the last decade, Barney has been filming and releasing the different episodes out of order, if the numbering has any real meaning -- not that viewers are likely to notice the difference.

Barney may be more widely known for being Björk's significant other than for his art, so for those unfamiliar with him, or at least with his movies -- which have only occasionally appeared in movie theaters and at museums -- here's a little background. His is not precisely your usual show-biz story: The artist, now in his mid-30s, started out as a jock in Boise, Idaho, went to Yale, became a fashion model, and then became famous in New York art circles for his combination of sculpture, taped performance art, and film. The sculpture involved odd media, including frozen Vaseline; the performance art involved Barney in physical feats; and the films developed into the Cremaster cycle.

All of these elements show up in Cremaster 3, along with Barney's other obsessions -- including cars, Gary Gilmore, dancing, Celtic mythology, and unusual human anatomy. Speaking of anatomy ... "cremaster" is the muscle that controls the descent and retraction of the testes -- in reaction, for instance, to temperature.

Like the rest of the entries, Cremaster 3 lacks a true narrative, in any conventional sense of the word. There are inklings of a story, but they are buried deep within Barney's procession of striking, if often incomprehensible, images.

The film starts in ancient Ireland (or then- and thereabouts), with some sort of confrontation between the legendary giant Fingal (the Mighty Biggs) and Fionn MacCumhail (Peter D. Badalamenti). The earth rumbles. Gary Gilmore (played by a waifish girl named Nesrin Karanouh) is rescued from subterranean muck, taken to the lobby of the Chrysler Building, and placed in the back seat of a Chrysler Imperial New Yorker. For the next hour and a half, we repeatedly cut back to the lobby to see five other Chryslers smashing into her car, until it is reduced to a hand-size fragment.

Meanwhile, in a "plot thread" based on Masonic lore, a workman named the Entered Apprentice (Barney) fills an elevator with concrete, while a group of men have a meeting ... and a bartender (Terry Gillespie) breaks things ... and the Entered Novitiate (Aimee Mullins), a woman with prosthetic legs, cuts potato wedges. (I'm not making this up.)

Eventually, over at Saratoga Race Track, a group of apparently flayed, skinless horses run a race, and a group of thugs beat up the Apprentice.

And that's just Part 1.

After an intermission, we're back at the Chrysler Building, where the Apprentice undergoes a particularly disgusting dental procedure (which certainly feels like a conscious evocation of Marathon Man). He then attacks Hiram Abiff (Richard Serra), the building's architect.

The last quarter or so of the film abandons even this semicoherent narrative for a different thread, called "The Orders," in which Barney, dressed in pink, scales the interior walls of the Guggenheim, while different performances, musical and artistic, are taking place on each level. Among them are a Rockettes-like chorus line, two punkish bands, Aimee Mullins as a leopard-woman, and Richard Serra flinging molten Vaseline into a drainage conduit.

OK: This all sounds like utter, egregious bullshit, and it would be hard to fault anyone for stomping out on it, particularly when you realize that Cremaster 3 is three hours long -- almost as long as the other four chapters put together. But even for some of us (read: "me") who are highly allergic to pretentious incoherence masquerading as art, Cremaster 3 -- like the earlier films -- simply works. Would that there were a simple way of explaining why Barney comes across as the real thing.

For a start, there is a power to the sheer outrageousness and unfamiliarity of his images. In Cremaster 2 -- the four earlier episodes screen at the Castro after Cremaster 3's run -- Gary Gilmore (played by Barney) is trapped in a womblike car interior connected to a gas pump by a birth canal-like tube -- one of two twin cars thus connected to the pump. 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.

There is also the huge contribution of composer Jonathan Bepler: The Cremaster series is almost devoid of dialogue, and Bepler's wide-ranging, often gorgeous music gives invaluable support and continuity to Barney's bafflingly arranged images.

If Barney can be said to invoke any forebears, they'd be Kenneth Anger (particularly in his psychedelic Lord Shiva's Dream period) or members of the once vibrant, now largely forgotten experimental film scene of New York and San Francisco in the '50s and '60s. Let's put it this way: In terms of conventional narrative expectations, David Lynch's Eraserhead would represent the midpoint between the Cremaster series and, say, the Lethal Weapon series.

About The Author

Andy Klein


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