order of the rainbow for girls
The Cremaster movies are dazzling, intricate, hypnotic, self-indulgent, disturbing, mesmerizing, excruciatingly slow, willfully cryptic, occasionally funny, almost always beautiful. I'm a fan.
The synopses at the official site (written, I think, by the curator at the Guggenheim) make a decent stab at explication, but they certainly don't unravel the entire mystery. I doubt Matthew Barney could, even if he wanted to. He isn't about that. The overarching metaphor of testicular descent works rather like the parallels to the Odyssey in Ulysses; it's a framework, a trellis to hang from, but if you weren't explicitly told about it you'd never figure it out on your own. Hugh Kenner sez about Ulysses: "Were the book untitled, had we only the assurance that it is organized round a system of allusions to a classic, we should most likely guess Hamlet and not guess wrong." Without the Cremaster title and the helpful people at the Guggenheim, we would probably interpret the movies as Freudian: Oedipal struggle, fear of castration, etc. Nor would we be amiss; one interpretation doesn't invalidate others. I won't even start the question of the merit of art that can't yield its secrets through close reading/viewing alone, though Davis on Zukofsky is certainly relevant.
The point is that, yes, Cremaster is about gonads, but it's also about itself as a new and weird chapter in the history of film. Cremaster 4 is the film where the biological parallels are most explicit, and it's also the least interesting. Barney is at his best when he is at his most fanciful, unconstrained by adherence to any framework, even his own. Admittedly, the very word "fanciful" suggests Coleridge's idea of fancy as inferior to creative imagination:
FANCY, on the contrary, has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites. The Fancy is indeed no other than a mode of Memory emancipated from the order of time and space; while it is blended with, and modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will, which we express by the word CHOICE. But equally with the ordinary memory the Fancy must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association.
Which sounds a little like the short, snide dismissal from Artnet:
The giant, the Loughton race on the Isle of Man, the vaseline, the horses sweating up in Saratoga, Richard Serra: all are products of a fevered brain, incapable of reason or analysis, that doesn't know if it's coming or going.
I wonder if anyone has told Richard Serra that he's a fever dream. But seriously, folks, the point is that a film can have an internal logic and harmonywhat Aquinas called consonantiawithout an immediately obvious narrative structure. The term "non-narrative film," at least for me, brings up something like Bruce Conner's A Movie, which I always thought was a compendium of cheap tricksnot to mention tasteless in its use of Third World starvation footage. Barney's techniques are much more sophisticated than splicing together some found footage for laughs; take the part in Cremaster 3 where the scene shifts from the Chrysler Building to the racetrack and then back again. There's a new sort of sideways logic operating here. Somehow the racetrack is inside the building, or at any rate exists in the same causal universeafter the goons kick his teeth out at the racetrack, his mouth is bloodied back at the bar. Or the way that the dominatrix under the table in Cremaster 1 occupies both blimps simultaneouslyyou have to blink and squint before the spatial distortion makes sense, but once you get acclimated it makes perfect sense on its own terms. The way that images and patterns permutate and resonate is beautiful on its own, even if you can't boil it down to an explanation. Take the creepy ritual pattern that the bison assume around Gary Gilmore in Cremaster 2, mirrored in Cremaster 3's demolition derby; or the contraption that nearly all the female characters have attached to the toes of their shoes; or the recurrence of bagpipes; or the ribbons that attach to motorcycles, doves, genitals, the Chrysler spire. Of course I can hazard guesses as to their meaning. But the images themselves, rather than any gloss I attach, are what I'm likely to dream about in coming weeks.
This isn't to say everything yields up on the first viewing (or, for all I know, the tenth). We still ask: why the cheetah woman? Why the two-step in the golden dome? The pit stop with the weird sisters? The death metal growled into the telephone? And who is the man in the mackintosh in Ulysses? Does it matter? What fun is a closed system? If Barney had wanted to propound a carefully reasoned argument on the psychological consequences of sexual differentiation, he would have written a treatise. But he wanted to make a new kind of movie. I had forgotten what an intrinsically beautiful medium 35-millimeter film can be; there's a real paucity of beauty when you go to the movies these days. There's plenty of spectacleoften nothing elsebut very little to actually contemplate, to view at leisure, to provide an aesthetic experience characterized, as Joyce would put it, by stasis rather than kinesis. The slow pace of Cremaster can be occasionally grueling, but more often than not it's hypnotic. We are given, time after time, strange and beautiful things to look at.
Which still leaves the question Matt posed last night at the pizza bar: in the end, what's the agon here? What drove Matthew Barney to make these movies? What does he want? I personally think it's about sexual differentiation as a fall from grace, a longing for a sort of Edenic pre-sexual state, the isolation that invariably comes from having a gender. But admittedly, I probably seized on that because that's basically how I feel about sexuality. The emotion is there. I say build your own objective correlative out of whatever materials come to hand.
Lynch made a grimace at the raw gray sky and said:
If I am to listen to your esthetic philosophy give me at least another cigarette.
The point is, there's rhythm and music. I ask for nothing more.