Reviewed by: Chris

The Cremaster Cycle is a series of five films shot over eight years. Although they can be seen individually, the best experience is seeing them all together (like Wagner's Ring Cycle) - and also researching as much as you can beforehand. To give you an idea of the magnitude, it has been suggested that their fulfilment confirms creator Matthew Barney as the most important American artist of his generation (New York Times Magazine).

The Cremaster films are works of art in the sense that the critical faculties you use whilst watching them are ones you might more normally use in, say, the Tate Modern, than in an art house cinema. They are entirely made up of symbols, have only the slimmest of linear plots, and experiencing them leaves you with a sense of awe, with more questions and inspirations than closed-book answers. The imagery is at once grotesque, beautiful, challenging, puzzling and stupendous. Any review can only hope to touch on the significance of such an event, but a few clues might be of interest, so for what it's worth...

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Starting with the title: the 'cremaster' is a muscle that acts to retract the testes. This keeps the testes warm and protected from injury. (If you keep this in mind as you view the piece it will be easier to find other clues and make sense of the myriad allusions to anatomical development, sexual differentiation, and the period of embryonic sexual development - including the period when the outcome is still unknown. The films, which can be viewed in any order (though chronologically is probably better than numerically) range from Cremaster 1 (most 'ascended' or undifferentiated state) to Cremaster 5 (most 'descended'). The official Cremaster website contains helpful synopses.)

Cremaster 1 features four air hostesses in each of two identical cabins, centrepieces sculpted from vaseline on respectively green and red grapes. An androgynous looking woman beneath each works a hole in the tablecloth and plucks grapes which direct choreographed patterns of dancing chorus girls. This seems to suggest the splitting and multiplying cells of a still androgynous gonadal system.

Cremaster 2 is told as a gothic western and corresponds to that phase of fetal development when sexual division begins. It features such varied images as a classic car in a service station, Bronco-busting cowboys, swarms of bees, a Texan two-step and music ranging from a capella singing to a heavy rock band. Houdini reappears (played by Norman Mailer) and is asked a question about metamorphosis - rather than maintain a position within the 'beehive', does he truly metamorphose and become one with the cage?

Cremaster 3 is the longest (3hrs) and most complex of the Cycle. It charts the construction of the Chrysler Building and looks at the forces of spiritual transcendence (which can in itself be taken as a metaphor). It quotes Lombardi: "Character is an integration of habits of conduct superimposed on temperament... Character is will exercised on disposition, thought, emotion and action." We have a mythological prologue, then an Apprentice who scales the Chrysler Building by means of one of the lift shafts and takes part in a Masonic ritual. Before winning his Masonic instruments he must become the master of lust and his own ego. This penultimate stage is set in a section called 'The Order' comprising Five Degrees of Initiation.

Cremaster 4 is closest to the biological model and so sets the scene, suggesting the system's onward rush. There is a motorcycle race and a Candidate who is tap-dancing his way through the floor (weird? yes - but it is definitely art, not weird for weird's sake!)

Cremaster 5 has a Tudor feel to it. It comprises mostly a tragic opera set in Budapest. I found it the most obscure of the whole cycle and could have done with subtitles at least to capture the meaning of the opera. Complex symbols involving Houdini further complicate the work.

The Guggenheim Museum (which houses a parallel exhibition) describes the Cremaster Cycle as "a self-enclosed aesthetic system consisting of five feature-length films that explore processes of creation." As film, the Cremaster Cycle is one to experience in the cinema if you have the opportunity to do so, or to experience and re-experience at leisure on DVD (the boxed set is a gem for lovers of art-cinema fusion).

Reviewed on: 06 Oct 2006
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A series of symbolic works about sexual development and creation.

Director: Matthew Barney

Writer: Matthew Barney

Starring: Ursula Andress, Matthew Barney, Marti Domination, Norman Mailer, Jim Tooey

Year: 2002

Runtime: 40 minutes

Country: USA


EIFF 2003

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