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The Cremaster Cycle (2002)

Cremaster 1 (PG); Cremaster 2 (18); Cremaster 3 (15); Cremaster 4 (12A); Cremaster 5 (12)

A work of rare beauty and great wonder

Rating: 8/10

Running Time: 396 minutes

UK Certificate: 18

The word ‘cremaster’ denotes either the muscle which suspends the testicles, or else the appendage which suspends an insect’s pupa. Matthew Barney’s ‘The Cremaster Cycle’ is a series of five art films, each with its own distinctive visual style and setting, but all linked by common themes of sexuality, transformation, transcendence, and the suspension of clearly differentiated categories. Apart from making films (and going out with Björk), Barney is a sculptor renowned for working in plastics and vaseline, and all five parts of ‘The Cremaster Cycle’ feature his artwork.

In ‘Cremaster 1’ (1995, 41min), on the blue astroturf of a football stadium, a troupe of elaborately costumed women dance in formation, while two Goodyear blimps hover overhead, attached to the lead dancer by long cords, like testicles or perhaps ovaries. Aboard the blimps, a woman (Marti Domination) crouched beneath a table creates patterns for the dance formations below (which vaguely resemble sexual organs) using grapes which she draws down through a hole in the table-cloth.

‘Cremaster 2’ (1999, 79min) first deals with the 1977 execution of Gary Gilmore (played by Barney, with prosthetically reduced penis), figured as a rodeo ride to the death, and then shifts to the 1893 seduction by Gilmore’s grandmother of Harry Houdini (Noman Mailer, whose book ‘The Executioner’s Song’ is about Gilmore). Along the way, there is a séance, two 1966 Mustangs umbilically conjoined, and Dave Lombardo (formerly of ‘Slayer’) performing a drum solo accompanied by droning bees.

‘Cremaster 3’ (2002, 179min) focusses on the erection of New York’s Chrysler building, and uses imagery from Masonic ritual to show a mystic battle of wills between the ascending Apprentice (played by Barney) and the Architect – coloured by all manner of bizarre episodes and digressions (giants at Fingal’s cave, rotting horses in a harness race, car demolition in the Chrysler lobby, elevator cables used as a harp, etc.). This, the longest and most recent of ‘the Cremaster Cycle’, is also Barney’s crowning masterpiece.

‘Cremaster 4’ (1994, 42min) concerns a tap-dancing satyr who tunnels from one side of the Isle of Man to the other, while two motorcycles with sidecars race in opposite directions (and a testicle emerges from each driver’s pocket and slides along the motorcycle’s frame).

‘Cremaster 5’ (1997, 55min) takes the form of a lyric opera, and is largely set in the Hungarian State Opera House, where the Queen of Chains (Ursula Andress), surrounded by tethered pidgeons, watches both the diva onstage, and a giant with some sprites in the baths below, while reflecting upon her magician who leapt suicidally into the Danube, only to be rescued by sprites. This final ‘Cremaster’ film is the most static of the series, and will appeal most to fans of opera.

Normally film-based art projects like this, with their lack of any conventional narrative and their sometimes impenetrable symbolism, are confined to screenings in obscure galleries, so filmgoers who have curiosity and a degree of patience should jump at the opportunity to see all six and a half hours of ‘The Cremaster Cycle’ while it is on general release in multiplexes. These films have a magisterial sense of scale which is best appreciated on the big screen, and the uniquely intense beauty of their design will transform any cinema screen into a wall on which twenty-five wondrously inventive and surreal paintings hang each second. Or some may think it is just a bunch of balls.

It's Got: The (literal) flogging of dead horses, novel uses for grapes in blimps waiting rooms, impractical yet aesthetically pleasing methods of cutting potatoes, the wet dreams of pidgeon fanciers, Manx porcine satyrs and fairies, giants fighting at Fingals cave, a car crushed to the size of (and used as) a set of dentures - what more do you want?

It Needs: To be viewed with a great deal of patience.


While definitely not your average night out at the cinema, Matthew Barney's five-part 'Cremaster Cycle' is a work of rare beauty and great wonder, making a unique viewing experience that is not easily forgotten – although be warned that less patient viewers may find that it is not fondly remembered either.