Let's get one thing out of the way: The cremaster is a tiny muscle that raises and lowers the testicles according to temperature, fear and sexual arousal, okay? Okay. "The CREMASTER Cycle," on the other hand, is an ambitious series of five films that took eight years to complete. Its creator, Matthew Barney, already has been touted as the most important artist of his generation. He's 36 years old.
Film buffs are going, "What? Who?" Although Barney has been compared to Peter Greenaway and David Lynch, his films usually screen in museums, and there are a limited number of prints. Most movies shown at the Museum of Fine Arts' Brown Auditorium tend to attract fans of art films, but the MFA's film and video curator, Marian Luntz, expects CREMASTER to draw a museum crowd familiar with Barney's work as a sculptor, photographer and performance artist. His movies don't deliver a narrative so much as a presence or a mood, much like a sculpture or a painting.
Filmed out of sequence (4, 1, 5, 2, 3), the series explores themes of sexual differentiation, masculinity and athleticism against a backdrop of lush, jaw-dropping imagery and a mythical language of symbols. While seeing the films put back into their correct order is one way to solve the intoxicating "puzzle" of "The CREMASTER Cycle," each movie can be viewed on its own terms. "I think you can appreciate the films individually," says Luntz. "The character and the narrative is different for each film."
CREMASTER 3, the series centerpiece, begins with a quote from legendary football coach Vince Lombardi, which makes sense, given that Barney was a high school football star who went to Yale on a sports scholarship before sharply detouring into art. The film's main setting is the Chrysler Building, where Barney, who plays the role of the Entered Apprentice, stages a Donkey Kong-like battle against the Architect, played by sculptor Richard Serra. In the building's lobby, five vintage Chrysler Imperial New Yorkers demolish an older-model Chrysler until it's as small as a lozenge, which Serra then force-feeds to Barney in a humorously perverse oral surgery scene.
The three-hour movie even includes an outrageous "film within a film" called The Order, shot inside New York's Guggenheim Museum. Still the Entered Apprentice, Barney now wears a pink kilt instead of a leather Masonic apron. He's forced to complete a series of tasks while navigating a museum obstacle course populated by kick-dancing sheep, two hardcore punk bands (Agnostic Front and Murphy's Law) and a cheetah, played by double-leg amputee and Paralympian Aimee Mullins (who, in another part of the film, dons glass knee-high boots designed by Manolo Blahnik). Barney must complete the "order" before a river of molten Vaseline, poured by Serra, reaches the bottom of the museum's trademark spiral walk.
What's with the Vaseline? According to Luntz, "It's the cosmic glue that holds the films together." Barney uses Vaseline in his sculpture, and the substance finds its way into almost every CREMASTER film. "It's something tactile and sensual," says Luntz, "and it has connotations of bodily fluid and sexuality. It adds to the strangeness."
See all five films in a marathon beginning at 11:30 a.m. on Monday, September 1 ($15). CREMASTER 1 and 2 screen at 7 p.m. on September 5 and 12; CREMASTER 3 screens at 7 p.m. on September 6 and 13; and CREMASTER 4 and 5 screen at 7 p.m. on September 7 and 14. Brown Auditorium, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7515. $5 to $6.
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