Monday, January 22, 2007

Cremaster 1 (1996)

Cremaster 1 (1996), Dir. by Matthew Barney

The first of five films in Barney's Cremaster series, where he equates the creative process with the descent of the tentacles through the power of Manolo Blahnik and lots of vaginal openings. I mean, why not? If art is not a feminized discussion of balls, then what is it?

It opens to alternating show room footage of a chorus line of women in pink on a football field showing some leg and holing blue balls aloft and various shots of the field itself. As Barney is an extraordinary adherent to the Cult of the Athlete, the field here represents the whole of creation, where the true work of humanity is done. Given the American preoccupation with sports, this is easy symbolism to process.
This quickly gives way to a shot that becomes increasingly important in the film. The twin Goodyear blimps and the goalpost form the duplicitous shape of ovaries and the undecided testicles. This symbol comes up numerous times throughout the film. As the lush Jackie Gleason shmaltz in the background begins to swell, and the balls turn from blue to red, and the showgirls blow bubbles through stylized ribbon festooned wands, the title sweeps in like the Superman logo gone Hallmark This is all an effort to show the the traditionally male field of battle, or creation is still in a feminized state, the potential of the artist/athelete hero yet unrealized.

We fade into an internal stylized world, a sterile banquet table where women who appear to be cross pollinations of airline stewardesses and Robert Palmer video clones gather over a table of grapes. A giant white model of the undescended testicles sits as its centerpiece. Its like a late-night Cinemax version of postmodernism. You are not sure if it means anything besides the obvious, but it’s kinda hot.

Under this table rests a coifed woman in a short skirt writhing on a platform under the tables base showing off her garters and high dollar shoes as she pulls grapes through a vaginal tear in the bottom of the table. Again, its hot in a classic cheesecake way. The good crew of Obvious Fetish Airways, oblivious to their grape feast being showly diminished by the lady under the table are busy peering into the vaginal porthole at the edge of their table.

Legs legs legs. I'm led to believe that the preponderance of gams in this film is pointing to the classical as a starting point for creation. In our undescended, yet-to-be-actualized, prepubescent state, the male gaze that is standing in for a narrator in this dialog-less film has yet to peer up at what is at the end of those legs. I don't mean to portray Barney as a puerile man-boy, nor myself, but I can identify with that state of being attracted to something without quite understanding why. It has very much the air of a stag reel here, where we linger over the limbs of anonymous bodies. I believe this is the true function of the nude in classical art. We are not Plato looking only at the naked specimine for its geometry, we do it because our libidos demand it of us. The libido here is the engine for the train of creation.

Under the table, our leggy grape thief finds a foothold where she can brace her long limbs for better traction. Initially I thought of these as stirrups that puzzle every boy on his early trips to the doctor's office, but I believe them to be more climbing hooks. Prior to the Cremaster films, Matthew Barney's artistic bread and butter were elaborate sexualized feats of strength that often involved him scaling the walls of a gallery using hooks and hopes, making marks and drawing pictures in surfaces mounted on te ceiling and high on the walls. These feats read as a challenge to the typical notion of the artist; that an athlete, through the control and contouring of his body can plainly trump the actions of some nerd with a paintbrush. Its like high school all over again, and barney os the captain of the football team getting the girls and stuffing you in your locker.

The stewardesses sit around chain-smoking, bored as Ilsa She-Wolf of the SS, or perhaps as real flight attendants, while our table godess cuts through the, pulling apart the opening in the table wide enough so that the grapes will start falling through.
(hmmm 1996... when did that "goatse" picture start making the rounds? I'm not saying they are connected or anything. I'm just saying)

Like every hole in life, once its opened to us, we cannot stay out of it. The grape lady starts pulling grapes through, peering at the other side as she does it. At the same time, the stewardesses keep peering out the porthole, peering into the camera, into us, like they are waiting for something. With this break in the fabric between the outside, the ones who serve and the inside, the confined ones trying to pull that outside in and devour it, we are seeing the creative moment. It's not much of a stretch to see the grapes being pulled into this vagina as conception. peering up through this conduit of conception is the self-examination to which the artist is doomed.

Once this transgression happens, and the grape lady becomes more adept at gathering grapes and they start cascading into her chamber under the table, they start to make simple shapes on the floor. This translates back to the field, where the tableau of chorus girls begin to enter the field, creating formations that mimic those made by the grapes. This is the point in the initial creative act is the beginning of the descent. The blimps floating above the urethral goalposts are now string to glide off their moorings. The most obvious bit of footage occurs here as well when the chorus line forms a giant penis on its way to the center of the field.

The grapes and the chorus girls then form a dumbbell shape. Following Barney's "artist is the athlete" train of thinking, we start working the muscle (the cremaster is the muscle that controls the descent of the testicles after all) we've just discovered. It says that once the creative spark is lit, we have to keep fueling that fire.

