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Movies: Matthew Barney's 'Cremaster Cycle' comes to E Street Cinema

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 7, 2010; C04

No artist anywhere has ever made work quite like Matthew Barney's. His feature-length art films, lavishly shot and propped and edited, veer from images of a classic-car demolition derby in the Chrysler Building, to a gorgeous amputee slicing potatoes with her knife-edged prostheses, to melted Vaseline pouring down a chute at the Guggenheim Museum. Barney's swirl of surrealist set pieces can last as long as three hours, without notable dialogue or plot for a viewer to hang onto.

Some people think all this unrivaled spectacle makes Barney one of the great artists of our time. What posterity will have to decide is whether any of it means anything -- or if its greatness might reside in its daring refusal to mean.

That deciding can start now, with the rerelease of all the films in Barney's "Cremaster Cycle," the five-movie magnum opus he completed in 2002. The cycle is coming to the E Street Cinema downtown for a week-long mini-festival that begins Friday, with the sales pitch that the series "is not now nor will it ever be available on DVD." (Not quite true, since collectors have been able to part with not-so-small-fortunes to buy limited-edition versions.)

There's also the premiere of a new film, "De Lama Lamina" ("From Mud, a Blade" in Portuguese), documenting Barney's participation in a Brazilian carnival parade, but it's a very minor piece, of interest only to those who have a weakness for naked musclemen suspended under tractors.

The hype about some artists is easy to dismiss as just that. Barney's work, however, is idiosyncratic enough to make me feel I ought to give it a chance, despite the major doubts I've always had.

In 2002, when I reviewed the newly completed "Cremaster Cycle," I described how Barney's films "deliberately use the vocabulary of high-end Hollywood filmmaking to give a robust sense of having plot and order and then, almost as an afterthought, meaning gets left out. They care most about achieving the old-fashioned feel of having some symbolic point to make; actually having any such point, or making it, is by comparison a trivial irrelevance." I concluded that Barney had managed the singular trick of turning Old Master allegory "from a carrier of content into a vehicle for style."

I also said that sitting through the three hours of "Cremaster 3" had made me want to rip out my seat and throw it at the screen.

I'm worried what I might do at E Street, after sitting through all 6 1/2 hours of the "Cremaster Cycle."

Cremaster Cycle

"De Lama Lamina" and the five films in Matthew Barney's "Cremaster Cycle," opening Friday at Landmark's E Street Cinema, are not rated but contain nudity, sexual imagery and violence. Much of their imagery might be disturbing to some adult audiences. The official "Cremaster" Web site is at http://www.cremaster.net.

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