Trivial Pursuit 

Good luck making any real sense of sham artist Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 3, a film that cleverly defies analysis

Good luck making any real sense of sham artist Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 3, a film that cleverly defies analysis

Matthew Barney’s five-part Cremaster series, a mélange of twaddling, gallery-glib deepthink and overfunded amateurishness, comes to its pretentious conclusion with the out-of-sequence Cremaster 3. If you’re not familiar with this art-film cycle, that’s OK; it’s only now getting limited distribution, due perhaps to the indie circuit’s occasional fondness for chin-scratching (Waking Life) and Barney’s association with pixyish art-martyr Björk. (They’re a couple.) In any case, Cremaster 3 is here—all three hours of it, complete with a latte-friendly intermission—and after watching it, one could presume that Barney’s strategy as an artist and a filmmaker is to cleverly defy analysis. But the damage could be far greater: The Cremaster series may give contemporary art a bad name.

Art cinema, in the formal exhibition sense, is no new development, stretching at least as far back as Luis Buñuel’s surrealist masterpiece L’Age D’Or and the aching tone poems of Jean Cocteau. As distinct from the more rigorous experimental cinema that focuses largely on innovative technique or grammar (e.g., the abstract koans of Stan Brahkage), art cinema’s assault has historically been on narrative, resulting in a free-fall that can be uniquely compelling—one that has found its way into the mainstream via works by David Lynch and plenty of adventurous music videos. In recent years, the field has been particularly fecund, ranging from charming pop-culture subversions by Rodney Graham (who appears in his endless tape loops as a wandering cowboy with a guitar slung on his back) to the dense sociopolitical monochromes by Iranian-born Shirin Neshat (who happens to be funded and represented by the same producer as Barney, Barbara Gladstone).

Now, with a single booking, Barney looks to have leapt to the top of the pile in terms of profile—which is really too bad, because he’s a lousy filmmaker. Cremaster 3, while often beautifully lit, is a shockingly complete catalog of the worst traits of student footage-burning: lots of fussy cigarette-lightings and Kubrick-inspired symmetries divorced from any kind of meaning except their own self-aggrandizing awesomeness. After a prologue involving a giant and a dwarf, seemingly inspired by some scrapped segment from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, a title card appears bearing a quote from that legendary artistic muse, football coach Vince Lombardi: “Will is character in action.” Barney may actually believe in this—his films, if anything, testify to a highly indulged drive—but as with Stonehenge or the frantic quests of arcade games like Donkey Kong (which this often resembles), will alone is no guarantee of discernable purpose, much less the engagement of intelligent spectators. Sadly, you’ll find yourself saying, Hey, it’s art; deal with it. No, this is selling art short.

You might be wondering where the Cremaster is in all this, perhaps envisioning a muscle-bound strongman swathed in beige spandex. Actually, the cremaster is the muscle responsible for the natural descent of the testicles—as worthy a theme for a five-part opus as any, I guess. The other installments all have their symbolic representations of said pubescent activity (which Barney infers as somehow heroic), but Cremaster 3 trumps them all with its extensive use of the Chrysler Building, a gleamingly tumescent phallus in which single-minded worker-bees busy themselves with solitary tasks: An engineer slowly fills a rising elevator car with goopy cement (let those cables break!), while a forlorn employee dices potatoes with her elaborate but inefficient system of foot shears. Down below in the ground-level lobby, a demolition derby is in progress—with ’60s-era Chryslers pounding an older-model cousin into a block of scrap metal—while high above, the Cloud Club’s jittery bartender contends in vain with gushing kegs of beer.

I’ll leave it to more intrepid souls to parse out the kernel of significance in all of this; the attempts I’ve read thus far—mostly dusty excavations of cryptic Masonic runes and ritual—are less than satisfying. A colossal “Why?” hangs over the expensive-looking Cremaster 3, amplified by Barney’s insistence upon alienating wide-angle removals and a soft spot for the overhead God’s-eye perspective. As if to make that point perfectly clear, he stars in the final sequence as some kind of video game protagonist topped with a pink wig, grappling his way up the elegant spirals of the Guggenheim Museum, here converted into a multilevel obstacle course with beasties on every deck. Undying determination of the artist-hero? Ironic swipe at the vicissitudes of the New York art scene? The only question truly worth asking is: How did he convince the museum to let him shoot there? Which speaks not to any kind of vision, but rather the triumph of an especially persuasive location scout.

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