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Creaming Cremaster

Waiting for the other ball to drop

By Richard von Busack

That Matthew Barney deserves an entire wing in the Museum of the Overpraised there can be no doubt, at least to anyone reading the press on his various performances and films. Critics use a certain language when baffled. It's actually their own bafflement they praise. Critics are so rarely truly confused that some exalt their state of confusion: if I'm confused, this must be art.

Matthew Barney is news for being very straight and sober (the impression painted by journalists is of someone who votes Republican). An ex-quarterback and an ex-male model, Barney isn't the typical outsider artist. When you read a description of Barney nude, rubbing Vaseline over himself and climbing the ceiling of an art gallery, then, the typical complaint about art criticism is most valid-that in it, a visual media is broken on the wheel of print.

That Vaseline crawl seems pretty stoopid, but maybe it's inspirational in person. I saw Barney's film Cremaster 2 in 1999 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in a small installation-theater made up of Barney's trademark Vaseline/fiberglass beeswax (and very hard these seats were on the back, too).

Since the installation wasn't much, I wondered if this series might be easier to comprehend if it were onscreen. All of Barney's Cremaster films are on view this week at the Shattuck, the Rafael and the Castro Theaters in the Bay Area. Really, the best way to see Barney's work is on upcoming home video or DVD. The fast-forward button will never be a better friend.

Barney's five Cremaster films consists of 400 minutes of indescribably oblique surreal filmmaking, made in 1994-2002, assembled in no particular order and with only the most slender connection between the parts. The cremaster muscle lowers or raises the testicles. Barney honors this little-known muscle, acknowledging its role in ending the presexual state when a fetus is technically both male and female.

And the polarizing of the sexes is reflected in Barney's choice of main characters: "real men" like Vince Lombardi, Harry Houdini and Gary Gilmore, who are fictionalized for Barney's work. Short appearances by the handicapped athlete Aimee Mullins in No. 3, or the fetish-corseted Lauren Pine in No. 2, or the ever-macha Ursula Andress as the Queen of Chain in No. 5 show that Barney's five-part ode to sexual dimorphism is skewed more toward the males. The women here watch and wait. They're attendants, doing that slow, ever slow ritual of pushing, polishing and adoration that occurs throughout the Cremaster films.

Like David Lynch, Barney is from Idaho, and he tends to pore over Americana. Lynch's sweet but bad small towns are Hawthornian allegories of a virgin country, raped and looking for revenge. However, even the almost indescribable plot spirals of a Lynch film don't connect Barney's symbolism, giving them the weight of emotion or horror.

The Cremaster series takes ostentatious side trips to Budapest and the coast of the Irish Sea, but it's woven out of American rituals. The artist broods stonily over cornball Americana: Busby Berkeley musicals (No. 1 and No. 5), demolition derbies (No. 3), rodeos, country and western dancing (No. 2), half-time shows and football (No. 1), Mormonism (No. 2), the Gary Gilmore case (No. 2, No. 3) and Masonic rites (No. 3). Let's don't forget such more clandestinely popular American inventions as smush porn (in the scene in No. 3 of Mullins dicing potatoes with her artificial feet) and the ever-popular upskirt video (throughout No. 1)

Of the five Cremasters, No. 1 is the most watchable. It reveals the whimsical, kitschy part of Barney's work that seems most like pioneer underground filmmaker Jack Smith (Flaming Creatures); the reason why calling his work "faux gay," as one critic did, seems just right.

Best of all, Cremaster No. 1 is only 40 minutes long. Free of his rock-video-like tendency to exploit gore, Barney is lyrical here. He contrasts the shocking blue ("the boy color") of the Astroturf at Bronco Stadium in Boise, with the pink spiral gowns of the chorus girls in formation on the field. (Their costumes are modeled on the costumes for "The Shadow Waltz" number from Golddiggers of 1933.)

A pair of Goodyear blimps hover over the field. Both zeppelins are overstaffed with cruelly coifed stewardesses sitting around smoking cigarettes. Hidden from their view, a woman (Marti Domination) who is a stowaway aboard both airships at once, hiding and playing marbles with grapes. The grapes somehow command the girls on the gridiron below them to form oblique pattern on the field. The symbols--which recur through Barney's work--look like Roger Price's "Droodles," that parlor game of the 1950s (one example is on the cover of Frank Zappa's CD Ship Arrives Too Late to Save Drowning Witch). By the way, is "grapes" still slang for testicles, or is that also archaic, like the Droodles?

Prisoner of Cremaster

By contrast, No. 2 is 80 minutes and feels 800; even if the films were made out of chronological order, this second section is a sign of artistic elephantiasis to come. It's a passion play about Gary Gilmore, partially staged in the Utah salt flats.

It guest stars a hard-on to go with all of Barney's trademark scrotal sacs: Norman Mailer, playing the man Gilmore claimed was his granddad, Harry Houdini. Mailer's there because he wrote a bestselling impressionistic biography of Gilmore, The Executioner's Song, but does Barney also remember Mailer's career as apostle of macho in The Prisoner of Sex? (The unisex state Barney rhapsodizes about is one Mailer used to dread, back in the day.)

