If you see only one of Matthew Barney’s five-part Cremaster Cycle, make it Cremaster 3. It’s the final installation, the longest (a solid three hours), and by far the most polished and the most coherent. The cycle is comprised, in order of production and release, of numbers 4 (1994), 1 (1995), 5 (1997), 2 (1999) and 3 (2002). While the out-of-order sequence may seem a tad pretentious, rest assured this has some numerological or philosophical significance for Barney. All his films are carefully thought out and loaded with symbolism.
It is unfortunate that Barney is best known for impregnating his girlfriend Bjork, as he is one of America’s most innovative and provocative artists. His artistic reach spans film, sculpture, performance, installation, and design. Many of the set pieces and props in Cremaster 3, for instance, are his own sculptures; moreover, he got New York’s Guggenheim Museum to allow him to film the last movement of the film in its famous spiraling rotunda. The artist is also enamored of Busby Berkeley stylistics, such that chorus line numbers are a common motif.
Clearly, Barney’s influences are as varied as his media, and the Cremaster Cycle consistently pushes the boundaries of what constitutes “art,” “film,” and “popular culture.” All of the Cremaster films are visual abstractions, as well as excurses on themes like gender, sexuality, identity, freedom, and spiritual transcendence. It is in the last two films of the cycle that Barney becomes most overtly and politically engaged in a critique of power in American culture.
Cremaster 2 takes on madness, psychosexual development, independence, and the relationship of individual to state, through a retelling of the life story of Gary Gilmore (with Norman Mailer portraying Harry Houdini). Barney uses Gilmore’s execution in 1977, to question the legitimacy of U.S. institutionalized justice, particularly with reference to mental illness and the effects of familial abuse. Barney’s version of Gilmore’s life is an Old Testament-style “sins of the fathers” allegory. Barney doesn’t come to a particular conclusion, but juxtaposes his questioning of justice and penalty with the freedom Gilmore’s death provides him, from imprisonment his own inner demons. The sequences about Gilmore’s life are intercut with long tracking shots of expansive “nature”; purple mountains majesty, wide-open Western skies, and vast icy lakes.
Similarly, Cremaster 3 undertakes an investigation of arcane knowledge, influence, and capitalism. Framed by the legend of Fionn MacCumhail (which is about the creation of the Isle of Man), the film considers the place of mysticism in the establishment of societies and nation-states. For Barney, who appears something of a Foucaultian, power is connected to knowledge, distributed within elite systems, and “magically” self-reproductive.
From the origin myth of the Isle of Man, the film jumps to the construction of the Chrysler Building, locating modern arcana and authority in the secret society of the Masons. Here the Architect/Hiram Abiff (sculptor Richard Serra) lords over the construction site and the workers within, just as the Chrysler Building, in its day, loomed over New York and the American imagination.
In Abiff, Cremaster 3 directly indexes Masonic lore. The purported architect of Solomon’s Temple, his murder and resurrection are enacted in Masonic initiation rites. The struggle played out in the film is between the Architect and the Apprentice (Matthew Barney), who is something of a revolutionary. The Apprentice sabotages the construction of the Chrysler Building, working from within to destabilize the system, and climbing to the top of the Building through the elevator shafts. That is, he doesn’t tread the proscribed path to power, and must accordingly be punished. While he does ultimately murder Abiff, the patriarch’s power is ineluctable, and the Chrysler Building murders the Apprentice in retaliation.
Before this final showdown, and in case you’ve missed the threat posed by the Apprentice, Barney interjects a sort of fantasy sequence that makes the stakes all too clear. We find the Apprentice at the Saratoga Springs Racetrack, trying to pass himself off as one of the Masonic Masters, who appear here as upper crust society. His ruse is quickly discovered and, to punish him, the Masters put a bit in his mouth and tether him to a hitching post, breaking all of his teeth in the process. It’s like the “curbing” scene in American History X, but more gruesome—here you get a close-up of the teeth cracking and the bloody aftermath.
This sequence contains one of Cremaster 3‘s most arresting and visibly political images. In the races, the carriages are pulled by rotting, zombie horses. It’s something of a Dorian Gray moment: while the Master class remains the picture of desirable wealth and influence, the spectacle that represents them is literally corruption made flesh. You will not soon forget the image of decaying horses pulling silk-clad jockeys in the misty morning of upstate New York.
Lest all this failed resistance be too bleak, Barney closes Cremaster 3 on a note of hope. The last movement of the film, “The Order,” restages the Apprentice’s challenge to authority within the Guggenheim. Here, the five levels of the Museum’s rotunda represent the Masonic initiation rituals; rather than walk up the outer spiral, the Apprentice climbs between the tiers. This time, he reaches the top, whereupon he merely climbs back down. He’s proved his point, that the system can be subverted and there are other paths to power. His refusal to overthrow the Architect contests the very desirability of that influence. Barney reminds us here that power corrupts, despite the best intentions of the revolutionary.
Admittedly, it’s a small moment of optimism in an otherwise bleak vision. And there are other difficulties in watching Cremaster 3, or any of the films in the cycle. They are decidedly art-house. The abstractions and dense symbolic gestures of Cremaster 3 make difficult viewing for some. During the screening I attended, a woman behind me was less than pleased with her partner for bringing her to the screening. Into the second hour, she mumbled how “stupid” the film was, and wheedled her boyfriend until he left with her. In fact, audience members abandoning ship mid-viewing was common at all the Cremaster screenings I have attended, not so much for specific images as for their density and the interpretive demands they make on the viewer.
If you have the inclination, however, the cycle, and Cremaster 3 in particular, reward with stunning visuals, concepts, and questions that will rattle around your head for days, and filmmaking the likes of which you probably won’t ever see again.