Performance artist Matthew Barney is a darling of contemporary artistic circles, and the previous four installments in his cycle of “Cremaster” films have been lauded enthusiastically. So, in many quarters, has this final entry in the series, “Cremaster 3” (with typical disdain for the conventional, Barney made the pictures out of order), a 178-minute magnum opus (not counting the intermission). But if a humble observer from the provinces may be permitted to venture an opinion, the film is explicable only as a gigantic practical joke, a deliberately obscure collection of unpleasant and redundant images cobbled together merely to see whether Barney will attract widespread praise even with something that’s patently awful. The message here is that old but still valid one: the emperor has no clothes.
According to its production notes, “Cremaster 3” has a narrative having something to do with the construction of New York’s Chrysler Building portrayed as a parable of Masonic symbolism. But it would take a higher being to discern the lineaments of the “plot” without the printed synopsis. In the actual experience it’s a mad jumble of gruesome and laughable sequences. Describing them in any detail would be as tiresome as watching them, but a few should be mentioned as examples. There’s a weird Celtic prologue, consisting of a nimble dwarf fighting a giant ogre on some ancient island; this oddball episode, complete with curious doodles on the soundtrack, comes across like a perverted Monty Python sketch. Then there’s a drawn-out “plot thread” about a half-dead corpse that’s dug up and tossed into the back seat of a car, which is then repeatedly rammed by three other vehicles until it’s reduced to a crumbled cube; this will eventually be forced down the throat of the character identified in the notes as “The Apprentice” (played by Barney himself) whose teeth have been turned into bloody stumps through torture (a horse bridle was shoved deep into his mouth in a racetrack interlude). There’s also a slapstick routine about a bartender who destroys his station, apparently as the result of the actions of a woman, ensconced in a cubicle and wearing an evening dress, who methodically peels potatoes using peculiarly squared blades attached to the soles of her high-heeled shoes. And as if all this weren’t loony enough, after intermission (the good news is that the picture has an intermission, but the bad news is that it resumes after it) we suffer through an elaborate routine in which Barney, dressed in a pinkish kilt and with bloodied rag hanging from his mouth, clambers about the various levels of the Guggenheim Museum, on which various events are occurring–a rock concert on one, a Rockettes-like group dancing on another, a woman who turns into a ravenous tiger on a third–before a return to the Chrysler Building, where, we’re told, both Architect and Apprentice suffer death as a result of their hubris.
Here we’ve finally reached one point in “Cremaster 3” that we can fully embrace, for the film is itself an expression of unrestrained artistic pride, which makes Barney’s gargantuan pratfall all the more just. Whether intended seriously or not, his cinematic summation is elephantine, grossly self-indulgent and, even from the purely pictorial perspective, not very interesting–an epic-length fiasco for pseudo-sophisticates. Appropriately, it’s distributed by an outfit called Glacier Field, because it seems to pass by as slowly as one.