February 26, 2004

History, Gender Theory, and a Bloody Freemason Scaling a Vaseline-Soaked Guggenheim Museum

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The drummer of the metal band Slayer is covered in bees and howling into a telephone alongside the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The performances are meant to console Gary Gilmore, the first victim of the 1976 reinstatement of the death penalty, as he walks down a corridor anticipating the end of his life. Instead of a firing squad, however, Gilmore has chosen a less conventional form of execution: death by prison rodeo in the Utah Salt Flats. Flags with Hebrew epigrams are placed over the ice and beehives are arranged in a pentagon atop the rodeo’s sheer white arena amongst some of the best landscapes in the world. As a severed sunset looks on, Gilmore rides his steed until both creatures collapse. Looking for some sort of escape from his fate, Gilmore finds refuge in a little trick he learned from his great-grandfather Houdini: metamorphosizing into two cowboys doing the two-step in front of a twirling, glam-glitter saddle/corset/honeycomb object. And then things get crazy.

This scene occurs in Cremaster 2 and fits every description of the five-film Cremaster Cycle: inscrutable, allegorical, acidhead surreal, and iconic, coursing with punk rock propulsion and meditating gothic gloom. The narrative is lost in a world as intricate, insane, insular, allusive, and elusive, as a Star Wars trilogy penned by a PCP-huffing Ezra Pound. And despite all its absurd carnivalesque ecstasy, the themes are as grand and intimidating as the formation of identity, the mind-body duality, the trajectory of history, and the value and place of art.

Matthew Barney’s Cremaster, an epic series running at Cornell Cinema throughout March, has been a project ten years in the making, beginning with the release of Cremaster 4 in 1994. It takes its name from the muscle that elevates the testicles, referring back to the development of the fetus before the child’s gender has been determined. Barney has said the movies are thus suspended in a moment of pure potentiality, wherein the regimenting effect the assignment of gender has upon the body has not yet occurred. The narrative arc of the Cycle is therefore a depiction of ascent and descent, a sort of fall from that initial state of infinite possibility. This, however, merely acts a springboard for further explorations of how the motions of ascent and descent recur and develop throughout the histories of thought, society, music, and the physical world.

Professor of Dance Byron Suber, who is presenting the films each night, notes that the characters’ motions themselves relate to this question of motion: “The way [Barney] uses linearity and figural movements are necessary to dance. His method is not talking about the images or symbols. Every frame is so figurative and so open to interpretation, you have to learn to enjoy a narrative with so much ambivalence, and find pleasure in that ambivalence. Everything clearly means something, but it also doesn’t need to mean for us to enjoy it.” This ambiguity extends to the construction of the sculptures and sets that frequently appear in the films. Suber views this as a reliance upon “an old dichotomy in sculpture, making something out of nothing.” Alluding to the demolition derby that occurs in Cremaster 3, Suber says that “the [deceased] character is drawn up from the earth, made by the earth in a sense, put into these cars and crashed and crashed until this negation builds something, sculpts something.” In fact, the sculptures themselves are constructed out of materials one rarely associates with the rigidity and immobility of sculpture: petroleum jelly, wax, honeycomb, and wet cement.

Yet these ruminations on the artistic process rarely fall into abstraction or pretension. Suber believes that even as Barney duplicates some of the styles and methods of process artists from the 1970s, he clearly finds a humor and irony in everything he does: “I mean, when you’re watching this guy mountain-climb the Guggenheim Museum [in Cremaster 3], dressed in a kilt and running into Irish punk bands and double amputee leopard-women, it’s so crazy and slapstick, you could never take it seriously.”

However, Suber’s favorite moment is not one of the more symbolic or comedic scenes: “It takes place in Cremaster 2, with that Utah landscape, when the camera moves up and across the sky. It’s just beautiful photography, and reminds me of the best parts of [the gorgeous 1983 documentary] Koyaanisqatsi.” Though the films are open to endless theorizing, Suber advises viewers to simply “let yourself into the moment of it, and don’t necessarily always try to find the meaning. Somehow the meaning doesn’t matter. You’re in some process of discovery, some process of thought, and that’s what counts.” Fresh from a six-month run at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, The Cremaster Cycle is a major new event that Ithacans are rarely lucky enough to get a chance to see in their hometown.

Cremaster 1 and 2 will be shown together Monday at 9:15 p.m. and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. at Willard Straight Hall. For the rest of the schedule, visit http://cinema.cornell.edu

Archived article by Alex Linhardt