In this particular part of Matthew Barney's master work, I found myself as pleased as I would have hoped, even considering my high expectations. It feels like it has a budget extremely grand for a single person and yet minuscule compared to a Hollywood production, so yeah, basically an earth work. The long filmed takes become something tangible like pulling taffy, it's as if the camera is attached to a mechanism that doesn't just witness an event but actually is part of how it physically unfolds. He makes film subservient to sculpture.
From the opening sequence where a vague slice opens up into a bleeding monogram (logo?) it ignores what many associate with film today, editing to make perspectives disappear, a barely challenging game of a narrative that is meant to be pieced together, and a score and sound effects that are emotionally manipulative. This film takes that combination of time and subject matter that is the realm of sublime film and only uses 2 tricks for the entirety of the film, camera movement such as crane shots or zooming out and crescendoes of sound to build up anticipation of the action on screen. This simplification of what makes film 'magical' allows the viewer to get caught up in the living breathing diagrams that can be made out of honeycomb or buffalo or the properties of frozen water. Everything becomes unbearably tangible but only viewable from a necessary distance. There are moments as if Matthew Barney is slowly bringing his hand across your thigh, reaching in such a way that he can graze between your legs and get a little bit of your cheese to help finish a sculpture he happens to be in the middle of making. It makes me appreciate that Matthew Barney doesn't use smells to express his kind of genius, because we would all be in a world of insanity if perfumes became his new obsession instead of drawing restraints.
His strengths as a director with a particular style in mind comes through in two particular scenes. The first is a triple frame slow pull out where you first see bees partially covering the Cremaster Cycle logo, which I have always assumed was a reference to the floor plan of a church. It pulls out to show the delicate audio balance between the calm swarming of bees to a very consistent, but hard-core drummer playing exactly what I think I would hear if a hardcore drumroll were to be attempting to play an infinite song. This tempered endurance pace leads to the third and final reveal, the low guttural screams of a faceless (again hardcore) lead singer, covered in bees. At first I thought this would be too Richard Avedon-esque, but instead it feels more dirty like A Scanner Darkly. The drummer then seems like he's got the good end of the deal, at least he might only have to deal with a few escaped bees, but in between the sound booth filled with bees and the recording studio with all the sound boards and equipment and bees, the polyrhythms this drummer swirls up is actualized as a kind of acoustic glue that brings together all of the noise into a complicated intuitive sense of order to the sheer quantity of possible bees and sound.
The next breathtaking moment is when you see the artist himself ready to mount a bull in character as a serial killer. The foreshadowed context is that we are perhaps about to witness a spectacle, some form of corporal punishment. But it beautifully turns the energy into a farce where the animal handlers are able to make the bucking best come to a rest and the serial killer cowboy seems to melt into the beast as it metamorphoses into something that appears to be made out of felt.
The real heroes of this film are not the makeup people behind the prosthetics, the graphic designers, the chemical engineers or the lighting assistants (I saw the Cremaster 3 in the Guggenheim first, so everything becomes compared to the first encounter I had with Matthew Barney's work and these definitely were major strengths) but I must tip my hat to whoever was involved with scouting locations, the solid use of sound design especially with trusting one person to handle all of the music and a nuanced use of logos and corporate brands that will need further explanation as well.
It may not make much sense, but considering that this was finished in 1999, I feel like this work is firmly situated amongst other art and artists in the 90's/early 2000s that were in a way doing their own take on Pop Art in the sense that the use of corporate imagery is meant to imply that large corporate entities should be understood as cults and implicitly related to all violence, potential or otherwise. When this phenomenon comes up in other artwork from this period perhaps it is didactic like Ron English or Vik Muniz or appropriating it's design-y sense like Shepard Fairey or Josephine Meckseper. But what's great about the decisions made in this part of the Cremaster is that just the right amount of tension builds up, and it feels much more about the journey(s) than the resolutions or even continuity for that matter.
The image of a dead gas station attendant with a vintage good year logo behind him is wonderfully morbid, and striking in how it seems impossible to do something like that today without seeming like it's trying to say something too obvious. But because the Good Year blimp and other icons appear strategically vague in his other films it does reach a convincing mythical status. A Ford Mustang represents exactly what it is suppose to represent as if it is somehow as timeless (or fixed?) as bees and mountains. The same goes for his use of what I believe are top of the line snowmobiles and all the shoes are Prada (at least according to the credits.) The American flags seem like a bit much, but at least some of them were digital (as were I assume the Mormon chorus). And how else can something scream 'Mormon' in any other place other than the credits?
The film felt more daring than striking, more nuanced than a spectacle, more bored with luxury than clever product placement. This is a work that deserves all the benefit of the doubt that it can get, and that's because it's restrained compared to what I have heard has become the major talking points of his other films (which I have yet to see) but that it is somehow a spectacle of an artist with all the money in the world (and at the time married to one of the most amazing musicians, Bjork) and that it's a visual encyclopedia of everything gross one can imagine, but the dialogue seems as absurd and stupidly necessary as seeing Gary Gilmore's tiny prick. The film makes you guffaw more than a few times, and when it's all over an overwhelming sense of dread re-emerges that was there the whole time. Remembering that in between this film and the next, 9-11 happened.