Watching Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle is an experience. Less film than art exhibition projected, the Cremaster Cycle evokes strong feelings in those who see it, but sadly most do not get to see the film in its entirety. Broken into five pieces, each filmed at a different point in time, none of them made chronologically, The whole Cremaster Cycle is an experience that can only be had in a theater, most likely in a bigger city, or at a museum. With the laserdisc set of the entire production carrying a price tag of $500,000 only the most avid and affluent fans of Barney’s work are going to find themselves adding this work to their video collection.
What can be seen of the Cremaster Cycle is a thirty minute portion of the third Cremaster film, a piece titled – The Order. Set in the Guggenheim museum with its famous spiral stairway, Barney’s portrays a character known as the Entered Apprentice. With graphics out of a video game and levels each containing an opponent, the garishly costumed Barney – dressed like a foppish Scotsman in a frilly pink Beefeater hat and a pastel kilt – scales the walls of the museum, reaching each floor to be faced by a new opponent. From paraplegic athlete Amiee Mullins to artist Richard Serra to a line of kicking Rockettes the Apprentices challenges are strange to say the least. Oddest of all – or possibly most popular – is the second degree where the Apprentice must two bands – Murphy’s Law and Agnostic Front. Their presence in the Guggenheim, with their energetic fans, is an odd site, but no less odd than anything else you’ll see in a Cremaster film.
The oddness of The Order leaves its impact open to great debate. Is there an underlying message? Is everything in the film a symbol? Is Barney just being weird for the sake of art? Such questions and the inability to easily codify any of the Cremaster films have reduced many opinions to gushing praise or grand words of hatred. As the film polarizes its audience into two camps there comes a desire to fall in line, with one of the two factions. Alas, I cannot. Having seen the entire cycle, and not just this one DVD, I can see why many people who bother to type in their aplomb reviews on Internet forums and comment boards are left feeling incapable of defining or digesting what they have just experienced. They thusly write it off as a failure. It’s a hasty judgment and one that cannot be easily validated.
There are surely a large number of messages and motifs that run throughout the duration of the entire Cremaster Cycle and were one willing enough to expend the effort or to hound the artist himself, it could be quite possible to crack the code, understand each symbol and solve the mystery of the Cremaster. I’m not that interested in knowing why Barney must unearth masionic tools from the floor of the Guggenheimg whilst two hardcore bands must sonically assault one another or why Amiee Mullins is transformed into a cheetah, to know these things would almost cheapen my experience, even if it gave me a greater understanding of the film itself. The understanding would undercut the experience. There is a sense of blissfulness in such ignorance.
Haing seen the whole Cremaster Cycle I can say that it honestly does not help to explain any of the questions that The Order may bring up. However, viewing each film does create an experience, with recurring characters, themes, and images – nothing that serves so much as clues, but more as a weird form of deja vu. Barney’s entire Cremaster Cycle works like a dream, a long elaborate dream. After watching the whole series of films I felt as if I awoke, uncertain of what I had just experienced and I uncertain if I could draw parallels to your own life, to reality, even though underneath the elaborate sets and stylized costumes parallels seemed to abound.
Sadly, this same vivid experience is not possible when you watch the only portion of the cycle now available on home video. Perhaps it was the setting, perhaps it was the time of evening, bust most definitely it was the format – this time around, viewing the film on a decent sized television screen, the experience was not nearly as impacting. First off, the scale is reduced. Unless you have one of those whopping Plasma widesceen HD televisions the lavish design of Barney’s films is shrunk to a dismal size. Secondly, watching The Order is like falling into the first level of dreaming – a brief nap, if you will. To truly partake in the full Cremaster experience you have to find away to see all five portions of the film, but this will take you much longer than the mere half-hour it takes to watch The Order. You’ll probably need a whole night’s worth of sleep to make it through the total running time of the full Cremaster Cycle, but it’s surely something you won’t forget. Whether or not you love or hate the film really depends on your need to understand the film. For all the talk of the magic of movies, I’m continually surprised to see so many people begging to have the magic dispelled. The Cremaster Cycle may want to be explained, but only so much as a dream wants to be explained. It is more the desire of the person undergoing the experience that leads to a need for an explanation. It is far easier to try and understand a film like Cremaster than to submerging oneself into the work. Once it is analyzed and understood it can be explained and the danger and mystery vanish. What The Order provides is a brief glimpse into a deeper experience.