Matthew Barney's "Cremaster Cycle," a five-film cinematic masterpiece, may not have made Barney a household name. But his work has accomplished something less likely still. Barney's work has supplanted Un Chien Andalou by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí as the most notorious art film of all time.
Many film fans know the work only by reputation. Barney is a visual artist who uses cinema as his medium, an important distinction that helps to explain why the series has never been released to DVD. Nor will it ever. Some 20 copies of films from "The Cremaster Cycle" exist as sculptural artifacts, presented in custom-made vitrines. In 2007, a DVD copy of Cremaster 2 sold for $571,000 at auction; the film came in a special display with a DVD "case" made from hand-tooled leather, sterling silver, honeycomb, beeswax and nutmeg.
Which is to say that the DVD product is every bit as genre-defying as the films -- which are showing at E Street this week.
"The Cremaster Cycle," begun in 1994 with Cremaster 4 and completed in 2002 with Cremaster 3 (that's right), is Barney's semi-autobiographical ur-myth. Its multi-faceted narrative tracks a slanted history of the U.S., tying the World's Fair in Chicago and the creation of the Chrysler Building in New York with the notorious execution of Gary Gilmore and novelist Norman Mailer. All of these figures -- Norman Mailer, Gary Gilmore, the Chrysler Building -- are characters in his film.
So too are a rock festival's worth of musicians, mostly hardcore acts. Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo plays an epic drum solo in Cremaster 2 -- one to rival any of his double–bass drum work with Slayer. Agnostic Front and Murphy's Law square off against one another (in the Guggenheim Museum, of all places) in one stage of Cremaster 3. Representing the softer side of Barney in Cremaster 3 are the tap-dancing Playboy Rockettes, while the kickline in Cremaster 1 could have been choreographed by Busby Berkeley.
The films are big on iconography. Throughout the series appears a pill-shaped icon called the "Field Emblem," which represents the dual or indeterminate nature of a developing human before its gender has been determined. ("Cremaster" refers to either the muscle in the human male that tugs the scrotum in response to stimuli or the connective tissue that holds a butterfly cocoon to a branch.) The film also employs unexpected corporate icons, including the Goodyear blimp. Two of them, in fact, which represent (of all things) ovaries in Cremaster 1.
Barney's films are very much a product of the 1990s art world. The artistic appropriation of corporate icons was not a new idea to the art world by the time Barney launched his Goodyear blimps. Think Andy Warhol's Campbell soup cans. But in Barney's work, the Goodyear icon is merely one of many, some devised by Barney and some devised by corporate America -- not the subject of a specific critique. In keeping with the emergence of fugitive materias as artistic media over the last couple decades, it fits that Barney's chosen medium is vaseline. He uses gobs and gobs -- gallons of gallons -- throughout his opus. While they fit some 90s tropes, Barney's films are transformatives for bringing Hollywood production techniques to films that typically debut at museums and Chelsea galleries -- changing the way that audiences view video installation art forever.
Following "The Cremaster Cycle," Barney went on to continue a different ongoing series of vaseline-oriented works with another high-profile film release: Drawing Restraint 9, which starred Barney and his much more famous wife, Bjork. It was after this work that Barney began to bubble up into popular discussion for reasons other than his art. Here is McSweeney's, for example, imagining a recorded conversation between Barney and Bjork as he orders furniture from an IKEA catalog.
Yet the man himself likes to discuss the cinematic significance of NFL films. In part because Barney has always projected a masculine attitude -- sports and metal have always played significant roles in his work -- and in part because his films so rarely screen, "The Cremaster Cycle" has avoided a fate as a caricatured, go-to movie rental that people pick when they want to see something weird.
But it's a shame that Barney's films -- which are difficult but also sculptural in a way that no other filmmaker's work even approaches -- are so rarely seen. This week's offerings represent the best view that D.C. may get for a while.
The films in "The Cremaster Cycle" were recorded in the following order: 4, 1, 5, 2, 3. The final film in the series, Cremaster 3, is the longest film (at more than 3 hours) with the largest budget. Thematically, the films follow in numerical order, though it's hardly imperative to see them that way -- there is exceedingly little dialog, and the plot that drives the film is imagistic at best.
E Street Cinema is screening Cremaster 1 &2 together and Cremaster 3 by itself. Cremaster 4 & 5 are showing together along with a bonus screening of La Lama Lamina, a performance Barney made in Brazil.
The screenings run in the afternoon, evenings, and late evenings every night this week.