American Odd: The Cremaster Cycle by Matthew Barney


Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle
By Nancy Spector
Guggenheim Museum Publications
Review by Karl Wolff

Over a decade ago I had the rare opportunity to see The Cremaster Cycle, a series of five interrelated films by Matthew Barney. The Cremaster Cycle included other material, everything from sketches, photographs, music, and sculpture. When I first saw the films, I marveled at their visionary power, epic scope, and esoteric symbolism. The Cremaster Cycle takes it name from the cremaster muscle, a muscle that regulates the temperature of the testicles. The five films chart, among many other things, the progression from an undifferentiated state to a differentiated state. From the pre-natal and pre-genital to that of a gendered being. It was rewarding to reread Nancy Spector’s introductory essay, “Only the Perverse Fantasy Can Still Save Us,” as the United States grapples with the issue of trans awareness (and its legal, cultural, and political ramifications). To be clear, The Cremaster Cycle isn’t about trans issues per se, but it would make an excellent vehicle for intelligent discussions about gender and trans awareness. This will become clearer when I examine more specific aspects of Barney’s epic undertaking.

The Cremaster Cycle includes five films, of varying lengths, filmed out of order. They are:

Cremaster 1 (1995, 41 minutes)
Cremaster 2 (1999, 79 minutes)
Cremaster 3 (2002, 179 minutes)
Cremaster 4 (1994, 42 minutes)
Cremaster 5 (1997, 55 minutes)

Unlike The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, these films trace their cinematic genealogy back to avant-garde cinema. Films like Un chien andalou by Luis Bunuel and Chelsea Girls by Andy Warhol cater to a specific audience and bring along a certain set of aesthetic expectations. The Cremaster Cycle is also really odd, hence my inclusion of it in this essay series. The oddness comes from its outre subject matter, glamourous-yet-creepy visuals, and massive scale.

While it would take much longer to elaborate the intricacies of plot, symbolism, and interpretation, I’m going to provide a brief overview of each film. (But for those genuinely interested in Barney’s work, I would highly suggest checking out The Cremaster Cycle book put out by the Guggenheim Foundation. Even if you aren’t one to read the occasionally impenetrable introductory essay, the book is worth pursuing simply to gaze at the lavish visuals.)

The Cycle’s five films are:

Cremaster 1: A spectacle reminiscent of Busy Berkeley dance numbers, the film has highly choreographed dancing girls while two Goodyear blimps hover around a football stadium. The imagery recalls testes or ovaries. Overall, the ambiance of the film is one of cold, calculated precision, and a hermetic utopia.

Cremaster 2: The film traces the 1977 execution of Gary Gilmore, supposed descendant of Harry Houdini. It brings together Mormon symbolism, a Victorian seance, desert and glacier imagery, and Norman Mailer as Harry Houdini. (Mailer wrote The Executioner’s Song about the execution of Gilmore.) In the film, Gilmore is ritually sacrificed in a stadium made of salt sculpted on the Bonneville Salt Flats.

Cremaster 3: The longest film of the series is a Masonic gangster picture. The Entered Apprentice seeks to gain entry into the Lodge, but does so through devious means. The Syndicate, an Irish organized crime group, take on the trappings of a Masonic lodge set amid the construction of the Chrysler Building in 1930. Below the building, Seventies-era Chrysler Imperials play demolition derby with a Thirties-era Chrysler Imperial. In the Thirties-era car is the gender-switched reincarnation of Gary Gilmore, seen as a zombified corpse. The Apprentice competes in The Order, a kind of Masonic game show/sports competition set in the Guggenheim Museum. The Apprentice vies for power against The Architect Hiram Abiff (played by sculptor Richard Serra). At the conclusion of the film, the Apprentice succeeds the Architect, but only through a double-murder/double-sacrifice as the Chrysler Building becomes complete. (Paralympic athlete Aimee Mullins plays multiple roles in the film.)

Cremaster 4: The first film shot, Cremaster 4 can best be summarized as a fairy tale road movie. Set on the Isle of Man, the Ascending and Descending Hacks race in opposite directions to complete the race. Symbolizing the ascending or descending sex organs, the race also involves a dandified satyr attempting to burrow through the island and three muscular androgynous “fairies” (Barney borrowing Manx folkloric terminology) acting as a Greek chorus. The race is never completed.

Cremaster 5: The film stars Ursula Andress as the Queen of Chain and it is set in Budapest. Staged as a seven-act opera, the lavish neorenaissance Budapest Opera House and the Chain Bridge follow a tragic narrative. The Queen of Chain pines after The Diva (played by Barney). Amid the operatics, Barney also recreates a Houdini-like escape from the bridge. The tragic end was either a dream or a fairy tale, although it is hard to figure out which.

While watching the films or looking at the pictures, it would be easy to get frustrated or bored. Part of the challenge with Barney’s work is following the intricate associative connections. It is best to simply absorb the work, taking in the visuals and the soundtrack. Sometimes “not getting it” is beside the point.

In terms of trans awareness, I’m not going to turn this work into a piece of ideology. But at a more abstract and intellectual level, The Cremaster Cycle engages the viewer to contemplate gender, transformation, and resistance. Is gender about “being” or “becoming”?* Nancy Spector asserts that Barney’s main obsession is artistic creation through resistance. His work seeks to exist in a constant conflict between two zones: the first is a zone of pure desire (undifferentiated, chaotic) and the second is the zone of production. But he also seeks to short-circuit the zone of production, because when something is produced, the resistance ends. The interplay (both literally and metaphorically) between chaotic desire and productive resistance drive his work.

How is this an example of the American Odd? Where to begin? While Barney is the product of the American arts scene, he brings to this piece a wild melange of influences, obsessions, and subject matter. His artistic use of resistance and spectacle hearken back to his days as a high school football player in Idaho. He also brings together biology, geography, history, geology, religion, and sexuality to create a massive personal artistic monument.

*As a side-note, gender plays an important role in Mormon dogma. According to Mormons, one has a gender even before birth. Gender was determined when one as a pre-mortal spirit and one will have gender as a post-mortal spirit. The rigid concept of gender offers another reading into Cremaster 2 with Gary Gilmore’s desire to escape. Like Angels in America by Tony Kushner, Cremaster 2 uses Mormonism as raw material to create an epic pantheistic theatrical experience.


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