Cremaster Cycle Marathon @ ACMI, Sunday 11 July 2010

Review for Cremaster up at

Brad Nguyen did a beautiful job of editing it. My considerably less focussed, more rambling version after the jump…

The Cremaster Cycle – Matthew Barney

Marathon @ ACMI Sunday 11th July

Prior to this marathon Cremaster Cycle screening at ACMI, I entreated facebook/twitter to wish me luck. “It’s like flying economy all the way to London” quipped one friend, ominously.

Having attempted the whole cycle in one sitting the last time it played at ACMI, I was steeling myself. I didn’t quite make it though, giving up after the epic, 180 minute Cremaster 3. In a nice, Barney-esque analogy: the first attempt broke me a little- tore something in my brain, and in the manner of a body builder tearing muscle to build more, I lasted just a little longer this time.

It is not an unenjoyable experience, but despite the slight excited-art-nerd-buzz in the ticket queue, it wasn’t like the marathons of my youth at the local megaplex or the drive-in accompanied by a carton of popcorn bigger than your head and a gaggle of friends with whom I would talk all the way through all the films. For all its famed production values, unimaginable feats of logistics, slick, commercial-surrealist aesthetics (think edgy perfume ads from the 90s), and narrative framework (such as it is), Cremaster is still a primarily abstract art work.

In cremaster, Barney has woven the most intricate narrative from a post-modern melange of contemporary and ancient, obvious and opaque, brutal and divine symbols. When I look back on my notes from the screenings, most of them consist of small word-collages rather than sentences: heels-hooves-fallopian tubes; helix shape-figure 8; cell division-pearl earring; womb-table; white-pre-life (Cremaster 1)

It’s just very like that.

I belive a more detailed synopses of each of the plots would be useless here, luckily via the magic of the internet I can direct your attention to: for thorough descriptions of each of the films.

The basic premise is the deployment of cyclical narratives loaded with symbolism and meta-narrative, as metaphors to relate Barney’s complex ideas about human sexual development. He stages biological drama as human and historical drama: in Cremaster 1, the initial process of sex-cell differentiation is staged as a Busby Berkeley half-time, spectacular and in Cremaster 2 and 3, the biological narrative is impossibly convoluted with the stories, respectively of executed killer, Gary Gilmour, and the Masonic history of the Chrysler building. Cremaster 4 and 5 depict the final stages of sexual descension as a motorcycle race and an operatic melodrama.

These somewhat long bows are drawn with the use of seamlessly filmic mise-en-scene, but the narrative is so slippery and evasive (dream-like, to use a tired cliché) your brain is exercised trying to thread together these at times completely unfamiliar references deployed in complex and unexpected ways.

It is unlike most experimental film making, although I suppose you could say, to greater or lesser degrees that Guy Maddin, Chris Marker and David Lynch have worked in this vein. Lynch is the one who comes closest to Barney’s dynamite combination of an art-star conceptual agenda and Hollywood sense of scale. And conversely, hardly any visual artists have attempted narrative film works this ambitious (Although spectacle and conspicuous consumption -of public arts funding- are often a facet of large scale video installation these days).

And it is this slippage between art and film- between the films’ meanings as described by Barney himself (hilariously, here:, as decreed by critics and the art world, and as they are viewed by audiences- primarily, as movies- that makes Cremaster so interesting.

Because despite it’s investment in cinematic tropes, the density of the films, animating and activating intricate webs of symbols the way it does, brings it closer to the experience of painting than either film (which relies on plot) or video art (which is dismissive of cinematic constructions). And it is the visual art – particularly Barney’s use of wax/plastic sculptural elements, at times grotesquely oozing, at others fine, firm and translucent like alabaster, which elevate it out of its potentially overwhelming settings. He affects, intervenes in and reconstructs his highly specific locations in such a convincing way that you find yourself wondering which bits are Barney and which bits are Guggenheim/Chrysler Building/Banff Springs. That is high praise when you are talking about some of the most iconic locations in North America, and a testament to his visual arts practice, and understanding of the subtle but important difference between installation and set-dressing.

So I’m obviously not a Cremaster Hater- however, it’s easy to confuse the grandiosity of Cremaster with genius. It is a dense, impressive and significant suite of works. There is no denying it. But at the same time, an undeniable appeal lives in mass-ornament. The fact that there are 5 of the suckers, and that they are so big and brash and pretty and hard to understand, I think tends to over-awe us. I mean how do you critique something you are either barely comprehending, or massively over-stimulated by? And, if as I suggest, it should be read more like a painting than a movie, how can you hope to return to its comtemplation on a regular enough basis, as you can with a painting, to begin to absorb more of it’s density? The film form it takes is spectacular and successfully cinematic- gleaming, seductive, engulfing and mythic. However, to experience it in the form it was intended necessitates a certain inability to comprehend it. I think this is a flaw of the work. Or at least, a complication of it straddling art and film- it requiring the extended contemplation of an art work, but lacking the distribution for it to be easily accessible to the public (bit-torrenting notwithstanding).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s