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Sunday, March 13, 2005

The Cremaster Cycle - review

originally published in Uptown Magazine

The Cremaster Cycle is American artist Matthew Barney’s art film epic, five films which taken together total six and a half hours in length. The point of departure for each film, at least conceptually, is the male cremaster muscle, which controls testicular contractions.

As a result, the films are steeped in sexual imagery, with a focus on the physiological. This is not to say that Barney takes a cold, dispassionate view of sexual attraction and human interaction. Rather than removing the magic and mystery from a concept like love, Barney focuses on physiological processes as mysterious in themselves and producing their own magical results.

Take Cremaster 1, for example. In it, the heroine Goodyear filches grapes from the table under which she appears to spend most of her time, then consumes and excretes these grapes in a rather clean and mystical fashion.

The table under which Goodyear moves manifests itself in two separate but similar areas, blimps hovering above Bronco Stadium. Hostesses in each blimp tend to the tables, their vaseline sculpture, and their grapes (green on one, purple on the other). After moving through Goodyear’s body, the grapes are then used to choreograph movements by dancers on the football field below.

This concept of transformation is central to the films, in which physical and spiritual metamorphoses are inextricably bound and dire consequences result from attempts to circumvent established systems of progression.

In Cremaster 3, the Apprentice cheats by creating a perfect ashlar (a hewn stone used in Masonic ritual) using a mold rather than carving the work. The Apprentice is punished for this action, which departs from the “natural” process of ritual, which is considered sacred.

The films are cryptic but stunning. Barney’s visual style, which combines 3-D art, video, sculpture, performance, dance, and pageantry, is staggeringly original. However, due to the obvious financial strain that such a project would cause, parts of the films seem to suffer from poorer production values than other parts.

Barney certainly knows how to stretch production dollars, however, and scenes which reveal the limitations of the budget still manage to be strikingly beautiful. The true glory of The Cremaster Cycle is its visuals, which are absolutely stunning. Rich, imaginative, and beautiful, the film’s visual style is extraordinary in every sense of the word.

The ideas in the films are interesting and not as incomprehensible as might be expected in such a surreal work. Though the imagery can be as confusing as it is striking, such confusion leads from attempts to force the film into categories and to assign a specific “meaning” to each image.

Such an approach is a reductive one, and though the film’s images are not devoid of meaning, shot by shot these meanings exert influence upon one another and transform each other as they themselves are transformed.

The Cremaster Cycle may be a bit pretentious in places, but Barney’s films have a sense of humour about their own pretensions and are packed with subtle visual jokes that also tie into the overall concept. Smart, sly, wonderful films, packed with incredible visuals.


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