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Reader review by Enar Clarke

The Cremaster cycle defers any definitive conclusion.”–from the synopsis of “Cremaster 5”


FEATURING: , Norman Mailer, Aimee Mullins, Richard Serra, Matthew Barney

PLOT: Over the course of five films, through a series of loosely interconnected stories in various film genres, characters metaphorically portray the drama of sexual differentiation in the human reproductive system during the early stages of fetal development.

Still from the Cremaster Cycle

COMMENTS: As has been remarked on this site before, the Cremaster Cycle, directed by and starring visual artist Matthew Barney, is a nigh-legendary series of films. The Cycle tends to be screened once approximately every ten years, hence its mystique. Aside from a highly-priced limited edition run of DVDs, only a 30-minute cut of Cremaster 3 (The Order) is readily available on disc. The films were originally elements of an art installation that also included drawings, photographs, and sculptures; for this reason, they are usually screened by contemporary art museums.

With that in mind, the question readers of this site are probably asking is, are these films weird enough to be worth the effort of trying to see them?

This isn’t an easy question to answer. The five films in the Cremaster Cycle are undoubtedly weird, an endless progression of strange and inscrutable imagery that can honestly be as boring as it is compelling. Each film has at least two settings and sets of characters, but only the most threadbare of plots. Barney’s minimalist website provides the basic details, which can be useful for interpreting the subject matter. To avoid spoilers, I would recommend reading the cast lists prior to viewing, and saving the synopses for afterwards. All of the films, except Cremaster 2, are dialogue-free, and until the credits roll, it can be impossible to identify who, or what, the characters are supposed to be.

Like the best weird movies, the Cycle has divided both critics and viewers. New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman famously declared Barney “the most important artist of his generation.” Film scholar J. Hoberman, in his book “Film After Film,” dismissed the Cremaster Cycle as “an overwrought 57th street yard sale.” Viewers on IMDB have variously described the films as “flamboyant,” “bizarre,” “campy,” “grotesque,” and most commonly, “pretentious.” Directors Barney has been compared to include , David Cronenberg, , , David Lynch, , and Ken Russell—all of whose work is represented on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies. Fans of these directors are just as likely to detest the Cycle, however, as they are to admire it.

The recent screenings, at Metrograph in New York City, presented the films in order of production date, which is not the numerical order, nor is it the narrative order. Barney has said that he intends his films to be suggestive of meaning, and therefore open to interpretation. The precise order of viewing seems to be irrelevant.

I won’t review the extensive literature on the Cycle, and quite frankly, there are too many themes to delve into here. Interestingly enough, I think the key to enjoying the Cremaster Cycle may very well be found in what we call the “weird.” Those who condemn Barney for his pretentiousness express frustration with the highly individualized, densely layered, symbolic system he has created, and the lack of traditional film cues to assist the viewer in comprehending it. We are presented, in essence, with a foreign language, but without a Rosetta Stone to enable translation.

In his review of Mark Fisher’s The Weird and the Eerie on this site, Gregory J. Smalley writes: “It is that pointing to an outside form of knowledge, something esoteric that creeps into the scene through a metaphor that seems equally profound and slippery, that we see as the hallmark of the weird.”

This perfectly describes the experience of watching the Cremaster Cycle – something esoteric always creeps into the scene, to both re-supply and disrupt the symbolic order that is established at any given moment. Adding to the confusion, temporal and spatial displacements that defy the laws of physics frequently happen. It is the shock of the weird, the constant jolts of strangeness, that hold, or recapture, the viewer’s attention over six and half hours.

In Cremaster 5 (1997) a Hungarian queen (Ursula Andress) garbed in mourning attire sings an aria, accompanied by a symphony orchestra, while attended by her identical twin ushers in an otherwise empty theater. Her throne is on a balcony, and the ushers point out that she can see into a bath house through holes in the throne’s base. The three characters watch an underwater scene of nereid-like creatures swimming about in a pool. This gives the impression that we are peering into a microcosm. A ceremony takes place, in which the aquatic sprites turn a mysterious figure, identified as The Queen’s Giant, then into a living Maypole, complicating the sense of scale and the relationship between the settings.

