Paying To Work: Watching Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle

June 3, 2013 · Print This Article

Last month at the Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicagoans had a chance to see all five films of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle.  Cremaster has a role in the art world similar to that of Art In The Age of Mechanical Reproduction: everybody knows about it, art students reference it in papers, and relatively few (of my classmates back when I was in school) actually bothered to read it.  Cremaster, like Art In The Age…,  is taken as a given.  We all know some basic facts:  Matthew Barney used to play football, he’s married to Bjork, he thinks of himself as a sculptor, and he made these movies which are basically all about his nads.  Having seen a few artifacts in a group show at a contemporary art museum, and maybe having watched The Order on DVD, most of my artist friends feel like they’ve got a pretty good grasp on what Barney and Cremaster (the artist being basically synonymous with this one project) are all about.  Few have watched any of the actual films, at least not all the way through, and far, far fewer, after having watched one, have felt compelled to watch the other four.

Well, my wife Stephanie Burke and I decided to join those narrow ranks, and last month we watched all five Cremaster films.  Fortunately, the Siskel has a bar.  From the sound of pop tops and rolling bottles, most of the audience had elected to bring their own booze, but Steph and I are patrons of the arts, and supported the Siskel by buying literally all the Guinness they had.  This helped to wash down the films, and is a recommended procedure for anyone viewing them in the future.  Frankly, arthouse cinemas are a poor choice for showing these films, with the expectation of propriety and somber contemplation.  There are some scenes in these films that are awkwardly comical, and a setting that encourages laughter would really make the viewing experience a lot more pleasant.  There is, of course, no admonition against laughing at the Siskel, but when you’re surrounded by a bunch of serious-looking people watching the film like they’re listening to their grandfather’s eulogy, laughing, even when something is really funny, starts to feel like you’re farting in church.

The Cremaster films aren’t the kind of linear narratives that rely, like an M. Night Shyamalan picture, on unexpected twists and turns to sustain the viewer’s interest, so I’ll eschew the usual “spoiler alert” you’d expect from a movie review.  (As I write these words, everyone’s bitching about people revealing what happened on last night’s episode of Game of Thrones, which I haven’t seen yet either, but I’m inclined to say “Fuck ‘em if they haven’t read the books.”  It’s a nice day for a…Red Wedding.)

Having some context about what’s going on can help; if you’ve got the big picture, you can focus on the details and nuance, sort of like reading Infinite Jest for the second time.  (More on David Foster Wallace later.)  I won’t bother writing up a detailed synopsis, as that work has already been done, so if you’re like a summary, along with a lot of interesting background information and context, check it out:  http://www.cremasterfanatic.com/Synopsis.html

One well-known fact about the Cremaster films is that, like Star Wars, their sequential numbering does not reflect the order in which they were shot.  They were shot in the following sequence:  Cremaster 4 (1994), Cremaster 1 (1995), Cremaster 5 (1997), Cremaster 2 (1999), Cremaster 3 (2002).  This creates an interesting effect in which the quality of the visual effects, which were undergoing something of a digital revolution in the late 1990s, is fairly dated in the first film, improves a little by the second, peaks in the third, and then drops off drastically in the fourth, before picking up a tad at the end.  The films aren’t by any stretch effects-heavy blockbusters, but Cremaster 4 in particular shows its age in terms of the film quality, whereas Cremaster 3, the last to be filmed, is fairly polished.

Of course, unlike the Lord of the Rings trilogy,  it’s something of a chore to sit down and watch all 398 minutes (over six and one-half hours) of the Cremaster films.  (A LoTR marathon, on the other hand, especially in a theater with a good bar, and decent meal breaks between films, is an absolutely transcendent experience.)  At the Siskel, at least (not sure if this is how it’s always done), they played 1 and 2 as a double feature, the longer part 3 by itself, and then parts 4 and 5 as a double feature.  Part 3 conveniently includes an intermission, great for a much-needed potty break and Guinness refill.  There were a couple of showtime options, and due to our schedules, we watched the films neither in numerical sequence nor in the order in which they were filmed, but rather arbitrarily:  first we watched Cremaster 4 and 5, then took a day off, then watched Cremaster 3, and the next day finished off with 1 and 2.

Just as nobody can remember that Star Trek 4 is called The Voyage Home (and consequently everyone calls it “The One With The Whales”), the weird sequencing and semi-narrative structure of the Cremaster films makes it hard to remember which one was which.  The above-linked synopses will give you a long-form breakdown of what’s in each film, but if you’ve seen them and are having a hard time remembering which was which, here’s a quick guide in the form of suggested subtitles:

Cremaster 4: “Bukkake Goat Motorcycle Race.”

Cremaster 5: “Meat Mangina Mermaid Opera.”

