I’ll admit that I was afraid, very afraid, of sitting through The Cremaster Cycle. The fear was simple enough: Would this series of five surreal, sexual but antierotic, promiscuously symbol-strewn, totally mod yet oblique avant-garde features, written and directed by the art-world darling Matthew Barney, leave me in an avant-bored stupor? Was I about to spend six and a half hours of my life trapped in a downtown video installation from hell?
I needn’t have worried. ”The Cremaster Cycle” is being programmed in its entirety, for the first time, at select theaters around the country, and I certainly see why audiences have been lining up for it. Barney, a celebrated mixed-media sculptor, is steeped in the tantalizing hypno-poetics of film artists like the David Lynch of ”Eraserhead” and Stanley Kubrick in his elliptical mind-warp ”2001” mode. The five ”Cremaster” films, which were originally shot and presented in arbitrary order (”Cremaster 4” arrived in 1994, then ”Cremaster 1” in 1995, and so forth), are hit-or-miss experiments, but they’re full of images that sear themselves into your mind’s eye: Barney, with the head of a ram, trawling through a cave made entirely of petroleum jelly; Goodyear blimps arrayed as sexual organs; satyrs and hermaphrodites and amputees and drone bees.
That smeary Vaseline makes an appearance in each of the films — it’s the cosmic goo that holds them all together. On the soundtrack, Barney favors roars and atonal threnodies, and he creates images of formidable concrete sensuality. He’s aiming for a kind of Total Art that has earned him comparisons to Wagner, yet he has conceived of these films on a scale of inflated private mythology that is vast enough to overpower — if not bully — the audience.
A cremaster, in case you were wondering, is the muscle that raises and lowers the testicles in response to heat or fear. ”The Cremaster Cycle” might be described as a fantasia on the theme of warring, and merging, male and female energies. In ”Cremaster 1,” a wordless creature who looks like Gwen Stefani playing Lynch’s Lady in the Radiator drops grapes out of the bottom of her platform heel, which then choreograph themselves into patterns mirrored by Busby Berkeley chorines dancing on the blue AstroTurf football field below. That’s the most delightful film of the cycle. The most darkly powerful is ”Cremaster 2,” in which the saga of Gary Gilmore (played by Barney) is replayed as a ritual of Western homicide leading to what the film sees as our current state of gold-plated technological clampdown.
The best moments in the series got me psyched for the latest installment, the three-hour magnum opus ”Cremaster 3.” I’m sorry to report that it’s a dud. It starts as a listless plunge into the metaphysics of the Chrysler Building, then culminates with Barney scaling the circular interior of the Guggenheim Museum. The filmmaker ascends, literally, to the Olympus of the art world, but he would have done well to end this flawed, dazzling series with the raising of something other than his own cremaster. ”Cremaster 1”: B+; ”Cremaster 2”: A-; ”Cremaster 3”: C-; ”Cremaster 4”: B; ”Cremaster 5”: C+