Trippy and Engaging

'Cremaster 2' shows that film is seemingly without limits

The problem with modern cinema is that there aren't enough filmmakers who are willing to make a linked set of five films about their own testicles. Thankfully, Cremaster's writer/director, Matthew Barney, is one of the exceptions.

Except that The Cremaster Cycle isn't really about testicles, though when Barney discusses the film, he certainly claims that it is. Rather, it's an attempt to create an enclosed aesthetic universe, where, instead of narrative, the basis of the art is the return and transformation of odd and compelling images.

While Cremaster 3 is the longest and costliest of the films, and Cremaster 4 the tightest and tensest, the best moments in the series are in Cremaster 2, showing this weekend at the Loft.

The Cremaster films are, in general, inexplicable, but Cremaster 2 has something of a narrative structure: It opens at a gas station, where two 1966 Mustangs are joined together by a flesh tunnel. Slowly, gruelingly, the young murderer Gary Gilmore (played by Matthew Barney) claws his way through the goopy umbilicus, from one car to the next, as though descending a birth tunnel or, I don't know, trying not to get eaten by a giant esophagus.

As all those familiar with Gilmore's story know, though, it doesn't end well. This leads to the strangest prison-execution sequence in the history entomology. Johnny Cash is portrayed by a drummer, a vocalist and a horde of bees that swirl around the vocalist's face as he tries to make a phone call. Meanwhile, a man and a woman have sex behind a giant honeycomb. The drums are played by Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo, so as you can imagine, this is by far the best drum solo intercut with honeycomb sex that you'll be likely to see at any local theater.

The best part comes next, though, as a boat approaches a bullfighting ring made entirely out of salt. This section is stunningly beautiful: Mist rises off the Great Salt Lake, and a tremendous solemnity accompanies the proceedings. Gilmore's sentence is carried out in a way that couldn't quite be described as metaphorical, since it's just about impossible to take a bullfight in a salt arena built in the middle of the lake as a metaphor for anything. But, apparently, it is a metaphor. For something.

Which is why Cremaster works so well. Barney, who not only directed but also wrote and designed the look of the film, has a set of images and meanings in mind, but the meanings become so divorced from the imagery that there's no danger of the project sinking into simple allegory. It's as though he started out with the script for Gone With the Wind and wound up making Silence of the Lambs. Only with less blood and more honey.

It seems that the underlying concept of the films--which is, allegedly, about the development of sexual differentiation in the womb due to the descending of the gonads--is merely a spur for Barney to create strange and beautiful sculptures, and to present recurring images of spheres, orbs and balls that may or may not refer back to the primordial gonads.

By having a sense of structure, Barney is able to make the films seem like they make sense, and seem as though they have a reason to move from one scene to the next, even if, to the average viewer, that reason is inexpressible. While it may be inexpressible, it's felt in the film's progress, and while you may not know what's going on, you'll at least have the sense that it's going somewhere.

And it does go somewhere, from the flesh-joined cars, to the drum-solo prison, to the salt arena "execution," and to a final sequence where Harry Houdini (played by Norman Mailer, who died last week) is seduced by a strange woman while Mormon imagery oozes in the background. The whys and wherefores can be sorted out, if you want to dig through Barney's interviews and writings, but they don't matter.

What you're left with, instead, is the impression of narrative, the effect of spectacle and the feeling of character, even if none of these things appear in the ways we are used to. It's a trippy and engaging film, and well worth seeing if, having seen much of what can be done with film, you want to see what else can be done. Cremaster is proof that the medium of the movie is far less limited, and has far more potential, than Hollywood, the European auteurs and the American indie and art-house set have been able to explore.