Written and directed by Matthew Barney

With Barney, Aimee Mullins and Richard Serra

Distributed by the Barbara Gladstone Gallery


All  of Matthew Barney's  5-part CREMASTER series of films have had 2-week  runs at New York's Film Forum over the past few years. However,  Barney's acclaim in the art world hasn't translated to the film world. His name is mud among many avant-garde filmmakers (perhaps because his gallery, which also produces Iranian-American artist Shirin Neshat's work, can afford to give him  million-dollar budgets) and the general film world has been pretty apathetic. One has to buy one of his sculptures to get a videotape of his films: an obnoxious practice, which certainly hasn't helped his public profile among general cinephiles, although some intrepid bootleggers have managed to circumvent this.  All that has changed with CREMASTER 3, which has found a cult audience in some quarters, pushing LAGAAN off  Film Forum's third screen. The verdict is in. Some audiences would rather see a 3-hour film with no dialogue but a few musical numbers than a 4-hour one with 7 musical numbers and almost 90 minutes of cricket.

I'm not familiar with Barney's sculptures and photos (although many of them are outgrowths or precursors of the CREMASTER series), but I have mixed feelings about  his films. Even the title CREMASTER is a sexual reference: it's a  thin muscle which draws up the testicle.   The first two were annoyingly crude demonstrations of  Freud-via-Cronenberg symbolism. After that (and possibly due to  increased budgets which allowed him to shoot on HD video), he began improving as a filmmaker. While the many metaphors for the  phallus and bodily fluids still mar CREMASTER 3 (come on, we get it by now), it's ultimately up to something  more interesting. (A master of disguise, Barrney spends the first half in an Indiana Jones costume with relatively little makeup: maybe a false mustache..) The second half - the two parts are separated by an intermission - is far more provocative. The spot-the-semen game becomes more complex. Apparently, Barney's character (now revealed to be the Entered Apprentice) is try to rise in the  Freemasons. To reach its  fifth degree of Freemasonry, he must ascend to the top level of the Guggenheim and defeat the Great Architect (Serra.) To pass each degree, Barney must get by the obstacles each level presents.

Seeing CREMASTER 3 a second time after learning a bit about Masonic symbolism, I felt like a paranoid stoner searching for clues everywhere. Most of these clues turned out to mean something: Barney has certainly  done his research. He starts out as both a mason and a Mason, a pun that passed me by on first viewing. A working-class character in the first half (despite his Indiana Jones garb, he's no privileged archeologist), he  clearly sympathizes for his peers, even as he ascends to the top of the Chrysler Building, which is being decorated for a May Day celebration. (May Day began in Irreland.) In the past, I haven't been not very impressed by Barney's recurrent use of sexual metaphors, as  key as they are  to his films. Pop culture - a la the hair gel scene in THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY -  often beats him to this punch, while Barney's images of body fluids seem designed largely to impress grad students..

However, the plethora of phallic symbolism in CREMASTER 3 has more resonance, becoming a metaphor for sheer amibition: succeeding in life and climbing to the top of a building become one and the same. (That said, the scene in which a bartender sucks on an out-of-control Guinness tap is both puerile and amusing.)  As Indiana Barney makes his through the Chrysler building's elevator shafts, he spackles from  a  fecal bucket, while the "Cremaster 3" riding jackets come with a large penis. (Perhaps the Gladstone Gallery will eventually fund Barney's next film by selling them on Ebay.) Nevertheless, CREMASTER 3 looks great and offers plenty of incidental pleasures: a scene in which the Entered Apprentice must dig for tools in the middle of a mosh pit at a hardcore punk show, the Rockette-like Order of Rainbow For Girls,  a race run by  dead horses. Its first half also drags, and its references to Celtic mythology (including the use of Irish folk music and the Giant's Causeway) passed me by..

Avant-garde filmmakers'  inspiration from video games intrigues me. Simultaneously drawing inspiration from video games and the varied mythologies of car culture, Irish folk tropes and Masonic lore intrigues me even more. Director Peggy Ahwesh has recently made a surprisingly poignant  film about Lara Craft, but Barney treats two New York landmarks, the Chrysler Building and the Guggenheim, as spaces to play with. At best, CREMASTER 3 is open about treating the art world as a game. In this world, Barney has indeed won: next winter, he'll be having an extensive show at the Guggenheim: Becoming a player in both senses of the word (maybe even a third, cosmic one),  his egotism  and narcissism may not be pretty, but they're modulated by the two endings that  own up to their cost. Is CREMASTER 3 a piece of self-aggrandizement, self-critique, self-indulgence or a combination of the above? Whichever option you pick, it's a fascinatingly personal film, even if Barney expresses himself best through disguises and symbols. .

Thanks to Jeremy Heilman for his assistance in explaining the film's symbolism: he should compile a FAQ.   For an FAQ about Freemasonry, which reveals exactly what blasphemy Barney has committed,  try this URL.