Cremaster 3:  “Masonic Punk Bands Dental Demolition Derby”

Cremaster 1:  “Grape-Eating Football Blimp Chorus Girls”

Cremaster 2:  “Gas Station Murder Beehive Sex Rodeo”

These give a sense of the semiotic smorgasbord Barney uses in his films, which is basically what Moe on The Simpsons was referring to in explaining postmodernism to Homer:  “You know, weird for the sake of being weird.”  This isn’t to say that the imagery is arbitrary, rather, it is carefully considered and thematically consistent, if frequently unexpected.  Rather than engage in a tiresome deconstruction of this content, I’ll combine an inventory of its themes with a helpful aid for a more enjoyable viewing experience.  May I present to you…

The Cremaster Cycle Drinking Game!  Abnormal Prosthetic Genetalia?  Drink!  Multiple Young Women In Identical, Revealing Costumes Performing Synchonized Movements?  Drink!  Bizarre Footwear?  Drink!  Crawling Through A Confined Space?  Drink!  “That looks like semen.”  Drink!  The Presentation of Ritual Regalia?  Drink?  Ominous, Mysterious Agents of Power?  Drink!  Human-Animal Hybrid?  Drink!  Group of fawning, adoring women?  Drink!  Overt reminder of Barney’s athletic background?  Drink!

The general unavailability of Barney’s films for home viewing (outside of The Order), and the general discouragement towards playing drinking games in arthouse cinemas, make this game more theoretical than practical.  You could play it at home with a DVD of The Order, lurk on eBay for a bootleg, or bring enough friends to the theater that that’d have a hard time kicking all of you out.  Or just play it quietly on your own.

If films are placed on a continuum, from “movies” to “art,” Matthew Barney’s work stands just on the “art” side of the imaginary dividing line, buttressed on the “movie” side by David Lynch.  They both elicit the same “Well, that was fucking weird” response from the general public, and both attract a certain fan base of intellectuals with a taste for the bizarre.  David Foster Wallace once wrote an article on David Lynch’s films in which he discusses the way they straddle this line; it’s a great article and a good point, but ultimately Lynch’s films are still what Wallace calls “Entertainments,” that is, you can sit down and watch them and it’s fun.  They’re smarter than most, granted, but they still function that way.

Not so with Barney’s Cremaster Cycle.  Although they lack Lynch’s ironic juxtaposition of the macabre and the mundane (Wallace’s description), something about the Cremaster films nevertheless makes me think of David Lynch, and specifically of Wallace’s essay on Lost Highway.  Lynch and Wallace seem to buttress the fine divide between cinema and art film like a pair of bookends holding up a single sheet of paper.  Compare Barney to other artist-filmmakers, such as Nathalie Djurberg (I had to Google “ass-licking claymation tiger” to remind myself of her name) or Shirin Neshat.  Cremaster is undeniably more like a movie than are those artists’ films, and not just because it’s longer (compare with Warhol’s Sleep or Empire).  It may be something to do with context; I’ve seen Neshat and Djurberg’s films in galleries, while Barney’s films I have seen only in theaters (the galleries show ephemera, sketches, and sculptures).  The combination of duration, context, and the nature of the films themselves puts them on the cinematic edge of art film, but they ultimately rest on this side of that fence.  Cremaster leans up against that divide, shaped by it like a mold full of Vaseline, ultimately conforming to Wallace’s definition of art film, which he uses to explain how Lynch’s films are neither art nor commercial, but something else.

Art film is essentially teleological; it tries in various ways to “wake the audience up” or render us more “conscious.” (This kind of agenda can easily degenerate into pretentiousness and self-righteousness and condescending horsetwaddle, but the agenda itself is large-hearted and fine.) Commercial film doesn’t seem like it cares much about the audience’s instruction or enlightenment. Commercial film’s goal is to “entertain,” which usually means enabling various fantasies that allow the moviegoer to pretend he’s somebody else and that life is somehow bigger and more coherent and more compelling and attractive and in general just way more entertaining than a moviegoer’s life really is. You could say that a commercial movie doesn’t try to wake people up but rather to make their sleep so comfortable and their dreams so pleasant that they will fork over money to experience it-the fantasy-for-money transaction is a commercial movie’s basic point. An art film’s point is usually more intellectual or aesthetic, and you usually have to do some interpretative work to get it, so that when you pay to see an art film you’re actually paying to work (whereas the only work you have to do w/r/t most commercial film is whatever work you did to afford the price of the ticket).

“Paying to work” sounds like a harsh indictment of the experience of viewing a film, but in regard to Cremaster, it’s accurate.  The hope is that this work proves rewarding for the viewer, and with the help of a few trips to the bar, it’s not too painful.

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