|The Cremaster Cycle | Written and Directed by Matthew Barney | with Ursula Andress, Richard Serra, Norman Mailer, Aimee Mullins, Marti Domination, and Matthew Barney | International Film Circuit | Cremaster 1 + 2: 120 minutes; Cremaster 3: 182 minutes; Cremaster 4 + 5: 152 minutes|
Despite millions in production design, Peter Strietman's splendid photography, and some witty if trance-inducing music by Jonathan Bepler, the six and a half hours of Matthew Barney's Cremaster
Cycle is sheer movie tedium, inert and unmoving, broken up by imagery that's more irritating than fascinating in its self-indulgent preciosity.
Of course, such stasis might simply reflect the project's theme, which I gather has to do with the futility of the creative process and the tragedy of sexual differentiation. The first theme is abundantly illustrated; the second refers to the prenatal period when the unborn's gonads have yet to ascend to become ovaries or rise to become testes. (The cremaster, as you must know by now, is the muscle that raises and lowers the latter.)
Although this preoccupation at times takes on a Grand Guignol beauty reminiscent of David Cronenberg, for the most part it translates into unending and pointless up and down motifs, a tiresome obsession with bizarre and painful-looking footwear, the many inappropriate uses of Vaseline, bevies of beautiful women in baroque outfits or nothing at all (the unabashed if unerotic nudity might be one reason for Cremaster's appeal), a pastiche of myths and near-myths ranging from Celtic folklore to Masonic ritual to the American Dream to the filmmaker's own masochistic fantasies, and the inevitable question of how will Matthew Barney abuse his orifices and genitals this time around. Will he get it from both ends, as happens in Cremaster 3 (2001), in an excruciating scene that combines the least attractive aspects of dental and obstetric procedures? Will he find himself transformed into a human bagpipe, as in the conclusion of Cremaster 4 (1994)? Or will his goodies be tied in a knot by ribbons and yanked skyward by Jacobin pigeons, as in an uplifting moment in Cremaster 5 (1997)?
Of the five films, Cremaster 1 (1995) is my favorite: it's the shortest, and also the only one Barney's not in. Two Goodyear blimps hover over the blazing blue Astroturf of Bronco Stadium in Boise, Idaho (where Barney himself starred as a high-school quarterback). A teddy-clad blonde ingénue (Marti Domination) manages to be in both blimps at once, hiding in a painfully constricted position under a table bearing grapes, red in one blimp, green in the other. She extricates the grapes from above and somehow excretes them through her requisite cruel footwear to form patterns on the floor imitated by the Busby Berkeley–like chorus lines on the gridiron below.
It all almost makes sense: the blimps as undifferentiated gonads; the constrained artistic ego (female in this instance) breaking free and expressing itself. The pattern takes an ugly, testosterone-addled turn in Cremaster 2 (1999), however, as the Belle Captive of the first film becomes the ill-fated Gary Gilmore. Gary's troubles began, it seems, with his alleged grandfather Harry Houdini (played by Norman Mailer, who wrote about Gilmore in The Executioner's Song), who we're told was seduced by Gilmore's wasp-waisted grandmother Baby Fay La Foe (played by "Anonymous") when he performed at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. Sounds like juicy, sordid stuff, but leave it to Barney and his vats of Vaseline and esoteric and banal symbology to transform it into a snore beginning with Gilmore (played by Barney) locked in the front seat of two conjoined Mustangs (paralleling the two blimps in Cremaster 1) and ending, in the words of the press notes, "with Gilmore's metaphoric transportation back to the turn of the century . . . rendered in a dance sequence featuring the Texas two-step."