It's very difficult for me to make a conscious decision to not finish something I've started. A book, a plate of food, a movie. I like to see things through, otherwise how can I make an honest assessment of what I've experienced? And if I'm not planning to make an honest assessment of my experiences, then why did I bother in the first place? To give up on a book or movie halfway through is to willingly label all the time I did invest as wasted time. There's nothing I can do with what I gained from that time other than to say, "Well, I tried to read that book, but I just wasn't enjoying it and couldn't get through it." I can't say, "Yes, I read that book, but it was absolutely horrible" because how can I be certain that it was absolutely horrible? Sometimes endings surprise. Sometimes seemingly mediocre films have powerful endings (Lost in Translation, for example); same with books (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court comes to mind). If I had given up on Connecticut Yankee just two chapters before its final page, my opinion of it would be vastly different.
In short, I value completion. I almost compulsively need it. I've watched godawful films and then quickly, triumphantly, angrily walked away the instant the end credits began to roll.
Which is exactly what can be said of my experience with Matthew Barney's De Lama Lamina, a short, quasi-documentary film which is appended to one of the installments of his famed and praised Cremaster Cycle, which is currently touring select theaters throughout the country in a rare event.
The publicity information for Landmark Theaters describes De Lama Lamina as a documentary chronicle of artist Matthew Barney's experience at a Brazilian carnival. Barney gathered three musicians, including Arto Lindsay, who toured the streets of Salvador, Brazil, one night with a hundred-member marching drum band, entertaining the festive, costumed onlookers. The drum band invited Barney for the collaboration, perhaps expecting a lively depiction of the sensual, musical event which is so central to Brazilian culture and community.
That's what the publicity material described. What De Lama Lamina is, however, is a nude, beaked man with a coconut in his asshole humping his erect penis against a clay-covered parade float drive shaft while a dead monkey shits on him. What De Lama Lamina is, in other words, is Matthew Barney's offensive, pretentious attempt to crash a party. Yes, there is a live band and there are festive onlookers and hundreds of marching drummers, but poorly shot images of the actual carnival are intercut with closeups of Barney's float making its way like an unwelcome guest through the carnival. The massive float depicts a giant, ancient-looking but artificial tree, and through its limbs crawls a frizzy-haired, bare footed "artist," a woman mimicking concentration who moves with too much deliberation, performing actions within the tree that not only have no purpose but also lack any symbolic reason. One envisions this woman's painfully slow, meaningless actions as Matthew Barney's "gift" to the primitive Brazilians--"You're content with your sweaty dancing and your drum banging, but reflect upon THIS for a moment. This is real art. This is real culture. I give this to you!"
I searched footage of the spectators to see if I could find anyone who was engaged in watching and trying to understand this woman's performance, but I saw not one person who had any interest in watching Barney's paltry offering. They watched the drummers, they watched the band, and they watched each other, but the performance art had no meaning for them, and justly so. How wrong of Barney to assume that we, a North American audience, would have any interest in seeing what the South Americans rejected. Yet instead of focusing on the drummers or the partygoers, the most interesting part of this pitiful spectacle, we get long, tedious shots of the woman stretching her arms, splaying her fingers, removing white rods and hanging them from ropes to carabiners.
He further isolates himself from the proceedings by matching footage of the festivities with footage of the creature hidden in the undercarriage of his float, a beautiful, nude, muscular black man with a beaklike prosthetic on his face who cradles a filthy, dead monkey in his arms. Meanwhile, the black people around the float gather. The beakman rubs vaseline and clay on the spinning, pumping motor drive shaft of the float as his flaccid, uncircumcised penis grows tumescent. The musicians play their instruments. The beakman eagerly humps his now erect penis against the wet clay. The drummers carry a beat. The dead monkey ejaculates shit all over the nude man, who erotically rubs the wet feces into his abdomen and genitalia. Close-up of a happy, dancing Brazilian. What is Barney trying to say?
The editing yields an overwhelmingly racist result. Imagine crosscutting footage of suffragettes at a rally with video of a coop full of squawking hens, Jewish people at a temple with cockroaches on a trash heap, or black people in college with apes in a laboratory. Barney forces viewers to think of the Brazilian carnival and the participants in it as filthy and animalistic. Yes, Carnival is sexual, and sure, sex is primitive, but Barney's presentation assumes that he can distance himself from these vulgarities and that he and his viewers are somehow superior to it.
When the show was over, I found myself racing to the exit. De Lama Lamina was the final installment of three films. Cremaster 4 and Cremaster 5 offered very little to enjoy, and I swore to myself that I would not bother to see the other three films of the cycle. Ten dollars and two and a half hours was enough to waste on Barney's offensive pretensions.
