Five vintage Chrysler Imperial New Yorker cars inside the Art Deco lobby of the Chrysler Building repeatedly smash a black car until it is destroyed. A woman (double amputee, special Olympics athlete and model, Aimee Mullins) in a silver lamé dress, inside an ovary-shaped room, uses specially designed shoes to slice potatoes into hexagon-shaped pieces which she places in a designated slot. Maypole streamers are woven around the tower of the Chrysler Building in a solemn dance of white-gloved men. Two male punk bands (Agnostic Front and Murphy’s Law) and their fans collide on a ramp of New York’s Guggenheim Museum, while, on the ramp below, the Rockettes perform precision drills. A man who has swallowed his teeth is forced to excrete them by menacing dentists.
These are just a few of the stunning, meticulously crafted images, far too numerous to describe, which make up Matthew Barney’s luminous flawed masterpiece, “Cremaster 3.” This epic film, eschewing dialogue and conventional narrative logic, tells a gripping tale of biological drama through a highly improbable series of evocative images, superb acting and editing, and haunting music. There are certain films which, as you watch them, grip you with a special thrill and fear. Films which are so beautiful,so deeply resonant, and so satisfying on many levels that you are perversely aware that the film (even a very long one such as this) will have to end at some point, whereas you wish it could continue forever. This is a feeling I often have about life itself, but exceedingly rarely about a work of art, making “Cremaster 3” a very special film for me. That Barney, a visual artist, understands the nuanced musicality of time-based media, exacts such sophisticatedly restrained and powerful performances from actors, has such an unfailing access to intuitive insights, and knows how to put together the money for these elaborately unconventional movies, constitutes a kind of cinematic miracle.
As in the other four films in Barney’s “Cremaster” series (they were made in a different order than their titles imply) this one evokes a biological world of reproduction, hormones, DNA, immune system cells, etc., through a series of metaphorical adventures involving a wide range of references to all aspects of human culture. Indeed, it seems to be Barney’s point that we unconsciously replicate the drama of our inner cellular lives in our social forms, clothing, architecture, economic structures, etc. This is not an intellectual thesis in his films, watching, you viscerally feel the human urges to protect, to disrupt, to remain loyal, to replicate, to create order and cleanliness, to make a mess, to catalogue information, all as echoes of our biological selves. This particular film seemed to me to focus on viruses and the immune system, particularly on the bizarre world of retroviruses such as HIV which create sickness by reading DNA backwards, and commandeering immune cells, turning them into viral replication factories. The film is abstract enough to allow many possible interpretations, but the retrovirus theme was evoked for me by the character of The Entered Apprentice (Barney), a rough looking fellow wearing a leather apron stocked with phallic tools and masonic symbols, who breaks into the beautiful Art Deco elevator of the Chrysler Building by climbing in from above, and fools the elevator’s defense system, the sprinkler, into spraying water, by holding his cigarette lighter underneath. He uses the water to mix up cement, and then fills the entire elevator with it.
The demolition derby in the lobby, whose purpose is to destroy a primordial mud creature inside the central black car, reminded me of the ruthless and repetitive attacks of the immune system’s Killer Cells. The scene is presided over by a prim, serious-looking receptionist. When the car has been reduced to about a square foot of crushed metal, she carefully removes a metal disk from the remains, and places it in a special round container, bringing it upstairs to a ‘library’ where it will be catalogued, just as our immune systems file away profiles of all the intruders they have fought.
Later, when the Apprentice’s disruption of the body/building seems to be causing more widespread dysfunction, the Killer Cars begin ramming into each other, poignently embodying the tragedy of autoimmune disease, where the body attacks itself.
The film, by its costuming, is vaguely set in the 1930s. The silent characters are all intently, passionately devoted to their repetitive tasks of protecting, invading, reproducing. They communicate with one another through silent appeals, and by presenting the correct signs and symbols to one another. Thus, the Apprentice is able to gain entrance into an exclusive ‘men’s club,’ where cigar-smoking guys play with Masonic compasses, by presenting a series of geometric objects to the bartender, until he finds the one which the bartender accepts, just as viruses and drugs can illicitly gain entry into our cells by presenting the correct chemical ‘unlock’ codes. Once he is inside, the pristine world of the bartender is quickly destroyed,as all the glasses get broken and foamy beer spews from busted kegs, in one of the film’s comic highlights.
Barney’s misogyny is evident throughout. Women are the stifling keepers of an obsessively orderly, systematic world; men break the rules and create excitement and disorder. Barney exults as his character achieves a final, bloody triumph over the sorority. Yet, this is no woman-hating film in the ordinary Hollywood manner. Misogyny, which has been around throughout human history (yes, even in matriarchal times), is clearly shown as being as biologically driven as anything else. In the Monty Pythonesque framing story of two ancient ogres which begins and ends the film, the feminine principle is victorious, as the egg-producing giant defeats the sheep-eating giant. (Just as in the real bio world, where drones are discarded after they do their fertilizing thing, and queen bees rule the day.)
Like Ulrike Ottinger’s masterpiece “Freak Orlando,” “Cremaster 3” is too long, and takes several decidedly wrong turns in its last third. The film, which builds up a tension comparable to high Greek drama through its single-minded focus, feels like it is reaching for an unneeded diversion in the final sequence in the Guggenheim Museum. Barney attempts to create a sense of transformation by, for the first time, creating an overtly conceptual and satirical sequence with the Rockettes and the punk bands, but this direction is a definate step downward from the poetic instensity of the rest of the film.(However, the image of the wild punk fans, reigned in by guards wearing shirts which say “STAFF,” set me off thinking about the way the body can keep certain infections in a state of constant control, as a metaphor for the way violent youth culture is commodified and kept under control by capitalism.) The accelerated, violent ending, in which the Apprentice triumphs over the female protectors of the building/body, was forced and artificial. Yet, it would challenge any artist to find a transformative ending to a film which has been at the highest levels of transformative metaphor from its first frame. This challenge defeated both Ottinger and Barney, but, in both films, the first two-thirds are so extraordinary that the weak endings do little to diminish their stature.