The Cremaster Cycle (1994-2002)

Director: Matthew Barney
Year Released: 2002
Rating: 3.0

Massive five-part film project by performance artist Barney, where he takes ideas presented in his previous gallery work exploring 'the artist as athlete'/'the athlete as artist' (the athletic Yale grad's prior performance pieces included homage to much-injured Oakland Raiders center Jim Otto and various 'masculine' symbols, like a weight bench and disc weights as well as testicle-like objects) coupled with a kind of clever rethink of Hollywood movies, mashing genres together (horror, drama, action/adventure, fantasy, 'comedy', musical) and selling off his own movies' props as gallery pieces. He's a polarizing figure in the art world, and it's for a multitude of reasons - his solipsism, his past work as a model for J. Crew, his ability to get funding for these abstruse projects, the difficulty for audiences and critics to come up with a consistent explanation for countless symbols and references - and while I'm almost exclusively in favor of what Barney's attempting to do, I will grant his naysayers a little bit of credit: any time you try to say 'everything' with a project you tend to end up saying nothing, and in some of these film segments the juxtapositions are a little banal (he throws everything in, including the custom-made Vaseline-coated/self-lubricating kitchen sink, and expects it to resonate). The overarching idea, relating to the cremaster muscle that controls the ascent and descent of the male testicles, is his basic starting point, and from there he's able to go on a rather vague, roundabout examination of male identity, like rites of initiation (Cremaster 3), competition (dueling motorbikes in Cremaster 5), aggression (the Apprentice murdering the Architect in Cremaster 3, Gary Gilmore murdering the gas station attendant in Cremaster 2, two famous hardcore punk bands getting the kids all riled up in Cremaster 3) and physical endurance (climbing the opera stage in Cremaster 5, riding a bull in Cremaster 2, climbing the elevator shaft in Cremaster 3). There's something to be admired in both his hubris and in his ability to create unforgettable cinematic images (Gilmore's execution envisioned as a rodeo event in the middle of the Bonneville Salt Flats is some kind of genius), and once all the hype settles a more sane examination of his work (on all sides) is probably in order (comically, N.Y.-based bootleg maker and prankster Eric Doeringer created a Barney 'fanatic' website that mimics sites generally made for Hollywood celebrities). I personally believe history will treat this Cycle project favorably, and I think the images therein can stand the test of time. [Note: These films were watched in the order they were released.]