Barney’s epic film series shows Doc viewers the nature of true art cinema

By Andrew Marchesseault

I’m in this great class on detective fiction. On Thursday, our discussion took a tangent toward the recent revival of the serial, especially in major motion pictures. Back in the day, you would wait for the next Sherlock Holmes story just like you wait for the next installment of The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, or The Matrix movies today. Hollywood banks on sequels for a quick buck, but it takes true artistic vision to imagine a cogent series of films that will build and borrow from one another. The Lord of the Rings is the best recent example of both a commercially and critically successful trilogy of films. However, the most talked-about film series may be one that may not screen again in Chicago in your lifetime.

This series is The Cremaster Cycle, a group of five films masterminded by current art world It Boy Matthew Barney. Filmed over a span of eight years, with the final installment completed in 2002, the films are based around the development of the male cremaster muscle, which controls testicular contractions in response to external stimuli. All five films are included in this quarter’s Doc Films schedule, with the first two screened last Saturday, and the remaining three scheduled for screenings today and Monday.

The Cremaster Cycle is difficult to explain. Although the films are loosely based around the cremaster’s development, with each successive film documenting the further differentiation of the sex organs, this is not evident upon first viewing of the series. In fact, narrative is completely secondary to Barney’s wild imagination, as he brings us from a Boise football stadium in Cremaster 1, to late-19th-century Budapest in Cremaster 5, and the Isle of Man, the American West, and New York City in between. Each film contains a distinct visual language, with elaborate costumes, complex storylines, and sculptures made from Barney’s signature materials of plastic, metal, and Vaseline.

Although each part of the series was filmed separately (as well as non-sequentially), none of them was released until the series was completed last year. Since the conclusion of filming, the Cycle has appeared at numerous film festivals, including a much-hyped engagement at the Guggenheim Museum in New York earlier this year, where the films were screened along with the exhibition of sculpture and photographs used in the series. The movies were shown in Chicago over this past summer, but once they leave Doc next Monday, they may be gone for good. Right now, consider yourself lucky to be attending.

Credit the Doc programmers for having the nerve to bring such a mammoth art piece to campus, and thank the distributors for giving the college kids a break.

“They didn’t try to screw us over,” says fourth-year Abe Frank, the Doc programming chair. The student film society was fortunate that the Cycle fit into their budget, which is more than you can say for yourself: a DVD of the three-hour Cremaster 3 alone will fetch up to $42,000 at Sotheby’s auction house.

I guess that $4 ticket price is looking pretty good right now, huh? Make sure to get in line early for Cremaster 3 on Friday, because Frank expects the two showings, at 6 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., to sell out. Play it safe for Cremaster 4 and 5 as well, which are screening back-to-starting at 7 p.m. on Monday. Don’t worry if you missed the first two films last Saturday; “Every image could stand on its own,” says Frank. Even still, it may help to consult before or after your viewing, as much of Barney’s dense symbolism and storyline is difficult to decipher without a guide. “It’s hard to make heads or tails of it,” says Frank.

The University community is perhaps the perfect place for the intellectual feast that is The Cremaster Cycle. Even so, Frank is hoping to draw people from around the city to what he considers to be “the only very important artistic anything that has come along in the last 20 years.” This may be your only chance to witness such a momentous event. You can always fork over the cash for The Lord of the Rings box set. But The Cremaster Cycle will only be affordable for so long.