Overproduced and excessive, bedizened with Gaelic and Masonic symbolism, and conceptually ornate to the point of prog-rock pretension, Cremaster 3 invites comparisons both to Die Hard 2 and Zeppelin IV. The latest chapter of Matthew Barney’s unsequential Wagnerian pentology serves up a lardaceous smorgasbord of extravagant tableaux ranging from the sublimely ineffable to the just effin’ ridiculous. An antique-car demolition derby, a double amputee teetering on high-heeled Lucite legs, and a Cronenbergian tubular anus that secretes candy-pink goo are just a few of the elaborately crafted spectacles that elicit first wonder, then weariness. Nonetheless, the three-hour-plus Cremaster 3 finalizes a clever visionary masterwork that epitomizes both the high-concept accomplishments and derivative redundancies of ’90s art-stardom. If Warhol’s cinema parodied the old studio system, Barney’s apes the logic of contemporary blockbuster entertainment, complete with sweeping cinematography, multiple sequels, spin-off merchandise (gallery artworks developed from props), carefully orchestrated hype, and obsessively controlled exhibition. He even has his own Jerry Bruckheimer: Chelsea gallery owner Barbara Gladstone, who also produces the desert cine-songs of Shirin Neshat.
The male cremaster muscle, of course, causes testicles to rise and descend in response to stimuli. In Cremaster 3, Barney’s twin themes of vertical motion and maleness combine in a semi-narrative of architecture and ambition, set within the Chrysler Building and the Guggenheim Museum (the latter playing the curving yoni to the former’s skyscraping lingam). Ultramasculine sculptor Richard Serra cameos as Chrysler Building architect Hiram Abiff, sequestered at his creation’s tip. Barney casts himself as the Entered Apprentice, who ascends both buildings through a series of brutal initiation rituals, riffing on Freemasonry’s purported genesis in ancient societies of builders and stonecutters. Fanciful Irish mythology is thrown in for good measure, involving golden harps, bagpipe jigs, explosions of Guinness, and a thunderous Time Bandits ogre. Toward the end, Barney drags the bikini-clad Rockettes into the Guggenheim spiral for some strained incongruity, along with hardcore bands Murphy’s Law and Agnostic Front, complete with their own mini-moshpit. (Too bad the motorcycle-show idea was already taken.)
The picture’s elegant, wordless scenarios resemble big-budget Kenneth Anger, a genealogy underscored by a maître d’ who appears illuminated within a triangular neon window, evoking Anger’s Lucifer Rising. But whereas Anger’s use of Arcana results in an ecstatic gravitas, Barney’s epic puzzle is too studied, too careful, with a simplistic score and uninspired editing. Cremaster 3 may provide ample theoretical fodder for a museum curator’s catalog copy, but like much contemporary art, it offers little beyond the momentary joys of pretty and weightless intellectual entertainment.
A more congruous use of hardcore bands is found in Ultimate X, an IMAX X-Games documentary that features hair-gelled kids with West Coast accents catching air on various forms of alternative transportation. Nausea-inducing street luge provides the requisite kinesthetic thrill of this mega-cinematic genre, though the cameras stay relatively still to record the effortless grace of master vert skater Bob Burnquist. The format gets used best, however, to capture the dizzying heights achieved by motocross and BMX riders, whose balletic hotdogging occasionally ends in bone-crushing screwups. “These guys are all kind of messed up in the head,” says one ESPN commentator. But not so messed up that they can’t remember to keep their soft-drink canisters logo-forward for the cameras.