This week the Music Box presents all five installments of Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster” cycle of avant-garde features, plus the Chicago premiere of his latest, De Lama Lamina. Tickets are $10, and a pass good for all three programs is $24; for more information see musicboxtheatre.com.
Cremaster 1 Sculptor, writer-director, and former football player Matthew Barney returns to Bronco Stadium in his hometown of Boise, Idaho, to stage a Busby Berkeley-style dance routine while two Goodyear blimps float overhead. Inside each blimp are four air hostesses and an elaborately set banquet table, and under each table lies a winsome figure known as Goodyear (Marti Domination), whose idly created configurations of green or purple grapes are duplicated by the dancing girls below. This slick spectacle (1995), packed with metaphors relating to procreative biology, tries very hard to impress us with its production values, but I was bored by its programmatic literalism and mechanical crosscutting. 41 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
Cremaster 2 Don’t bother scratching your head over this video tone poem; most of its images are deliberately antiseptic and enigmatic, and as with Last Year at Marienbad or the final reel of 2001: A Space Odyssey, they’re not meant to be elucidated so much as savored. The supposed kinship between Utah murderer Gary Gilmore (Barney) and escape artist Harry Houdini (Norman Mailer, who chronicled Gilmore’s crimes in The Executioner’s Song) frames a tantalizing melange of dreamlike riffs on the desolation of the American west, the empty poses of male ritual, and the bloodlust of macho fetishism. Barney’s preoccupations with physical transformation (Houdini’s stunts) and the body (the cremaster is the muscle that suspends the testicles) emerge from tableaux of sex, murder, and bronco busting, which are filmed with a symmetrical, elegiac grace by Peter Strietmann. 79 min. —Ted Shen
Cremaster 3 Vintage Chryslers collide over the lobby of the Chrysler Building in a balletic demolition derby, a woman cuts up potatoes wearing shoes with blades attached to the soles, a man on an operating table has a tiny wheel instead of a penis, a bevy of beauties enjoy a bubble bath at the Guggenheim Museum—all this and more is on display in Barney’s 182-minute picture show about power, impotence, and violence in American culture. It completes a series of five “Cremaster” films and videos that have made Barney an art world darling. While elegant, it’s also bloated and pompous: the absence of any cinematic “basics”—compositions that interact on plastic and rhythmic levels—may explain why few people acquainted with the history of avant-garde film consider Barney a major figure. 181 min. —Fred Camper
Cremaster 4 With or without a comprehensible story, crosscutting is one of the least interesting forms of editing, and Barney addresses the problem much as Robert Altman did when he was on autopilot—by pretending it doesn’t exist. This lumbering avant-garde spectacular (1994) stars Barney as “the Loughton Candidate,” a tap dancing and crawling satyr juxtaposed with two motorcycle teams racing across the Isle of Man. The film invites us to consider the multiple meanings of its elaborate surrealist imagery—much of it viewed from Barney’s favorite camera position, the celestial overhead shot—but all I could think about was hype and money. The colors are characteristically lurid. 42 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
Cremaster 5 The third installment sequentially (1997) of the “Cremaster” cycle is just as lethargic and self-satisfied as the others I’ve seen, though less monotonous rhythmically. An opera set in late-19th-century Budapest, with extended portions of the action taking place underwater, it stars Ursula Andress in the only singing role (though her voice is dubbed by Adrienne Csengery) and Barney in three parts that seem to sum up his self-image (Diva, Magician, Giant). This avant-garde pageant is characteristically mythoprosaic (to coin a term), though it does make the most of its Hungarian locations. If it were less doggedly florid and had any sort of humor—camp or otherwise—it might qualify as a big-budget remake of an early Werner Schroeter opus. The music is by Jonathan Bepler. 55 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
De Lama Lamina Barney collaborated with avant-garde musician Arto Lindsay to create this hour-long work, which was shot in Salvador De Bahia, Brazil, during the city’s 2004 carnival. 60 min.
Program A (Cremaster 1 and 2): Fri 9/3, 5:20 PM; Sat 9/4, 1:30 PM; Sun 9/5, 5 PM; Mon 9/6, 9 PM; Tue 9/7, 5 PM; Thu 9/9, 8 PM.
Program B (Cremaster 3): Fri 9/3, 8 PM; Sat 9/4, 4:20 PM; Sun 9/5, 8 PM; Mon 9/6, 1:30 PM; Tue 9/7, 7:40 PM; Wed 9/8, 4:30 PM.
Program C (Cremaster 4 and 5, De Lama Lamina): Sat 9/4, 8:30 PM; Sun 9/5, 1:30 PM; Mon 9/6, 5:30 PM; Wed 9/8, 8 PM;Thu 9/9, 5 PM.