American artist Matthew Barney has finally finished his ambitious eight-year cycle of artistic films about the cremaster, also known as the scrotal muscle. Yes indeedy, this is an outlandish, otherworldly look at gender, reproduction and, erm, testicles! There are sequences that imply sex, gestation, birth and death in symbolic, surprising ways. With echoing imagery that makes very little sense really, the films still manage to get under the skin. As a whole, these pieces are far too long and self-indulgent; each could be edited down to about 30 minutes without losing much. But they're full of fascinating sculpture and installation art, as well as performances that are seriously haunting. Barney has a knack for creating objects and locations that are familiar yet completely alien at the same time; he's like the adopted lovechild of Davids Lynch and Cronenberg. Deeply interesting ... and also utterly impenetrable. I'll look at the segments in the order he made them, out of sequence...
R E V I E W B Y R I C H C L I N E
with Matthew Barney, Christa Bauch, Colette Guimmond, Sharon Marvel,
Dave Molyneux, Graham Molyneux, Steve Sinnott, Karl Sinnott 94/US 42m
A kind of slapstick adventure musical, the action takes place in basically two locations, as a de-horned devil-man (Barney) tap dances his way through a pier floor, tended by a trio of faeries (Bauch, Guimmond and Marvel), while two motorbike teams (the Moluneuxes and the Sinnotts) race in opposite directions around the island. Colourful and bewildering, creepy and strange, there's a fascination in the film's recurring colours and shapes, as well as a kind of wacky combination of sex and slime.
with Marti Domination, Nina Kotov, Kathleen Crepeau,
Gemma Bourdon Smith, Jessica Sherwood, Tanyth Berkeley,
Miranda Brooks, Kari McKahan, Catherine Mulchahy 95/US 40m
In Busby Berkeley style, a team of costumed dancers performs in an empty stadium while two blimps hover above them. Inside the blimps are bored stewardesses and tables of grapes (one red, one white), while under the tables a woman writhes and directs the dancers on the field, using grapes to draw the patterns on the floor under the tables. Filmed on a big scale with period music and intricate choreography, this film makes no sense but looks very intriguing with its repetitive shapes and colours. The ballet number with one dancer and her two blimps is seriously surreal.
with Ursula Andress, Matthew Barney, Joanne Rha,
Susan Rha, Gergely Kaposi, Amy Chiang, Mei-Chiao Chiu, Michelle Ingkavet,
Yoko Kuroiwa, Kim Nghiem 97/US 55m
Produced in a lush operatic style, and filmed in the Budapest Opera House, this seriously strong piece is just as surreal and untouchable and yet it taps into a powerful sense of emotion as a woman (Andress) performs an opera while sitting alone in a theatre that's empty except for the orchestra, a man climbing around the edge of the proscenium, and a dramatic series of events taking place in a pool beneath her. Beautifully shot with sweeping camera angles and an intriguing use of water, the film is full of images that resonate somewhere just beyond the conscience if you let them.
with Matthew Barney, Norman Mailer, Lauren Pine,
Scot Ewalt, Patty Griffin, Michael Thomson,
David A Lombardo, Bruce Steele 99/US 1h19
This is the only instalment of the cycle with dialog, not that it matters much. Yes, it has a bit more narrative, but it's just as bizarre and incomprehensible, full of imagery that's intriguing and creepy ... and this time quite sexy as well. There's a link made between the magician Harry Houdini (Mailer) and the criminal Gary Gilmore (Barney), with mostly wild west imagery swirling around them, including a rather lovely horse ballet. Settings include a recording studio, a temple and a museum/expo, as well as ice fields, salt flats and the Rocky Mountains. Swarms of bees seem to be a symbol for something, as the film toys with all sorts of musical styles--orchestral, rock, choral, country, folk--mostly in a discordant style. The main thrust, as it were, seems to be metamorphosis, so perhaps this one is about puberty. But it's anyone's guess really.
with Matthew Barney, Richard Serra, Aimee Mullins,
Paul Brady, Terry Gillespie, Nesrin Karanouh,
Peter D Badalamenti, The Mighty Biggs 02/US 3h02
This is either the final episode (the last one Barney made) or the climactic one (it's in the middle numerically), and it's a three-hour odyssey that begins and ends on Ireland's Giant's Causeway in a kind of fairy tale about marauding giants and feisty little people. In between is an outrageous series of scenes set in Manhattan's Chrysler Building, in which the past and present collide on all sorts of levels--with an automotive demolition derby in the lobby, strange goings on in the lift shaft, a sinister meeting in the penthouse, a slapstick barman (Gillespie) in the lounge and a very scary sort of dental office where fairly horrific things are done to someone called "The Entered Apprentice" (Barney). Then near the end there's a self-contained piece called The Order set in the Guggenheim Museum--a kind of live art challenge as the Apprentice scales the atrium and has to get past a team of Rockettes, duelling punk rock bands, a woman (Mullins) with glass legs who turns into a leopard, a freaky white concoction and finally a malevolent sculptor (Serra). As a whole it's pretty astonishing really--far too long, but extremely accomplished filmmaking that's only in need of an editor. And perhaps a coherent story.
adult themes, arty nudity, violence and ickiness
dir-scr Matthew Barney
releaseUS 25.Apr.03; UK 17.Oct.03
C4: Barney and the faeries.
C1: Busby Berkeley style!
C5: Barney as the magician.
C2: Thomson as Max Jensen.
C3: In the Guggenheim.