And what's all this about Gilmore? In Barney's notes for No. 2: "Gilmore welcomes death ... in a literal interpretation of the Mormon belief that blood must be shed in order for a sinner to obtain salvation." If you don't count the Advert's punk-rock single "Gary Gilmore's Eyes," the most enlightening comment on the life of the mid-'70s celebrity murderer was something Gilmore's mother said: "I bet Gary knew those two boys were Mormons." (She meant the two cashiers Gilmore shot for an insignificant amount of money.) Gilmore's lethal outsiderness was partially due to his being a gentile, a non-Mormon, in Utah. Rich material awaits an artist who searches through Mormon lore. The culture and texts of the Church of Latter-day Saints is American folk art at its most ambitious and successful. Scratching this mother lode, Barney hardly comes up with gold dust.

Cremaster No. 4 is, in brief, a lox. Barney is made up as a tap-dancing Manx ram and crawls through a birth canal of whipped Vaseline. The end, where someone's scrotum--probably Barney's--is hooked up like a bagpipe and "The Battle of Tyne" played on it, is amusing. However, the constant cuts to a motorcycle race is infuriatingly dull, as deliberately pointless as the truck in Agnes Varda's The Truck.

The last Cremaster is the wedding-cake episode: with floating pearls, trailing ribbons, Ursula Andress looking zonked under an elaborate hairdo. The setting is the Budapest Opera House, apparently too grand for opera, let alone for the performance art Barney stages there. However, a cutaway sequence of an MGM-style water ballet in the Gellert Thermal Baths links the fifth installment with Cremaster No. 1's Busby Berkeley number.

Ruffians and Rippers

The length of Cremaster No. 3 is supposed to give it weight. This film--Barney's last in sequence and his most richly funded--is about Masonic arcana. Most of the second half of this interminable piece is a 1930s dress version of the assassination of the Grand Master by the Three Ruffians, Jubilo, Jubilah and Jubilum. (A theory about Jack the Ripper has it that he enacted the Three Ruffians' punishment on those Whitechapel whores. Christopher Plummer's Sherlock Holmes explains the rites in the film Murder by Decree.)

In No. 3, Barney plays the treacherous Entered Apprentice, who is punished for cutting corners on construction of New York City's Chrysler Building. Only Barney's notes explains what the hell's going on; what we see are several men in suits making significant glances for what seems like five hours, before the violence begins. The Apprentice is punished by having his teeth knocked out and is force-fed a crumpled Chrysler Imperial, reduced through auto collision to the size of a small bagel.

This punishment ritual has to be evidence of a vestigial sense of humor on Barney's part. Who but a person self-conscious about being a fraud would show--in such graphic detail--the humiliation and pain of a faker who is exposed?

Barney's work is like the Pink Floyd album covers by Hipgnosis Studios, with baffling symbols tied down by dramatic architecture. As backdrops, Barney uses the Guggenheim Museum, the Budapest Opera House, the Chrysler Building--just as the Floyd made Battersea Power Station in London famous to Americans.

The dramatic architecture brings weight to the watery vagueness of Barney's elaborate symbolism, just like those cryptic album covers dramatized the deep thoughts of Roger Waters: "People fall into three categories: they're pigs, dogs or sheep," or "The evil system builds alienating walls around us."

Barney has audacity, or else he wouldn't have gotten this far. His work has arresting sequences, most of them in Cremaster No. 3--especially the strangely melancholy image of the Chrysler building decorated as a may pole, woven with colossal ribbons. There's poetic horror in a grisly but striking interlude of a team of putrefying horses at a harness race. Aimee Mullins is rather touching, posing as a bride with crystal feet. As Barney uses giants, and mythological creatures in almost all his films, his intention may be to use Mullins, a double amputee, for her exoticness. It's surprising how quick the shock vanishes. Almost immediately, Mullins' walk is alluring, a sort of physical lisp.

Barney's partisans liken this five-part snoozer to An Andalusian Dog, but it's hard to imagine riots breaking out among the initiated who gather at art houses for a battle with Cremaster No. 3; the dead mule in Andalusian Dog is a lot more shocking in its way than Barney's dead horse race.

Despite some attempts to break into Hollywood, Dali ended up doing dream sequences. Will this--or should this?--be the aim of Barney's art? Maybe so, since no single image in these five films is on its own enough power to justify the self-importance, the crashing boredom of this epic. Seen in tandem, it's like watching five-rock video stretched to the point of pain.

The cycle is playing June 6-12 at the Rafael Film Center, 1118 4th St., San Rafael, (415) 454.1222. Cremaster 3 is now playing at the Shattuck Theater in Berkeley, 2230 Shattuck Ave.; the run ends this Friday. At the Castro, Cremaster 3 plays May 23-29 and June 5, Cremaster 1-2 plays May 30-June 1 and Cremaster 4-5 plays Monday-Wednesday, June 2-4. The Castro is at 429 Castro St., San Francisco, (415) 621.6120.

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Web extra to the May 22-28, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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