How to Survive Matthew Barney’s Six Hour Art Film Cycle

With artist Matthew Barney and composer Jonathan Bepler’s five-hour film, River of Fundament, getting its West Coast Premiere at UCLA’s Royce Hall, L.A.’s Hammer Museum thought now was as good a time as any to screen Barney and Bepler’s best known work: The Cremaster Cycle.

A five-film cycle with the stated goal of illustrating the process and tensions created by the descension of the scrotal sac (the cremaster muscle being explained in layman’s terms as “the muscle that makes your balls go up and down”), Cremaster is a post-post-modern Wagnerian gesamstkunstwerk featuring Masonic rituals, drag racing, drag, Goodyear blimps, bison and a cast that features Norman Mailer and former Bond girl Ursella Andress, among others.

In other words, the perfect after-work wind-down film. Having seen Barney’s influential exhibition of painting, sculpture and installation derived from Cremaster at the Guggenheim in 2002, I decided to take a stab at seeing all five of the films as they were screened at the Hammer’s Billy Wilder Theater over three evenings in Westwood. I’m not entirely sure what motivated me, but here are my notes from each film, which was screened in the order they were made.

Cremaster 4

The biological background of the piece is explained to me and the rest of the audience as basically something something systems and states of creation, something something opera and sexuality. I may be doing the description a diservice, but that’s what I got. Even though Cremaster 4 was the first Cremaster film to be made, it’s narratively, the fourth film or for Robert McKee fans, we’re looking at the third act break.

Which brings up the first and probably most interesting problem I find myself in watching these films; they aren’t really films at all. Each film (and I only discover this much much later) is really more of a painting in motion than say something with a linear structure, although that’s not entirely true, either. In any event, Cremaster 4 is meant to capture the sort of final headlong rush of (insert Cartman voice here) yer balls on a hot summer day, before being fully extended.

What exactly does that look like, you ask? Well, mostly a horned goat dude tap dancing on a pier off the coast of the Isle of Mann while two drag racers speed around the island in opoosite directions while gelatinous testes writhe around their racing suits. Pretty obvious, when you think about it.

And this is sort of the whole problem with art film and conceptual art in general: I’m certain I’ve lost 90% of you already. To call Cremaster “challenging” is to understate something that is nothing but overstatement. I don’t have any formal art training other than a pretty intense college romance with a photography student, so my interest in seeing Cremaster in one fell swoop definitely has a masochistic macho gauntlet quality to it. I’m climbing it because it’s there.

Turns out, that’s what Cremaster 4 is all about. Here’s Barney as tap dancing goat man falling into the ocean, weighed down by glass orbs in his suit pockets. Now, he‘s climbing upwards through an orifice lined with petroleum jelly, forced to contort his body to reach the surface.

Sure, it’s ridiculous, but it’s pretty and also, I think maybe it’s meant to be a challenging off-putting time consuming effort. There’s also a scene in which a tire with a pair of Truck Nutz embedded into it is unsuccessfully installed onto one of the drag race cars, which is pretty hilarious

Cremaster 1

The second film is supposed to describe “pure potential” or as they say in ballspeak, “Welcome to Shrinkage City.”

Again, there’s two separate, but related narrative images happening. In one two Goodyear blimps float above a football field while a bunch of severe looking stewardess look down. In the center of the blimp cabins there’s a banquet table.

Underneath the banquet table, someone named Marti Domination — I don’t know — has grapes fall from a horn in her shoe which she then arranges into shapes? I don’t even know how to describe it.

Below on the football field, which is bright blue, a group of Ziegfield Follies style dancers dance out the shapes created by Marti’s grape patterns in the blimp above.

That’s kind of all there is to it and unsurprisingly, watching 45 minutes of nothing but “pure potential” means a lot of waiting for nothing to happen.

What this does is provide you a lot of time to think. I think about that word: “potential”, which teachers and parents would sling at me as an epithet when I was young (and to be fair, I’ve yet to produce a single art film, unless you count the music video I once did for Grizzly Bear), I think about how much it cost to make each of these films and how the rough quality of these early films (shot in 1994 & 1995, respectively) would look when contrasted with Barney’s later, better funded work. I think about Barney’s obsession with binaries (barneries?) and how even stasis isn’t really static. I think, sure, I might as well keep going and see how this plays out.

Cremaster 5

The next night, I’m back at the Hammer and sitting in front of me is a well-dressed woman I learn is a westside mother of two who’s originally from California, but lived in New York for several years and as a result, is of the opinion that L.A. is a cultural wasteland with nothing to offer.

