Everything about The Cremaster Cycle is sensuous, and Matthew Barney is the most generous filmmaker; he is not interested in feeding us a world through his eyes and ears. Instead, he wants to open up a world to us by uncovering for us the things we want to see and hear. What he sees and enjoys most, we see from the most satisfying angle. What he hears and enjoys most, we hear at the most appropriate volume. And these sights and sounds, we experience at just the right moments and frequency. The camera floats at times like our eyes do when scoping out an unfamiliar place. Static shots and long silences (i.e. with audio, but no dialogue or music) allow us to see and hear the situation and every detail in it to our heart’s content. There is so much gratification for the viewer that you can’t help but love the experience you’re being given, despite it being given to you by Barney and not yourself. As long as film is a practice in voyeuristic pleasure, Barney, as filmmaker, delivers.
For being a study of sexual differentiation, the epic does not take itself too seriously (maybe 5, and parts of 3, but most certainly not 1, 2, and 4). Those who claim that it is a masterpiece defying all classification are blowing what is a neat series of films all out of proportion. For The Cremaster Cycle is just that: five films, nothing more. And Barney knows this: he knows that a movie is a movie, and that above all, a movie’s purpose is to entertain. His sculptures may be art, but his films are not. Nonetheless, there is a link between the two, a link that truly distinguishes The Cremaster Cycle: these films make love to sculpture.
Sculpture is the most sensuous artform, the most corporeal and tangible. Barney depicts this sensuousness by immersing us in sensory details, and he chooses his details by observing what our bodies do when our consciousness is subdued. The things we do while unoccupied and daydreaming are often the most sensuous: light and steady stroking, feeling your locks of hair glide between your fingers… They say some nail-biters find themselves engaging in the habit simply out of boredom, sometimes not even realizing it until they “snap out of it,” finding a bunch of nail bits on their shirtfront. The mouth is the most sensuous body part; it allows us to both touch and taste. When you bring your nails to your mouth, you indulge in the touch of teeth to fingernail—substantiating the tactility by biting off a piece of it—and in the taste of your fingernails.
Ordinary moments in the Cremaster world are slowed down so you can indulge in Barney’s chosen sensations the same way you indulge in yours when daydreaming. Taking a momentary break from her task of stealing grapes from under the hardened-Vaseline* table, Goodyear (the protagonist of 1) traces the smooth curve of a hole in the tabletop with her fingernail. The corner of her nail shaves off a thin ribbon of the wax-like material, and it curls as she continues to trace the curve before falling gently to the floor. In 2, Gary Gilmore, biding time inside his car, pulls out a long, loose thread from the upholstery of his backseat and makes a tightrope with it at the driver’s seat. Peeling back a part of the interior wall, he scoops out a lump of Vaseline from inside and clumsily plasters it onto the tightrope. He shapes it as if making shampoo mohawks, except much slimier and more solid. His fingers melt the jelly and manipulate it at the same time. For a moment, it piles up into a mountain, but under its weight, the tightrope twists forward, dropping a sticky, stretched-out lump.
They are delicious, these sensations. And we want to try these things that the characters do, because we, too, want to indulge in the tactility; we like to touch. It indulges our sensuousness more than sight and hearing but risks less intimacy than taste and smell. Whereas sculpture is a study in tactility, a body incarnate, the Cremaster epic is an ode to tactility, with body as its subject.
[There’s still a chance to catch screenings in NYC at the IFC Center. Final screening: June 3rd]
*Each of the five films features a Vaseline sculpture or prop or setting; you might say that Barney has a bit of an obsession with the stuff. But for good reason: it really is the perfect material for tactile experimentation; it can be used in its room-temperature, translucent jelly form, but it can also be heated to a transparent liquid or hardened to an opaque solid. In all these states, its hue is a pleasing ivory, a true neutral, perfect for universal use and noncommittal expression (which isn’t to say it would be any less significant). In jelly form, it is somewhat unstable, being quite vulnerable to heat, but surprisingly persistent in its stickiness. If you’ve ever tried to wash the stuff off of you, you know that it’s impossible to be rid of it completely; unless you resort to harmful chemicals, the only thing you can do is wait for the residue to absorb into your skin. Sartre claimed that slime is a metaphor for immorality (e.g. “He’s a slimy guy”) because it is neither solid nor liquid; it sticks to us and we have trouble getting it off. Slime troubles us. We try to avoid it, but when we get ourselves stuck in it, we can’t seem to escape it. How could a material as tenacious as this not be perfect for tactile engrossment? As long as we cannot escape our bodies, we cannot escape the sliminess of petroleum jelly.