The Film Series You Need $100,000 To Watch
To the casual moviegoer, Matthew Barney's experimental film saga, The Cremaster Cycle is most likely not on their radar. It is one of the strangest things the American art world has to offer and probably one of the most bizarre things you'll see in your entire life.
The Cremaster Cycle is a series of five surrealist art films made over the course of eight years (1994-2002) by American contemporary artist, Matthew Barney. They are named after the cremaster muscle found in the human testicular region. All five installments deal with themes of human conception and include various anatomical allusions to things like reproductive organs and human embryotic conception. It's kind of like if David Lynch wanted to recreate Gaspar Noé's Love only more scientific and somehow weirder. Needless to say The Cremaster Cycle is not exactly a series that the average movie watcher will enjoy, however the abnormalities of Barney's films do not just begin and end with their subject matter...
When it comes to the actual content of the Cremaster saga, it consists of a "multidisciplinary narrative that heavily references connections between real people, real places and real things personal to Barney himself, but are all fictionalized to some extent." In other words, it is a bunch of seemingly random scenes with Barney himself sporting a ridiculous costume along with non-speaking background characters and an extremely confusing plot line that varies based on film. It's pretty remarkable just how different these installments are from each other. Cremaster 1 is a 40 minute sequence of a group of dancers performing in a football stadium while a character named "Goodyear" holds onto two miniature blimps. Cremaster 5 however shows an opera singer "watching a past lover leap into the Danube and become transformed." Obviously, not very cohesive nor conventional, but again, that's not where quirks begin and end.
One of the weirdest parts about Barney's series is the order in which they were released. There are five installments in the cycle however they were not released in traditional numerical order. The first one to come out was Cremaster 4 in 1994, followed by 1 in 1995, 5 in 1997, 2 in 1999 and finally ending with 3 in 2002. Barney has said that the series can be watched in any order which only makes their release dates even more confusing. If the numbers are completely arbitrary...what's the point?
Perhaps what The Cremaster Cycle is most known for aside from its subject matter is how divisive the films have been in the eyes of movie and art critics alike. There seems to be two distinctive groups of opinions when it comes to Barney's films and those are people who think they're each masterpieces and people who loathe the project with a burning passion. After recently finishing the saga myself I can safely say which side I fall on.
No matter who you are or what your opinion is on the series, there’s an undeniable, shrieking pretentiousness about Matthew Barney’s films. The concepts are interesting, the costume design is strange yet captivating and I can’t help but appreciate how much ambition and work went into the series. However, the story that spans throughout all the films is incredibly...vague and borders on the nonsensical, which is what I think Barney was going for but it comes off as an art critic saying “ugh, you just don’t get it.” However, since these films are coming from a Yale educated artist who has a child with Björk I can't say I wasn't expecting a pretentious art spectacle. These movies feel less like the product of a man with something to say and more like a hodgepodge of self-indulgent nonsense.
The pinnacle of the Cremaster Cycle’s pretentious lies in its availability. The only time the series has been made accessible for home video was when 20 box sets were sold for at least $100,000 each. In 2007, one Cremaster 2 disc sold for $571,000. Barney’s refusal to mass release the film and sell copies for no less than $100,000 each does not sit right with me at all. Film is first and foremost an art form as well as entertainment and that’s something I believe everyone should have access to regardless of wealth or status. By making your films so inaccessible you’re essentially saying the opposite. Almost telling people “you are not worthy of watching my movies. You need to either be a patron of the arts or a millionaire.” It’s this sort of Vincent Gallo-esque ego that I think is really harmful to the world of film. I’ve seen comments saying that the man who posted the entire series on Reddit is essentially “a slap in the face” towards Barney and his work, and to that I say...good.
Despite the fact that The Cremaster Cycle ended nearly two decades ago, I can't help but feel like they stand for a damaging trend that could be replicated in the future. To date, nothing quite like the saga has been created however the thought of more films being kept behind a $100,000 pay wall like a major event makes me sick to my stomach. Film as an art and as a form of entertainment should not be something that is only available to the elite. The sheer accessibility of motion pictures are what make them separate from Broadway musicals that can only hold 500 people per theater for $200 a ticket. If Barney loves film as much as he loves pretentious modern art and well... himself, he should release The Cremaster Cycle so that a wider audience is able to check them out and possibly even enjoy them.
After watching all of Matthew Barney's Cremaster films I've come to the conclusion that despite being ambiguous, strange, and overwhelmingly pretentious, they do hold a lot of artistic merit. Regardless of how popular or hated a series is, any project with the ambition of The Cremaster Cycle deserves at least some praise. Other than that, all I can really say is how important it is that we keep art like this accessible and work hard to make sure we never get a series as unavailable as The Cremaster Cycle again.