I point out our current setting and she waves me off, certain that as someone who also lived in New York for a time I will agree that the East Coast is far superior and this somehow segues into a conversation about her children having had nightmares after seeing Pan’s Labyrinth (“Remember that thing with the hands and the eyes!?”) and that was the reason she didn’t bring them to tonight’s screening. She adds, just so that I know she’s no child, that she adored Pan’s Labyrinth.

Cremaster 5 is the last film, which (if you’ve been paying attention) you know illustrates the full desension of the testes. This is done in the form of a grand ragic opera involving a lot of singing, Matthew Barney climbing a garland that frames the Budapest Opera House and elsewehere, as another person entirely, his swimming naked with androgynous nymphs before having a basket of ribbons tied to his scrotum with the far end attached to fancy pigeons, who attempt, in vain, to fly free.

Afterwards, in the courtyard, I ask my seta neighbor what she thought. “I mean, what did it even mean?” Now, on one hand, this woman is plainly awful, on the other, she came to get out of her comfort zone and that should be appluded. I start to explain what the cremaster muscle is and biological states and the creative impulse, but this isn’t really helping. The birds really freaked her out and she sort of implies it was a form of animal abuse, but she did agree that Matthew Barney, naked on a horse, was a pleasant sight to look at.

I ask her if she’ll stick around for the next film? “Didn’t they say it’s a western? I hate westerns.”

Cremaster 2

Technically speaking, Cremaster 2 is, in fact, a western. It’s set in the west —

A briefish aside here: At this point, having seen all the previous films really starts paying off, since there’s a lot of connections, themes and motifs repeated throughout the films — feet, for example, particularly women’s shoes or attachments to shoes. Another is the sort of twinning and reversing of binaries — If you put the films in actual order, they form patterns. For instance, location: 1 is set in the Old World, 2 is set in the New, 3 is set in both worlds (New York and Scotland), 4 is set in the New again and 5 is set in the old. Having gone to school for dramatic writing, this structural stuff is fascinating because really (lots of asterisks here, but really), there are only two forms of dramatic narrative: Aristotilean (Rising action, falling action, basically everything Hollywood makes) and Brechtian (Brecht plays and some Mamet). As a writer, Barney is most interesting as a narrative artist and I think that’s his primary medium. What he does in the Cremaster films (and all of his work, really) is create new narrative structures — he’s a story architect, building frameworks that he then fills with film, sculpture, photography and performance. This, far more than all the ball jokes (and I do think creating a 5 hour film cycle about balls descending is, among other things, a deliberate joke) is what makes The Cremaster Cycle, in my mind at least, worth sitting through.

Anyhow, yes, it’s set in the west, which I guess makes it a western. It does have bison and cowboys and mormons and desert and two-stepping, but as you may have guessed, it’s way more David Lynch than John Ford.

I’ll say this: If you only see one Cremaster film, Cremaster 2 is the one to see. It’s the closest thing to traditionally narrative and has a story with beginning middle and end, although they have been minced and reassembled. Essentially, it’s the story of murderer and popularizer of the phrase “Let’s do this”, Gary Gilmore, but in Barney’s eyes it plays out as a magical duel between Houdini (played by Norman Mailer, who wrote The Excecutioner’s Song about Gilmore and whose book, River of Fundament, is the basis of Barney’s latest film) and an unnamed sorceress. Along the way, there’s a sequence on the Great Salt Lake that references 2001, a really affecting close-up shot of a bullet wound and Matthew Barney riding a bull.

Cremaster 3

The final Cremaster screened was also the longest, with nearly a three hour run time. It’s about some mythological Scottish creatures and the construction of the Chrysler building, but really, it’s about Freemasons.

Halfway through the cycle, Cremaster 3 is an elaborate ritual. There’s cars crushing other cars, a zombified gender swapped Gary Gilmore, gangsters, elaborate beer pouring esoterica and Richard Serra as Chief Architect being bedeviled by Matthew Barney’s pluckish Mikey Mouse-esque apprentice.

I didn’t make it. After days of this, the piercing screech of the soundtrack and glacial unfolding of action finally broke my spirit. I knew it ended with a beautiful recapitulation of the entire series set in the Guggenheim Musuem (having seen the exhibit) and I knew also that in skipping out on one hour meant I was not living up to my potential as an avant garde cineaste, but I also knew, thanks to Barney, that the only way to really escape a system is to invent your own.

I walked out of the theater, hailed a cab east and pulled out my notebook, ready to create my own gauntlet for others to run.