Cremaster 3

Cremaster 3 photoUnrated
Running Time: 182 minutes
Written and directed by Matthew Barney


Origin of the title:
The “cremaster” is the muscle on a male that lowers or raises the testicles in response to physical or emotional stimulus or temperature changes.

Despite this, I can’t say I was terribly excited by this film!

I read some initial reviews on this piece and they were glowing. Matthew Barney is a rising star in the art world, and at 36, has had wide acclaim, including a retrospective of his work at the Guggenheim Museum. He’s being hailed as the Andy Warhol of our generation. This may be a good comparison…many of Warhol’s films are wastes of time as well. Sometimes, Andy would just set up his camera in his apartment, then walk away…coming back two hours later to label the footage as “a film”.

However, at the time, Barney’s film seemed like THE THING to see. So, I trotted down to Santa Monica to the only theater in the Los Angeles area where it was playing. The theater was packed with art house types and members of the film community. Seated across from me, for instance, was actor/screenwriter Mike White (Chuck & Buck/The Good Girl).

It wasn’t long into the screening that I realized the truth about this film. Matthew Barney’s latest offering takes pretentiousness to a whole new level. In fact, it epitomizes all that can go wrong with an art house film. As a screenwriter, I find the lack of story simply appalling. What’s worse, this film is getting rave reviews from film critics. As absurd as it may be, it seems that Barney is scoring points just for being esoteric. But just because something is hard to understand, doesn’t mean that it is necessarily worth understanding.

Cremaster 3 has intriguing imagery at times, but would be better suited to a museum installation where you can observe briefly, then walk away. It’s roughly 170 minutes too long. Don’t be mislead by the trailers which piece together the most interesting and visual moments. The majority of this film is as exciting as watching paint dry.

Barney attempts to make this film seem profound with allusions to ancient Celtic mythology and rituals of Freemasonry, but it just doesn’t work.

I haven’t seen the other films in the Cremaster Cycle, but as this one has been touted as the best of the series, I can’t imagine anything worse than watching all of them back to back!


The film begins with a campy flashback to the mythology behind the creation of the Isle of Man. Here, we see a bumbling giant, Fingal, sitting in a cave (Scottish Isle of Staffa) and eating whole sheep as a snack. Eventually, he eats all the sheep and wades through the ocean towards Ireland (The Giant’s Causeway) in search of more food.

In a small turf house, lives a hairy leprechaun, Finn MacCumhail, and his human bride. The leprechaun is cunning, however, and pretends to be a baby, so that when Fingal breaks down the door, he doesn’t attack immediately. Instead, Fingal ends up eating some fake food the leprechaun puts out (Vaseline eggs?) and in his confused condition, is ripe for an attack. The leprechaun drives Fingal away. In the process, a large stone gets hurled out to the ocean in slow motion, representing the mythological building block from which the Isle of Man first sprung.

This sequence sets the theme of building/creation which is brought up soon after with the Masonic Lodge and the building of the Chrysler Building in 1930’s New York. Also, the leprechaun’s wife is shown weaving at the beginning, and the threads of her weaving are highlighted later with streams of banners which pour out of the Chrysler Building in the end of the film. Barney’s motifs are consistent, but little else is, leaving you to wonder fruitlessly about what the story means.

Moreover, the representation of Finn was really annoying to me. I love Celtic mythology and in many stories, Finn is described as a dashing hero, much like Cuchulainn, Sir William Wallace, or King Arthur. Not a hairy leprechaun, but a tall, dashing warrior. Perhaps this sequence is a synthesis of several myths. That would be giving it the benefit of a doubt.

The next sequence picks up underwater. We observe a zombie-like, emaciated female, as she claws her way up through water and muck to surface in an underwater cave beneath the Chrysler Building. She looks like one of those ancient “bog people” they are constantly turning up in peat bogs throughout Ireland. When she finally emerges, apparently dead, a couple of well-dressed men and boys descend into the cave, pick her up, and take her to a beautiful art-deco styled lobby within the Chrysler Building. There, she is deposited within a Rolls Royce where a live eagle perches atop the driver’s seat to keep her company. Are you with me? A bit surreal, I know, but this is what happens.

Then, several vintage Chrysler Imperials come out of the shadows of the lobby and play synchronized crash-up derby until nothing is left of the Rolls except a small piece of scrap metal.

At this point in the film we are introduced to the protagonist in the film, THE ENTERED APPRENTICE, played by Matthew Barney, himself. The remainder of the film relies heavily upon the central myth behind freemasonry, which is the martyrdom of Hiram Abiff, the builder of Solomon’s Temple. What follows is a gradual progression from the bottom lobby of the building, to the upper penthouse.

We spend a deal of time watching the apprentice as he tries to fight his way to the top, occasionally sabotaging the building by pouring concrete in the elevator, asking for a Guinness draft in a strange glass that causes bedlam for the building’s bartender, making googley eyes at the pretty Aimee Mullins (a pretty double amputee and real-world athlete whose prosthetic legs are fitted with high heeled potato choppers…apparently Barney thinks that french fries are a worthy object for fetishizing).

There is also, somewhere within the first half, a horrible electronic screeching that sounds like an orchestra of violin players passed around a crack pipe right before practice. It continues for about half an hour. Intrigued? I bet you are…probably as to why your intrepid reviewer would sit through this kind of torture for so long. ANSWER: We struggling screenwriters are hardy folk!

For his labors, and perhaps for his sabotaging of the building, the apprentice is eventually captured while at the Saratoga Springs race track watching a zombie horse race with his girlfriend. There, he is forced to wear a horse’s bit and after being forced to bite a pole, his teeth are crushed in and swallowed, creating a gaping red maw of wounded flesh which becomes his visible wound for the remainder of the film.

In perhaps the most graphic and visceral scene of the entire film, the apprentice is guided to a dentist’s office by members of the Masonic Order and there he undergoes a medical treatment to the wound. What occurs is some sort of biological reconstructuring of his body. The character strips down for the procedure and we see that he has ambiguous genitalia that are very alien-looking. After the treatment, he excretes the swallowed teeth and his nether regions undergo some kind of physiological change. In addition, his mouth is fitted with a twisted metal mouthpiece taken from the wreckage of the Rolls Royce mentioned earlier. Once this is over, he leaps out of the chair, ready to confront the Master Architect of the Masons (Iconic Modernist Sculptor, Richard Serra).

The final part of this film takes place in the spiraling levels of the Gugenheim. Like a Dante’s Inferno in reverse, Barney’s character must begin at the bottom and “solve” each level to win his way to the top. Here, too, he assumes a new costume. A large fluffy pink Scottish helmet and matching kilt. A scarf shoved into his mouth to stop the bleeding from his operation makes a nice fashion accessory.

Using climbing gear, Barney’s character ascends, first, past a group of sudsy bathing beauties clad in g-strings and pasties, then past a dancing troop of Rockettes look-alikes dressed in sheep costumes. He must help construct a bagpipe which consists of a large plastic sheep for its central piece, then deal with a mosh pit of hardcore punkers in order to acquire tools to defend himself against a bare breasted half cheetah/half woman monster (played by Aimee Mullins), and finally, he must finish before a small river of half molten Vaseline (thrown about by Richard Serra’s character) oozes down to the lobby below.

This all sounds exciting and humorous as I write it, and it should be, but sadly, with its lack of dialogue, annoying score, and lag time between each new visual sequence…it is insufferably boring.

I won’t give away the end, but I challenge anyone out there to sit through it without the benefit of mind altering chemicals to ease your suffering.