Remarkably enough, when The Cremaster Cycle, visual artist Matthew Barney's eight-years-in-the-making, five-part, seven-hour avant-garde video opus, screens next week at Muvico Peabody Place, it will not be the first time it has been shown in a commercial theater inside a shopping center. The centerpiece third film in the cycle was exhibited in a similar environment earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival.
But Barney's film will be making quite a journey nonetheless for its Southern debut, screening for a week at Muvico as a prelude to the Indie Memphis Film Festival (October 23rd-30th in the same location) after debuting in February as "Matthew Barney: The Cremaster Cycle," a lavish multimedia installation at New York's Guggenheim Museum.
Barney, 36, is a major star in the art world, though he may still be an unknown to many film fans. New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman has called him "the most important American artist of his generation," though film critics have been more circumspect in their praise for the Cremaster films. Barney spent eight years shooting this richly symbolic, globe-trotting series of films, conceived as a continuous "story" (though self-contained enough to be "enjoyed" individually) but shot out of sequence, Ö la George Lucas' Star Wars series.
The Cremaster Cycle, which Barney speaks of as a sculpture (or "a text for generating objects"), boasts a weirdness that confounds exegesis. Meaning is elusive, and probably secondary to visual spectacle anyway, but one can detect something of a narrative and emotional arc to the series.
At one level, The Cremaster Cycle is a personal, self-referential epic (Barney appears in four of the five films) that acts as psychodramatic art-world allegory, tracking Barney's emergence from a boyhood in Boise, Idaho, to the pinnacle of the visual-arts scene.
Another storyline of sorts is conveyed by the title, the "cremaster" being the muscle that raises or lowers the testicles, its importance to Barney apparently revolving around the moment of sexual differentiation in the womb, notions of sexlessness and biological metamorphosis uniting the films (along with a series of other visual motifs).
Cremaster 1 (1995, 41 minutes) is an origin story of sorts. The action centers on the blue Astroturf football field of Boise State University (a field Barney, an ex-jock, played on in high school), where a troupe of pink- and red-clad dancers holding blue spheres dance in grand formations. Above them float two Goodyear blimps that house womb-like white rooms where a woman plays with grapes (and, no, I'm not making this up) which control the dancers down on the field.
This is the most whimsical entry in the series. With its swooning '50s film-score music, it could be one of environmental artist Christo's Busby Berkeley dreams. It also simultaneously tweaks a certain conception of middle-American masculinity (message: Here is a boy too flamboyant for Boise) and offers honest celebration of kitsch Americana.
Cremaster 2 (1999, 79 minutes) begins an eastward movement that will continue throughout the series and extends Barney's vision. In it, Barney reenacts the story of killer Gary Gilmore (played by Barney himself), giving a somewhat faithful version of Gilmore's murder of a Mormon gas-station attendant and reimagining Gilmore's execution as a bull-riding accident. Norman Mailer, who chronicled Gilmore's story in The Executioner's Song, also shows up as Harry Houdini.
Cremaster 3 (2002, 3 hours) is the most recent, most lavish, most technically well-filmed, and most impressive film in the series. Much of this sprawling entry concerns the erection of New York's landmark Chrysler Building (pun intended -- the building is a stand-in for Barney's phallus; how's that for ego?).
One segment of Cremaster 3, which takes place inside the Guggenheim itself, is a thing of such lunatic glee that it's the most memorable part of the whole cycle. In this stretch, Barney orchestrates a chaotic circus up and down Frank Lloyd Wright's grand ramp, with scantily clad bathing beauties, Rockettes-style dancers, New York hardcore bands Murphy's Law and Agnostic Front, and Barney himself in a red kilt and white-and-red makeup battling a cheetah-woman played by amputee athlete Aimee Mullins.
Cremaster 4 (1994, 42 minutes) is set on the Isle of Man and crosscuts between a tap-dancing Barney made up as a red-haired goat man and a motorcycle race (to determine the gender of Barney's series of characters?) across the island.
Set in Budapest, Cremaster 5 (1997, 55 minutes) concludes the series in a manner that is both literally and figuratively operatic. The series finds its emotional climax as a flock of doves, tethered to Barney's scrotum with ribbons, pulls his testicles skyward. Barney ends the cycle's epic journey by diving off a bridge and drowning in the Danube River.
Those looking for commercial, narrative filmmakers to compare Barney to might have some trouble. There's a bit of Stanley Kubrick here (circa A Clockwork Orange and 2001: A Space Odyssey, especially Barney's interest in sterile, womb-like spaces), some David Cronenberg (the interest in the body), and at least one unmistakably Godardian moment. (In Cremaster 2, the buzzing, ambient soundtrack eventually gives way to a scene inside the studio where the music is being recorded.)
One criticism that might be leveled at Barney is that he's a filmmaker who may not be very interested in film. Barney uses the camera primarily as a recording device. In other words, to the extent that The Cremaster Cycle is compelling (a personal call if anything is), it is for what the film shows rather than how -- for the visuals Barney puts in front of the camera rather than how he conveys them through editing, camera placement, or camera movement.
Film fans may rightly flinch at a notion of film as capital-"A" art in which The Cremaster Cycle qualifies, but, for instance, Mulholland Drive doesn't. As contentious as debate over The Cremaster Cycle may be, there's little doubt that it demands to be seen. How fortunate that Memphians will get the chance.
The Cremaster Cycle
Muvico Peabody Place Theater
Check Muvico listings for screening times.