But then I read a review promising that the installment I had seen was the worst of the three showings, and that the other two showings (Cremaster 1 and 2 were one showing, and Cremaster 3, at three hours long, was another) were markedly better. I abandoned my vow. The next day I saw Cremaster 1 and 2. Twenty dollars and four and a half hours in, I found my compulsion to finish things barking at me. I had to see Cremaster 3, the last of the five films completed and supposedly the best in the series, the quintessence of Matthew Barney's style. Would I, after gambling so much of my money and my life and receiving absolutely nothing in return, throw down another ten dollars and another three hours on the possibility that Cremaster 3 might blow me away?
No. I'm a completist, but I'm not a masochist.
Matthew Barney is a sculptor, photographer, performance artist, and "filmmaker." He is one of the most praised artists in America right now. New York Times Magazine called him "the most important American artist of his generation" in 1999. The Guggenheim Museum gave him the first Hugo Boss Prize, worth $100,000, in 1996. From 1994 to 2002 he created the Cremaster Cycle, a series of five films that The Guardian called "one of the most imaginative and brilliant achievements in the history of avant-garde cinema." Made out of sequence (4, 1, 5, 2, 3), these films were released on only twenty five-disc DVD sets, which were in themselves works of art. In 2007, one disc containing only the hour-long Cremaster 2 sold for over half a million dollars. Only a half-hour installment of Cremaster 3 was ever released commercially (retitled The Order), and the rest of the films will never be released for widespread public consumption. Short of visiting museum installations and catching the occasional national tour, seeing this "masterpiece" is a rare event.
The cremaster is the muscle responsible for contracting the scrotum and testicles in response to cold, fear, or arousal. The Cremaster Cycle is allegedly about the period of sexual division in the early stages of embryonic development, the period when the developing human becomes either a male or a female (or something else along the spectrum, though this possibility, as far as I can tell, is ignored by Barney). Images of ascension and descension, of testicles and gonadal globules, of geometric shapes with vaguely biological connotations, of sexuality both androgynous and nonerotic abound, always elusive and obscure but never enigmatic. I think that's a key point. In surrealism and avant garde and even in mainstream art, there should be a certain enigma attached to the imagery. The viewer should feel a tension in wanting to understand what certain symbols are about, what certain actions mean. The viewer, rather than being a mere spectator, should become a participant with a suspense-driven motivation to figure out the full ramifications of what is going on. This never happened to me while watching the four and a half hours that I saw of the Cremaster Cycle. Strange characters do a lot of unusual things against bizarre backdrops, yet rather than titillating the proceedings are tedious. One can go on Wikipedia or any number of reviews and websites and read in-depth explications of the symbolism Barney employs, but these explanations are exhausting rather than illuminating. Barney's obscure meanings are impossible to intuit, and there's never any clear reason why these complicated, scientific details hold any importance for the artist. Gametes, zygotes, sexual differentiation--why should we care, really? One could argue that these biological events are essential to humanity, that even if we don't remember the period of androgyny prior to sexual differentiation it's still contained within the essential, unconscious memories of our very being. Yet Barney never argues this. He never makes any attempt to connect to the viewer, to create human-like characters, to convey any sort of recognizable emotion. Instead we get bees crawling out of erect penises, grotesque fairies in fleshy fat suits, and women dancing in elliptical formations on a blue football field. The sets (the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Budapest Opera House, a frozen lake in Utah) are amazing--though Barney didn't build the sets--and some of the visuals are interesting, but the acting (if it can indeed be called acting) is dreadful (former Bond girl Ursula Andress as a lovelorn queen is a notable exception in Cremaster 5), the soundtrack by Jonathan Bepler is largely unstirring, and the overall effect is one of mental inoculation. There is never any clear plot and rarely any dialogue, forcing the viewer to instead focus on the extremely repetitive nature of the visual display, which is rife with continuity errors and poor editing. Barney offers very little to stir the mind and engage the viewer.
Once I was a sperm and an egg, two gametes, male and female, who fused into one single-celled zygote, which through mitosis grew into a multi-celled embryo--a tiny version of me that for eight weeks was neither a man or a woman but simply a tiny human. This is a spectacular phenomenon deserving of artistic representation and rife with profound symbolic implications, yet reading an article about human development in a science magazine would prove much more fascinating, beautiful, and thought-provoking than trudging through Matthew Barney's seven and a half hour epic of pretentious self indulgence and irritating obscurity.
The Cremaster Cycle
d/w: Matthew Barney
(Matthew Barney, Ursula Andress, Norman Mailer)
Cremaster 1 (1995): 2/10
Cremaster 2 (1999): 4/10
Cremaster 4 (1994): 3/10
Cremaster 5 (1997): 5/10
De Lama Lamina (2002)
d: Matthew Barney