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Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle at the MFA

The Cremaster Cycle
A series of five films directed and written by Matthew Barney. With Ursula Andress, Richard Serra, Norman Mailer, Aimee Mullins, Marti Domination, and Matthew Barney. At the Museum of Fine Arts May 30 through June 15.

How can something so weird be so boring? Part of the problem might be that as a filmmaker, Matthew Barney makes for an overrated sculptor. This is film as fetish, as wacky costumes and sets, all creepy, obsessive props and no action. Despite millions in production design, Peter Strietman’s splendid photography, and some witty if trance-inducing music by Jonathan Bepler, the six and a half hours of the " epic " Cremaster Cycle (see " Film Listings " for screening details) is sheer movie tedium, inert and unmoving, broken up by imagery that is more irritating than fascinating in its self-indulgent preciosity.

Of course, such stasis might simply reflect the project’s theme, which, from what I can gather after watching the films twice and reading the various exegeses provided by the filmmaker and those who acclaim him as " the most important American artist of his generation " (Michael Kimmelman, New York Times), has to do with the futility of the creative process and the tragedy of sexual differentiation. The first theme is abundantly illustrated; the second refers literally to the prenatal period when the unborn’s gonads have yet to ascend to become ovaries or descend to become testes (the cremaster, as everyone knows by now, is the muscle that raises and lowers the latter).

Although at times this preoccupation takes on a Grand Guignol beauty reminiscent of David Cronenberg, for the most part it translates into unending and pointless up-and-down motifs, a tiresome obsession with bizarre and painful-looking footwear, the many inappropriate uses of Vaseline, bevies of beautiful women in baroque outfits or in nothing at all (the unabashed if unerotic nudity might be one reason for the cycle’s appeal), a pastiche of myths and near-myths ranging from Celtic folklore to Masonic ritual to the American Dream to the filmmaker’s own masochistic fantasies, and the inevitable question of how will Matthew Barney abuse his orifices and genitals this time around. Will he get it from both ends, as happens in the marathon, 178-minute Cremaster 3 (2001), in an excruciating scene that combines the least attractive aspects of dental and obstetric procedures? Will he find himself transformed into a human bagpipe, as in the conclusion of Cremaster 4 (1994)? Or will his goodies be tied in a knot by ribbons and yanked skyward by Jacobin pigeons, as in an uplifting moment in Cremaster 5 (1997)?

Ouch. Matthew Barney suffers for his art, or at least one hopes so. Maybe that’s why of the five films, Cremaster 1 (1995) is my favorite, since it’s the only one he isn’t in (it’s also the shortest). Two Goodyear blimps (Barney beats the Wachowski Brothers for pretentious product placement) hover over the blazing blue Astroturf of Bronco Stadium in Boise, Idaho, where Barney himself starred as a high-school quarterback. A teddy-clad blonde ingénue (Marti Domination) somehow is in both blimps at once, hiding in a painfully constricted position under a table bearing grapes, purple in one blimp, green in the other. She extricates the grapes from above and somehow excretes them through her requisite cruel footwear to form patterns on the floor imitated by the Busby Berkeley–like chorus lines on the gridiron below. The retro-outfitted flight attendants look on with elegant boredom.

Not exactly Gold Diggers of 1933, but it has its pleasures and a certain enthralling rhythm. And it almost makes sense: the blimps as undifferentiated gonads, the constrained artistic ego (female in this instance) breaking free and expressing itself. The pattern takes an ugly, testosterone-addled turn in Cremaster 2 (1999), however, as the Belle Captive of the first film becomes the ill-fated Gary Gilmore, whose execution in Utah for murder in 1977 was the first after the Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment was constitutional. Gary’s troubles began, it seems, with his alleged grandfather Harry Houdini (played by Norman Mailer, who wrote about Gilmore’s crime and punishment in The Executioner’s Song), who supposedly was seduced by Gilmore’s wasp-waisted grandmother Baby Fay La Foe (played by " Anonymous " ) when he performed at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition. Sounds like juicy, sordid stuff, but leave it to Barney and his vats of Vaseline and esoteric and banal symbology to transform it into a snore beginning with Gilmore (played by Barney) locked in the front seat of two conjoined Mustangs (if you’re taking notes, these parallel the two blimps in Cremaster 1) and ending, in the words of the press notes, " with Gilmore’s metaphoric transportation back to the turn of the century . . . rendered in a dance sequence featuring the Texas two-step. "

Maybe they’re trying to be funny. If so, the joke is on all those trying to stay awake so that they can pile praise on this humorless, narcissistic huckster and his infantile fever dreams.

Issue Date: May 30 - June 5, 2003
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