The grape lady starts to get more comfortable with her bounty, crawling off her perch onto the floor to play with it, and by result, the activities on the field. Meanwhile, the bored stewardesses, the public, finally reach over to the table and start eating the grapes. This is to represent the bored art-going public picking at the continuum of art laid before them. It is immediately available, laid out with care to a populace that doesn't care about it. To the artist, however, the continuum of art is something must be experienced anew. The artist has come at it from back channels, pulling it into his or her own world. The sculpture of the undescended testicles sits ignored by the audience because it is registering as a centerpiece, something to be ignored.

The ultimate frustration to an artist is that the public usually view the fruits of their labor, the physical embodiments of the artists body and soul as backdrops to their personal tableaus. This is, of course, the correct reaction on the part of the audience. most art serves as nothing more than backdrop. Art has little separation from craft in the eye of the audience, and craft is something that exists more in the arena of consumable goods than it does on the mountaintop of contemplation. The schism formed needing to be understood by an audience looking to be amused is what kills most new artists. You just cannot make people care about your work. The work itself is the art. The alchemists new that; they just marketed their explorations as a search for gold. Same thing with the prices on the labels in a gallery; it gives the non-artists, the audience without personal investment in the work, a means to assimilate its worth. That is the business of the "art world" and not the artists. The business of artists is to tend to one's own soul and vision and generate what they dictate.

OK, back to the sexy parts. There is a lot of "fingering" in this picture. Any orifice, any hole discovered of created is digitally explored and peered through. All the products of art, all the conduits, are touched and explored. The masturbatory nature of art has entered the realm of the cliche ever since Jackson Pollock's paint slinging in the 50's was thoroughly analyzed by every armchair Freudian, but as an artist, I concede that the onanistic is one of the primary motivators. That feeling of "let's see what this thing can do" is one of the finest feelings one can feel as an artist. When you get your stroke right, as it were, you begin to see the cosmic repercussions of your personal butterfly flapping its wings.

The grape lady forms the shape of the weightlifting belt, which is more than Barney's totemic symbol, it is his logo, his brand. Every artist forms one, especially early on, if nothing else than in emulation of someone they admire, or out of hanging on to the first idea they had that stuck. The challenge of the mature artist is to somehow transcend that brand while keeping to one's vision. Barney had himself not achieved this at that point (it bears mentioning that while its the first film thematically, it was actually the second one in order of its making, after Cremaster 4 in 1994). But that is forgivable. Barney has created a cottage industry in this film cycle, one that almost transcends the insular film world into the realm of popular culture. Hes' no household name, but he's close, and the reverse John and Yoko fame index of his marriage to Bjork certainly doesn't hurt. I'm not one to confuse the artists and the art, but I think its important in Barney's case. These films, a grand scale meditation on his own balls, are as much about the development of the artistic ego as they are about creation of art itself. the ego and the product of art run hand in hand.

At this point, the chorus line on the field assumes the shape of the Barney's brand and in that act, in that moment when they personal symbol is exploded into public spectacle, the blimps are released, the testicles are finally loosed and begin to ascend. The chorus girl is then seen alone on the field, dancing with the blimps in tow over the giant belt symbol inset into the field. The first gallery show, perhaps? The first mention in the local art rag? The first time you hear your work being mentioned in a conversation you did not instigate? This gleeful trot across ones totemic identity could be any of those moments, all crucial to the artist in their development. The responsibility of the artist is to somehow see this through to the next step.

The grapes turn from purple to green, mirroring the color change form blue to red in the balls held aloft by the chorus line at the beginning. The grape lady then does excatly what every artist does after their first initial success; she begins backtracking. the grapes and the chorus form the shape of the tethered testicles, the state of the blimps before the release. Once the artist realizes what he or she can do, they are compelled to go back to the state before it to analyze how it happened.

More fingering, more tracing of outlines, more manipulation of the public explosion of ones personal exploration of the field until the chorus line finally is shaped like the urethral path and the testicles joyously descend, like a float on a parade with the reigning Miss Expression 1996 waving from the top to the assembled crowd. The chorus line gives way as the testicle descends in the same way that life gives way in the wake of the artists creation. To the rest of the world, the products of this transmutation and journey are often little more than amusements, but to the artist, they are tantamount to Moses parting the sea.

This is ultimately what Barney expresses in this film, the alchemical, physiological exploration of the artists entering the arena, readying himself or herself for the perpetual battle not only with themselves, through training and exploration and restraint but also with the constant struggle to translate the personal growth into something meaningful to the spectators, to find some way to make that internal voice, that howl against the void in which the spectators will stare with palpable boredom. The stands on the field are conspicuously empty at this point in the game, but one gets the feeling that it won't be that way for much longer.