In Cremaster 1 (1995) two Goodyear blimps hover over a football stadium. Inside each blimp there is a room set with a banquet table upon which rests a sculpture surrounded by piles of grapes: red grapes in one, green in the other. A statuesque blond woman (Marti Domination), wearing a white silk negligee and stockings with garters, lies on her back on a small platform beneath the table. She painstakingly creates a hole in the tablecloth and begins to extract the grapes from it, which inexplicably travel through a funnel in the sole of one of her shoes. Sometimes the grapes are red, and sometimes green, suggesting she is beneath both tables at the same time.

In Cremaster 3 (2002), we see the Apprentice waiting at a bar in the Cloud Club of the Chrysler Building. Barney cuts to a scene of the Apprentice at a racetrack, presumably at an earlier time. He is with a woman, watching chariots pulled by zombie horses, when he is roughly apprehended by a group of men, dragged away, and his teeth are knocked out. When the camera returns to the bar, nothing else has changed, but his mouth is bleeding (this leads into what I will dare to call the weirdest dental procedure ever put to film).

White gloves, evoking traditions of performance, from vaudeville to aristocratic gentility, emphasize the enigmatic gestures of the protagonists—Masonic handshakes, magicians’ sleight of hand. In Cremaster 2 (1999), Norman Mailer portrays Harry Houdini while undergoing one of his feats of transformation. This preoccupation with magic, which ties together several plot threads, also suggests the idea of filmmaker as illusionist. The moments of nonsensical transition could only be achieved through the unique ability of film to be edited, cut, and spliced in such a way. As a sculptor, Barney often emphasizes the materiality of the medium over narrative.

Filmed on 35mm (and unrestored, from what I can tell), the candy-colored palette of brilliant pinks, reds, and blues has the Technicolor glow that’s so in vogue among today’s retro enthusiasts. Each film features gorgeous aerial landscape photography, although in the age of drones this is perhaps less impressive than it once was. A few sequences of early 3D animation certainly look dated, but the prosthetics and “creature effects” (the work of Gabe Bartalos) are sophisticated enough to hold up. For movies about reproductive organs, there is plentiful nudity, but the genitalia on display is entirely unrealistic and fantastical; the closest thing to an explicit sex scene in the whole Cycle involves a penis shaped like a beehive that spurts both honey and bees.

For those curious enough to see something of the Cycle, without having to wait for a special screening event, the DVD of The Order is likely the only option. It is the final 30 minutes of Cremaster 3‘s 182 minute total runtime, which concludes the initiation of the Apprentice. Barney climbs the walls of the Guggenheim Museum, scaling the levels of the spiral in a protracted scene that has been called both a critique of sports culture and a satire of video games. However it is interpreted, it looks like a beauty pageant talent show crossed with a triathlon. The Apprentice is plunged headlong into a flurry of activity in which he is surrounded by other characters performing various repetitive actions, including artist Richard Serra creating one of his trademark sculptures, Aimee Mullins as a cheetah-woman, and a battle of the bands that forms part of the soundtrack. I haven’t seen it in this form, but according to my research, the DVD menu allows the viewer to choose the order of the five levels that comprise the sequence, although the ending apparently remains the same. The Cremaster Cycle continues to defer any definitive conclusion.


“Barney reaches back into Greek and Gaelic mythologies and forwards into speculative spaces where we force our bodies to evolve into biomechanical hybrids of surpassing strangeness and arcane, to us, function, and he ties it all together with the endless malleability of our flesh…  There is certainly a mesmeric quality to this six-and-a-half hour, essentially wordless enterprise, a certain hypnotic element born of some alchemy of repetition and revulsion that I think feeds into the piece’s power. Familiarity breeds contempt, it’s true, but it also allows for pattern recognition. If the most common knock against it is that it’s not ‘edited’ into a coherent narrative that avoids repetition, that misses the point entirely. Repetition is the point. And if repetition is the point, so is self-indulgence and solipsism.” Walter Chaw, (2023 screening)


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