Order - From Matthew Barney's Cremaster 3 (2003)
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(This is a review of avant-garde artist Matthew Barney's entire Cremaster cycle -- not just "The Order," which is part of Cremaster 3.)
Matthew Barney's almost wordless Cremaster Cycle is tremendously long (seven hours) and not particularly engaging. Especially deadly is the middle section, Cremaster 3, which lasts three hours and is made up mostly of a homage to New York's Chrysler Building.
Much of the Cycle is uninterpretable, with one baffling sequence after another. I am no expert in contemporary art, but I'm not completely uninitiated either. Much of the time, I could not at all see what Mr. Barney was trying to say or even what kinds of issues he was trying to explore.
The basic stuff I got. I know that the cremaster muscle envelops the human male's testicles so thus is involved in sexual lust and the regeneration of our species. All throughout the cycle there were erotic references and an exploration of the male body, with Barney disrobing quite a number of times. There were numerous metaphors for testicles, such as two Goodyear blimps hovering over a football field in Cremaster 1.
Bulls, known for their testicles, were used in the filming of Cremaster 2. (In the Rocky Mountain states, incidentally, the bull's testicles are eaten as a delicacy. They call them Rocky Mountain Oysters.) Giant ribbons are unfurled from the tip of the Chrysler Building in Cremaster 3, giving the appearance that it is a penis ejaculating semen. But these erotic suggestions account for about 2% of the content of the series. It was all the other stuff that was so baffling.
I also don't share Barney's fascination with male sexual arousal. I enjoy it as much as the next guy, but I don't find it so fascinating. Barney is very attractive and has a body that the ancient Greeks would have worshipped. There is no doubt that it is a pleasure to see him naked -- even heterosexual males will no doubt join in the fun of watching him. But that is a shallow form of pleasure, which can be obtained far more efficiently by viewing good porn. It certainly is not enough to sustain a seven-hour epic.
With avant-garde work, one always feels uncertain as to what the creator had in mind. But you can create your own meaning based on some of the things you see. When almost everything is baffling, there is no pleasure. Sometimes if an artist is so stunning visually, the meaning doesn't much matter. You can get lost in the haunting visuals, and they fuel your own thoughts. Barney has some of that visual skill. But most of the time his striking visuals are repeated so often that their power erodes. They are striking at first, but the excessive repetition causes them to become like Chinese water torture.
I cannot recommend that anyone spend seven hours with Barney's work. But perhaps you can take a taste from one of his shorter films. Here are the production dates and duration times:
Cremaster 1 -- 1995, 40 mins
Cremaster 2 -- 1999, 80 mins
Cremaster 3 -- 2002, 3 hours
Cremaster 4 -- 1994, 40 mins
Cremaster 5 -- 1997, 1 hour
Cremaster 1 is shot almost entirely on a football field with no spectators. On the field is a huge chorus line of showgirls reminiscent of Busby Berkeley movie musicals. There is cross-cutting between what the showgirls are doing and what is happening inside two Goodyear blimps that hover over the field.
The second film is much more dense and complicated. There is a strong country-western theme and a whole sequence appears to be filmed in the middle of Great Salt Lake. Barney appears in the film as serial killer Gary Gilmore, and Norman Mailer (who wrote a book about Gilmore) appears as Harry Houdini. Heavy metal music is introduced to the cycle here as well, as is the theme of a bee hive -- both appear to be randomly inserted into the film.
Cremaster 3 -- a wildly overlong meditation on the building of early skyscrapers such as New York's Chrysler building. Barney appears as a stone mason who undergoes an inexplicable but vaguely erotic medical procedure involving his mouth and anus. "The Order" is tacked on at the end. It appears to be a stand-alone work that should have been its own installment. Filmed in New York's Guggenheim Museum, it depicts Barney in pink body make-up and a huge pink headdress climbing up and down (over and over and over) the building's spiral. Two punk bands are playing on one of the levels. Legendary sculptor Richard Serra is shown in the museum as well.
Cremaster 4 -- Filmed in what appears to be Scotland, Barney appears in facial prosthetics that make him look like a pig. He tapdances inexplicably for a very long time, and then walks underwater for a very long time, also inexplicably. These scenes are cross-cut, again inexplicably, with endless scenes of two race cars crossing the countryside.
Cremaster 5 -- the most visually stunning and beautiful of the films. It involves Ursula Andress as an opera-singing queen in a nearly empty opera house. Barney appears onstage as something of a court jester. Then he appears in bizarre body prosthetics as a sort of satyr. If I were going to recommend any of the films, this would be the one. This is Barney at his most cinematic, haunting and theatrical. The soundtrack is also gorgeous.
I'm sure I could read material that unpacks some of the baffling content in the cycle. But if one has to go to a library to gain something from a work of art, it doesn't strike me as a work of art that succeeds on any level. I go to a library to enhance my experience of art, to see it in new ways. If I have no way of seeing it on my own, if the work itself doesn't grab me, then the trip to the library hardly seems worth it.
Furthermore, if I did learn more about Barney's metaphors, I'm reasonably confident that I'd find them uninteresting -- and a little adolescent.
Since all of Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle is purely visual, I'll do nothing more than present photos and leave my ratings open for interpretation. But with that said, Barney does an excellent job transforming art into film and I urge everyone to watch all 5 of the installments if possible.
***1/4 / ***** (Cremaster 1)
[left]**** / ***** (Cremaster 3: The Order)
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