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Matthew Barney Weekend

Updated: Oct 7, 2023

Yesterday I visited the Whitechapel gallery for a day-long special sequential screening, in its entirety, of Matthew Barney's, crushingly tedious, according to the San Fransisco Chronicle, 'The Cremaster Cycle', to coincide with the UK premiere of his opera hybrid art film, 'River of Fundament'.  After a long queue that blocked the station entrance and before the films even began, the director of the gallery, Iwona Blazwick, congratulated us on our courage and dedication.  This was going to be a long day.  I'd been waiting even longer for this opportunity.  I just missed out on seeing a screening of the five part sequence at the Barbican several years ago.  I since obtained a pirate copy of Cremaster one and two from an online auction site, experienced them, and returned to the artist.  I'd watched three and four on my smartphone.  So I entered this only having not seen part five and knowing what to expect.

Firstly, the seating was all on the one level, so the lower half of the large screen was obscured by heads (I had the misfortune to be sat behind a blonde haired guy, with a bowl cut hairstyle cut above his ears, for the first two films).  Secondly, was the picture quality.  I had assumed that the bad quality of my DVD version was a product of it being a pirate and not the actual film itself.  I was disappointed to discover this was not the case.  Throughout the entire sequence the screen glitched in the upper half of the image.  The rest was down to poor production values.  There was one aerial shot in Cremaster 1 of a football stadium, which was almost indiscernable.  That's the biggest thing I noticed having endured the whole opus; the unevenness of it all.  The sequence was made over ten years and it really shows.  Cremaster 4 was made twenty years ago, and it seems really studenty.

Ms Blazwick in her introduction expressed that she had obtained special permission to show the sequence in 'order' from the artist himself.  I wondered why this would be the case.  I remember Cremaster 4 being the weaker of the four I'd seen, but was hoping that part five would make up for it.  Unfortunately, it didn't.  Having sat through what some might call 'the ordeal', I can see why these films aren't usually shown this way.  After the uneven start of one, the magnificence of 2 and the drawn out and at times farcical 3 (there were several moments when viewers laughed when I don't think the artist intended them to), parts 4 and 5 come as somewhat of an anti-climax.  A person behind me was asked to review the sequence honestly out of ten.  They gave it a 6.5.  I chuckled in recognition, for I wouldn't have given it any more myself.  Of them all 2 and 3 are the most succesful, as was confirmed by other viewers.  The first had moments of sensuality, but was marred by bad picture quality and poor digital effects.  The second is sublime.  The Order, released on DVD to the general public, is the highlight of the third.  Maybe it's because I'm getting older, but it's not wearing so well.  Maybe I just didn't notice how silly the audience looked skanking to the bands.  Some of the visual effects in the opening segment were laughable, namely the giant walking out of the water, as was the later prolapse scene.  I have no idea what the sprite in a baby suit was all about.  Four was as terrible as I remembered it and a lot camper, in the true definition.  Five was almost unwatchable, by which point I'd pretty much had enough.  I only endured for the promise of a rare live conversation with the artist.

It was almost surreal seeing the 'living legend' in the flesh.  He has that same star aura as Jared Leto up close.  He arrived shaven headed and looking tired.  The seats were arranged on a low platform and many of us were concerned that we would not be able to see him.  It turned out that I had a good view.  Proceedings started slowly with Barney being compared to great American artists such as Rothko and Pollock, to which he seemed uncomfortable.  The artist tried his best to answer the interviewer's questions in a very round about way, leaving the audience hanging as he struggled to give his thoughts shape.  Often his answers were short and bordering on the evasive, particularly when it came to the autobiographical content of the films.  He seemed most comfortable taking about the upcoming 'River of Fundament'.  One audience member was surprised to discover that the artist had not even heard of a text referrenced to throughout his large format compendium book to accompany the sequence.  He seemed more amused than anything.  In response to a questin about the claustraphobic tunnel scenes in Cremaster 4, he replied 'I like tight tunnels', which unintentionally elicited laughter.  If anything, the interview helped the audience to understand the unevenness a little better.  To put it bluntly, Barney and his team didn't know what they were doing when they set out to make the films and had to learn a lot of their filmmaking craft as they went along.  They originally intended 1 and 4 to be shown on TV and shot and lit the films accordingly.  They had to learn a more cinematic language when making part 5, due to the scale of the location and, I would say, perfected it by part 2.  Part 3 three could have benefitted from a good visual effects team.  Even after reading the accompanying booklet, I'm not sure what it is all about.  The notes helped a little, but not much more than that.  I'm not sure how much I care to explore further.

Some of the visuals from Cremaster 2 have endured in my mind since I last saw it several years ago.  This film is truly wonderful and I'm sure was the high standard that Matthew envisioned for the entire sequence.  This alone is no mean feat.  Some of the costumes and sculptures created for the films are excellent and Barney must be commened for his originality of vision.  One of the audience members questioned him whether he would make the leap into mainstream cinema.  He explained that he would lose his autonomy, as Hollywood films are created by committee.  Maybe he would benefit from some of their discipline.  As he says himself, he would be considered spoilt by those standards and, at times, it is overindulgent.  Despite being somewhat disappointed I am not going to give up on the artist and still have high expectatons for the screening of his new piece on Monday.  If Cremaster 2 is anything to go by, there is potential for it to be marvellous.  But before that I have the documentary of his 'Drawing Restraint' project to watch.  At least now I can say I survived it

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