I saw Cremaster 5 with Kim, Josh, and Laura at Film Forum in NYC in December, 1997, after a dessert of delicious brownies Kim brought with her from California. The whole night was delightful, from the shiny-walled Village cafe to the creche with "Cheese-us," to the film itself (not to mention the excitement of our Newark hotel room later on). Cremaster 5's setting in Budapest, with the focus on that famous bridge, and the general operatic splendor of the spectacle were, well, splendid.
I think we may have seen part of Cremaster 4 on video at a museum. It's the earliest of the films, so I'm less worried about missing it. We'll see.
Kim and I went on one of our rare -- and always afternoon -- dates Saturday to see Cremaster 1 and Cremaster 2.
Cremaster 1 was fun, like one of those Esther Williams movies, but in a football stadium. And the stewardess types in the blimp were incredibly hot in their near-fascist uniforms, smoking their cigarettes so diffidently.
Cremaster 2, on the other hand, which "handles from" the story of Gary Gilmore -- though you'd have to know a lot about him to figure it out -- was an entirely different experience, not lighthearted at all but somber and moving. I suppose there's some of that in Cremaster 5 too, but the European setting and the overall prettiness of it distanced me from the darkness.
So what about Cremaster 3?
The movie is more or less divided into thirds. I had a hard time staying awake during the first third, which was slow to build. I really liked the second third, in which the foundation-laying of the first third makes it possible for a dramatic thrusting upward. (The first 2/3 is mostly about the Chrysler Building and the Masons).
The final third begins jarringly, taking you out of the color scheme and general strangeness of the Mason/architecture "plot" and depositing you in the Guggenheim museum -- a Frank Lloyd Wright design, of course -- where Matthew Barney's absurdly attired, bloody-mouthed "character," the apprentice, clambers up and down the walls amid almost-naked bathing beauties -- one of whom had a pleasingly "real" behind, instead of the micro bottoms of a typical fashion model -- a chorus line of women dressed as sheep, two punk bands having a mock battle with a mosh pit between them, a crystal-boot-shod -- and apparently footless -- woman who morphs into a cat creature, and artist Richard Serra, wearing protective gear.
It's a blast to watch, if you know something about contemporary art and have been to the Guggenheim.
But I'm not sure whether it works in the context of the first two thirds, not to mention the framing device of the Finn McCool legend, filmed in Ireland and Scotland, that bookends the three parts.
It sort of felt like Matthew Barney said, "Fuck, man, I've got so much money to spend, I'm gonna go for broke."
I kept hearing the smart, bitter voice of the San Francisco Art Institute's Mark Van Proyen in my head, imagining how he would both enjoy the trippiness of it all and deride the spectacle as an object of spectacular consumption.
As I told Amanda Gradisek's friend Tim afterwards, it's not like you can levy the charge of self-indulgence at Barney, since he so clearly revels in the excess of his productions. It would be like complaining that there are too many notes in an aria from a Baroque opera.
At the same time, though, I think I prefer either the pared-down lushness of Cremaster 5 or the salty dessication of Cremaster 2.
Perhaps, since Cremaster 3 was the last of the five to be made, Barney had lost some of the discipline that shines forth in those other films.
Maybe it's time for him to declare a moratorium on this kind of filmmaking.
Incidentally, since the cremaster is the muscle that moves the testicles up and down, I keep wondering what significance the term has for the whole cycle. I mean, it's pretty obvious, for example, that Cremaster 1 is "about" testicles -- balls, in the vernacular -- and that Cremaster 3 is "about" the penis and/or phallus. But is the male genitalia simply a convenient figure for the sake of figuration, like the arrangements in the content-deprived spectacles of Busby Berkeley or, for that matter, Quentin Tarantino? Or is there some massier metaphor at work?
In any case, it's kind of hard for a male living in Tucson to get in touch with his inner cremaster, since the climate is so goddamned hot that ones testicles rarely retract. All we have is the recollection of George Costanza on Seinfeld worried about "shrinkage." I'm not even sure the pool can pull that trick here.
If you get a chance, BTW, you should still check out Cremaster 3, if only to see Barney's character's star-anise-shaped, not-really-a-penis-head male organ.
It gave me the willies, seeing him there in the stirrups. Actually, "willies" might not be the best term, since the scene does a brilliant job of inducing a soft-on worthy of Mr. Whipple.
But my surgery of May is still active in my body memory, so the effect was surely compounded.
That's one way to solve the problem of male creativity. . .