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Cremaster 3 (Matthew Barney) 2002


    Matthew Barney’s extravagant new art film Cremaster 3 is at once a tough pill to swallow and a minor miracle of self-expression. Tackling many of the same themes that Cocteau did in his 1930 masterwork The Blood of a Poet, Barney ends his five film Cremaster series with a surprisingly coherent and approachable installment that obviously stands as the series’ magnum opus. I haven’t lived in New York City long enough to have seen all of Barney’s series, and he doesn’t make it easy to see them outside of a museum. Apparently, the only way to obtain a video copy of them involves purchasing one of the director/artist’s sculptures, which are prominently featured in the films.  The Guggenheim is planning a retrospective of the series next year, and that exposition should allow me to fill some of the gaps in my understanding of the series, but I did previously see Cremaster 2, the fourth film in the series. Though Cremaster 2 was considered a huge step forward in terms of narrative structure and scope, its story was not nearly as coherent, nor was imagery as powerful as that Barney presents in his latest film. Like Blood of the Poet, Cremaster 3 is divided into four segments, which show the gradual progression of the man into the artist. I can’t talk much about its relationship to the rest of the series (though some images clearly recalled Cremaster 2, particularly during the demolition derby), but the film is remarkably self-contained. I can’t analyze the film as great art necessarily, but I can look at it solely as a film, and by those standards, it’s the most impressive work I’ve seen so far this year. Frankly, to judge it by the same terms as most films feels unfair.


    It’s tough to name the most dominant theme in a film as densely packed as this one, but the exploration of the artist’s growth in a world that is hostile toward his unproductive creativity stood out most to me. Each of the four segments of Cremaster 3 seems to present a different stage in the development of its artist. The first segment that we see shows us a relationship between two giants, presumably father and son. Set on a remote isle, we see the son sculpting secretly when his father wanders the ocean, bellowing. Upon returning, the father finds the son’s sculpture and, after failing to gain the same sustenance from art as the son, is outraged. A fight ensues between the two, leading to the casting of a giant stone disc into the sea. We see thousands of similar discs where that one lies, suggesting the encounter has happened countless times before. Quite by accident, the repeated confrontation seems accountable for The Giant’s Causeway, a famed Irish landmark. The other segments of the film play out similarly. Set in the Chrysler Building and the Cloud Club speakeasy contained within, a horse racetrack, and the Guggenheim Museum, each of them similarly pits its “hero” (played by Barney himself in each segment) against the patriarchy that cannot understand his desire to create.


   There’s no dialogue in the film, but we still get a good sense of what the director is trying to say. Clearly, the scale and the opulence of Barney’s vision are unusual, even in the art world. His films are not at all amateurish, in the way that much video art is, and it’s made quite obvious that the artist puts a lot of work into his expression. The movie looks as if Barney himself has painstakingly sculpted every detail on screen. The director casts himself in the Chrysler segment as a mason, creating a link between himself and the working people of the world. We see him reaching out to those who work for a living (most explicitly to the potato cutter), and we see the amount of work he requires to complete his obscure tasks (that we can’t quite understand their purpose seems half the point). It’s no coincidence that the film had its world premiere on May 1st (May Day – which is used here to reference the worker’s holiday, a phallic symbol, and one of a multitude of nods to Celtic culture). As Barney contemplates his artistic process, he celebrates of the ability of all work to achieve results, culminating in an orgasmic transformation of the Chrysler building into a Maypole. Though there might be a bit of hubris involved in Barney’s comparisons of his work to some of the greatest works of architecture and nature, his willingness to be self-effacing goes a long way toward accepting those associations.


    Barney’s most overt auto-critique takes place during the Guggenheim segment. Cast as the “Entered Apprentice” (one of many Masonic references) of the art world in this segment, he is challenged with the near-indomitable task of scaling the vertical spire of the museum. On each of the building’s five floors, a living diorama resides, each apparently reminiscent of one of the Cremaster films. As the Barney character attempts to maneuver past his creations, he slyly criticizes his place in the art world that has coddled him. Throughout, there’s an abundant sense of humor in his images, and the testosterone-addled climax of the Apprentice’s attempts to scale the building is at once mordantly funny and a revelation. Unlike Cocteau, who explained most artistic expression as a rape of childhood trauma (this artist’s trauma is removed in the dental scene), Barney sees his art as a necessary extension of his natural male impulse. His violent outburst at the film’s end is at once a defilement of the hallowed halls of the museum and a justification for being there in the first place. The series of heavily symbolic images that Barney presents during the film are at once familiar (in the sense that they contain a good deal of iconic power) and unworldly (in the sense that no one else would possibly conceive them). I’ll stop my review here, since to overanalyze them would probably rob them of much of their intuitive, visceral power, which is only enhanced by the ever-escalating drone of the soundtrack. Cremaster 3 is an astonishing achievement. 


* * * * Masterpiece 


Jeremy Heilman