Cremaster 3: Matthew Barney's Three-Hour Epic

Architects battle, cars crash, and teeth are scattered in Matthew Barney's three-hour art-film epic, but the movie is anything but torture to watch.

Cremaster 3 is a tall, towering art film with a capital "A." It also happens to be quite entertaining at times, somewhat tedious at others, and even funny during its few moments of slapstick. It mixes profundity and banality over three hours, yet it's never outright dull. I checked my watch a dozen times during Legally Blonde 2, but never once here. The last installment in a five-film cycle, produced in nonchronological order since 1994, it runs Friday, July 11, through Thursday, July 17, at the Varsity, which will then show parts 1, 2, 4, and 5 (plus a repeat screening of 3) the following week. In case you missed the preceding Cremaster 2 when it played here three years ago, don't worryyou needn't see or even understand any of the prior movies to "get" this one. Matthew Barney creates an integrated world of myths, symbols, and signifiers in the whole of the Cremaster cycle, but its parts are also modulareach stands or falls on its own, and this one works for me. THE MOVIE BEGINS with a prologue at the Giant's Causeway, the famous hexagonal rock formations on the coast of Northern Ireland. It's a place that appears built, but is actually naturalan overture to Barney's organic/artificial dyad that characterizes all of Cremaster 3. There, some kind of a shaggy giant is menacing a smaller mythical Celtic gnome figure. It's like a Led Zeppelin album cover sprung to life, and I half expected Robert Plant to start wailing (the heavy metal actually comes later). The littler guy is engaged in various ritual laborsincluding the Causeway's construction, it seems. An inscription from Vince Lombardi helps define the situation: "Will is the character in action," and will is what keeps Barney's protagonists always climbing and reaching and groping toward shapes and structures they only half-apprehend. Next, in Cremaster 3's longest and most narrative section, the Entered Apprentice (Barney) dutifully pours concrete into an elevator rising through the Chrysler Building. The Apprentice works with silent, manly determination (there is no dialogue in the film). It's a test, perhaps a Masonic initiation ritual, and the Apprentice is intent on getting to the top floor of the partially completed building, where the Architect (artist Richard Serra) resides. You're not sure how, but Architect and Apprentice seem headed toward a showdown. Only one guy can come out on top. WHEN BARNEY PULLS his camera back outside for lovely aerial vistas of the landmark New York City tower, couched in a cloudy nimbus and topped with Maypole streamers, it's a tribute not just to architecture or paganism or the creative impulse but willwill wrapped in glorious stainless-steel deco cladding. You think of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, with Gary Cooper raging against mediocrity and refusing to compromise his skyscraping principles. Barney's Apprentice is just as much a striver, and the Architect is just as arrogant. Only in The Fountainhead, Cooper would rather destroy his building than see it rise imperfectly. In Cremaster 3, it's the builders who are destroyed, like Icarus, for their overreaching. The second star building in the movie is the Guggenheim, which gave itself over to Barney not just for filming but for an entire recent exhibit showcasing all five Cremaster pictures and their ancillary artworks. Intercut with the Chrysler Building sequences is another ritual test set inside the museum's famous spiral ramps. Here, Barney wears a ridiculous pink Scottish kilt get-up replete with busby headdress. It's humiliating, but maybe that's the point. Like the Apprentice, he's a JV player forever condemned to do drills and workouts that may never get him off the bench. While the Chrysler Building tableaus are ominously elegant, cool, and composed (there's a touch of The Shining in its barroom scenes), the Guggenheim bits are enjoyably silly anarchy. Barney literally climbs up the museum's levels past bathing nudies, echt-Rockettes, thrash-metal bands, and an alluring, dangerous cheetah-woman amputee (Aimee Mullins). That's the thing about Cremaster 3this stuff doesn't seem so pretentious, even if it leaves you scratching your head, because the sheer spectacle is fun to watch. Unlike most high art, it pauses to let you back in, to let you catch your breath. Meanwhile, Barney is also trying to get at these Masonic implements (also seen in the Chrysler Building). Again, however, Barney's climber proves inept or unworthy. He's headed for a fall. IN THIS WAY, order and disorder are constantly at odds in Cremaster 3, like the two ogres that begin the film. In the Chrysler Building's basement, five 1967 Chrysler Crown Imperials systematically compact a '30s-model sedan in a demolition-derby ballet. Destruction and creation converge. Barney's Apprentice is horrifyingly tortured by Serra's goons, yet what emerges from his distended bowelsone of the film's occasional "Eeew!" momentsbecomes oddly beautiful and transformed. If you caught Cremaster 2, you'll recall it was about valence and differentiation on a biological scale: how the sexes take shape from their placental-molecular Vaseline ooze. (The cremaster muscle itself controls the testicles' rise and descentor fall, again that key word.) By contrast, Cremaster 3 is all bricks and mortar, not flesh and blood. But the urge toward shape or structure is the same. Yet nothing ever squares up. The inchoate characters Barney portrays keep fumbling with their tools, as does the befuddled barman while trying to pour the perfect Guinness, as does the beautiful double-amputee Mullins while slicing potatoes with razor-soled fetish shoes. The Freemasons' worship of a perfectly measured and rationalized world is always doomed to failure. In Barney's schema, it's not the architecture but the architects who are subject to entropy, which is the other great guiding force in the filmdecay. Rotting trotters on a horse track and a disinterred zombie corpse suggest how nature is always striving toward its preferred order, its shape, its architecture-in-reverse. As Barney said of a collapsing Vaseline sculpture in The New Yorker this January, "It failed more than I thought I would. You have to surrender a certain control. And the Cremaster cycle is that way."

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