Nick-Davis.com: Favorite Films: Pennies from Heaven Bram Stoker's Dracula – Cremaster 3 – Blonde Venus – Dave Chappelle's Block Party – Eraserhead – Dottie Gets Spanked – Orlando

Nick-Davis.com: 100 Favorite Films
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#49: The Cremaster Cycle
(USA, 1995-2002; dir. Matthew Barney; cin. Peter Strietmann; with Matthew Barney, Marti Domination, Anne Bannert, Juliette Vassilkio, Norman Mailer, Patty Griffin, Michael Thompson, Aimee Mullins, Richard Serra, Paul Brady, Sharon Marvel, Colette Guimond, Christa Bauch, Ursula Andress, Joanne Rha, Susan Rha)
IMDb for Cremaster 2, my favorite installment

Matthew Barney's five-part Cremaster Cycle hurricaned its way into Ithaca, NY, in the spring of 2004, powered by a tremendous reputation that was nonetheless, at least to my hinterland ears, vague in its details. With apologies to all the visual artists and museum devotees who probably roll their eyes at Cremaster fans like me—the same way I am nonplussed when, say, people learn of Toni Morrison when she pops up on Oprah—I had heard that the films were not made in the sequence implied by their titles, that they were collectively named for the tiny muscle that raises and lowers the testicles in moments of arousal, and that they aggregated all manner of sculptural, digital, narrative, mythological, and material experiments into a behemoth visual undertaking that anyone curious about the future of movies should take some pains to see. And so I saw. And as opposed to the letdowns I have experienced in the face of other curator-approved, "post-cinema" movies (for example, Bill Morrison's Decasia, a series of arresting ideas and images that persist at least three times too long), the Cremaster movies were truly electrifying: baffling but terrifically engaging in their more arcane motifs, and persuasive as the kind of tout court double-dare to filmmakers and audiences everywhere that avant-garde classics like Un chien andalou or Meshes of the Afternoon or Dog Star Man or Empire must have been in their own days.

While an oft-promised DVD collection from Palm Pictures remains a dream perpetually deferred, I have only my two-year-old recollections of Barney's formidable imagery and curiously interwoven "plots" to write from. Of course, the whole reason why the Cremaster Cycle ranks so high on this list is that Barney's outlandish mise-en-scène, forever emphasizing the organic, the amorphous, the massive, the adhesive, and the fluorescent in quite literal ways, also retains those very qualities in my memory. I saw the movies in superficially "numeric" order (i.e., 1 and 2 on one night, 3 the next, and 4 and 5 after that), but even following that schema, you implicitly sense that 4 and 1, the first films produced, supply the erstwhile Rosetta Stones to what more fully follows. These, the shortest installments, condition the viewer into the remarkable plasticity of Barney's visions, his outré cosmetic mutations of his own body, his recurring propensity for gonadal tropes and visual puns, and his fusion of mass-cultural signifiers like zeppelins, stadiums, land-speed races, and flight attendants with his carefully considered though highly subjective apprehensions of specific occult histories: drawn from the Isle of Man in Cremaster 4, but also from Hungary, Utah, and New York City in subsequent iterations. Both within each movie and across the whole series, Barney expectorates a kind of gestalt system that no one can comfortably articulate—not even he, I suspect, based on the "synopses" at the entrancing but opaque Cremaster website. What is remarkable about the project, then, are its eerily instantaneous claims on your sensory life and your sense-making apparatus. Fashioning febrile touchstones out of the illusionist Harry Houdini, the murderer Gary Gilmore, the architectural peculiarities of the Chrysler Building and the Guggenheim Museum, the mating rituals of bees, the salt flats of the Western U.S., the emerald archipelagos of the Irish Sea, the Lánchíd Bridge of Budapest, and a full MGM cast of satyrs, nereids, headbangers, and anthropomorphic hybrids, the Cremaster films summon a force of subconscious recognition that is perversely hard to account for in anything we see or hear. The linchpin materials—smelted Vaseline, Victorian couture, body paints and plasters, shimmering silks and satins, rolling grapes, twittering birds, Art Deco surfaces just waiting to be scuffed, a lattice-work of seminal and fallopian passageways—all express the pliability, viscosity, impermanence, and unresolved becoming of all things. Thus, the potent emotional resonance of the Cremaster Cycle is due as much as anything to these media of expression, their constant flights and drops, their splittings and mergings, their plyings and smashings, and, perhaps most of all, to the melancholy flattening of every gummy resin and lofty spire and shaggy wig and crenulated frieze into remote, two-dimensional flickers.

Every Cremaster fan harbors a favorite installment, and mine is certainly the second. Even though I lack much of a compass for navigating Houdiniana, Mormon lore, or the strange career of Gary Gilmore, Barney's figurations of Gilmore's murderous loneliness—as a mucous membrane encasing his car at a gas station, as a penis shrunk to paper-clip size, as a plaintive rodeo in desolate surroundings—evoke a blend of pathology and extraordinary pity on a par with Patty Jenkins' Monster, despite how fully Barney challenges every extant recipe for transmitting moral and psychological concepts on film. I also love the sad, grand riffs on the generic staples of the Western, and as a hard-and-fast Cronenberg disciple, I take a simpler, half-disgusted interest in the colloidal jellies and creepy supernaturalism of the opening "conception" scene. When I first composed this list, I meant for Cremaster 2 to occupy its own spot, but then—partly by noticing that I had misidentified a still from Cremaster 3 in the banner image for this feature—I realized how much my investments in every Cremaster segment seep and pour into the others. Having therefore proven inept at compartmentalizing my memories of these movies, I am now opting for the more cowardly but also more truthful position of commemorating them all in their uncanny wholeness: a totality far greater than the sum of its prodigious, elliptical parts.

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