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May 31, 2002

++ Cremaster 3's Funhouse Realism

++ Cultural historians may well look back on the first decade of the 21st century as the flowering of a new surrealist movement. I'm not sure what to call it — funhouse realism, perhaps — but a number of films, novels and even musical works are presenting views of the world filtered through a fantastic assemblage of dreams and mirrors. David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive," Haruki Murakami's "The Wind-up Bird Chronicle" and "Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World," Christopher Nolan's "Memento" and of course "The Matrix" are all prime examples: meditations on power, subjectivity and narrative itself, expressed through refracting mirrors that seem to fold the frame of lived experience into a nightmarish tableau of Escherian proportion and dimension.

For fans of this aesthetic, there may be no more compelling example than Matthew Barney's art-house epic "Cremaster 3," recently screened at New York's Film Forum and soon to travel to Cologne, Paris, and eventually back to New York's Guggenheim Museum in 2003. The final installment of a five-part cycle (yes, the numbers are supposed to be out of order, and no, it's nothing like the sequel/prequel sprawl of the "Star Wars" series) is a towering rocket of a film propelled by its own curious (il)logic. It's somewhere between allegory and all-out mindfuck, and there's no sense in trying to make sense of it — at least, not in any reductionist pattern of symbols and equivalences. And that's precisely its brilliance, because it draws you in against your will and forces you to interpret its narrative through its very own cryptographic language. There's no eureka moment, no taut resolution, but at the film's end — and then for days afterwards — you're left with the curious feeling the code has implanted itself in your psyche, and is running a strange and wondrous executable on your own operating system. It is narrative as a virus.

There's no sense summarizing, but try these fragments on for size.

++ In the marbled lobby of the Chrysler Building, a dirt-smeared, zombie-like wraith of a woman — recently exhumed from black, sparkling earth — is laid inside the backseat of a black vintage automobile. A hawk is placed inside the car with her, bobbing its head menacingly as it perches on the back of the driver's seat, and the doors are closed and locked.

Pan out: five Chrysler sedans, 1970s models in a pastel array suggesting Smarties candies, are arranged in pentagram formation around the black car. The parquet floors beneath their tires are rich and warm; the marble walls and coppertoned elevator doors gleam and bounce back the Chryslers' devil-like taillights. Slowly, like synchronized swimmers, the Chryslers move forward and backward: retreating until their bumpers graze the sides of the black car; advancing until their headlights kiss the lobby's stone walls. Their motors churn ominously. And then the carnage begins.

For what feels like an interminable time, the pastel Chryslers — boxy but lithe, machine-muscled beneath their mid-'70s angles and planes — proceed to batter the black car, bashing into it again and again. Sometimes all at once, sometimes taking turns. The sides dent, buckle, collapse. (Strangely, the hunter cars — perhaps made of titanium, or Kryptonite — resist damage until the very end stages of the assault.) There is no movement inside the target vehicle, no sign of the semiconscious woman or her partner raptor. The battery goes on for perhaps 20 minutes of the film, and will reappear in future scenes, again and again. Tires squeal; the hardwood floors are blackened with rubber marks and torn into sawdust; thick exhaust fogs the camera lens. The walls of the lobby, the elevator doors, the concierge's station are all smashed. The cars circle like sharks, breaking formation in turn to attack again and again, ever orderly, as coolly deliberate as a NATO sortie, until all that's left of the black sedan at the center of the demolition circle is a fist-sized hunk of smoldering metal.

++ Another scene: In an upper story of the Chrysler Building, a man clad in a fedora, shirt, tie, and a leather apron holding four or five marble obelisks climbs out of the elevator shaft and, with the help of the maitre d', runs a number of guitar strings through the elevator doors, attaching them to the wall above. The maitre d' proceeds to sing a heartbreaking ballad, first in Gaelic, then English, about the construction of the tower, and then its destruction. Bagpipes and sinewaves form the background for his somber tale; after every verse, he strums upon the impromptu harp, every time unleashing an improbable chord that seems to derive from a different musical universe altogether. It is not so much an accompaniment as a collision, and the wreckage is devastatingly beautiful with every wave of his hand. This strange music, it seems, is hard-wired into the very walls of the building: gripping the elevator doors in his hands, he moves them open and closed, playing the elevator shaft like a tuned wind-tunnel, whiiiish, whoooosh, whaaaaash.

++ Still another scene, or succession of them: A Scotsman clad in pink (pink tartan, pink hat, pink socks) ascends the interior of the Guggenheim Museum, crawling the walls like a rock climber. At every level, a stranger view emerges. On the ground floor, a gaggle of g-strung women cavorts in a bubble bath. At the next level, a Rockette-like line of dancing girls (wearing cowbells and sheep hats) run through leggy routines to a retro, burlesque soundtrack. Every time he climbs, an odd, Kraftwerkian electro-jig pans through the theater, bouncing from left to right like seasick organ rhythm presets. At the next level (or perhaps it's the one after — it's nearly impossible to remember these things with any precision) — Agnostic Front and Murphy's Law, two classic New York City hardcore bands, face off, perched atop two stages with a mosh pit full of punks between them. Over and over, they run through song intros — solo basslines, firecracker snare rolls, raspy yelps — without ever plunging into full song. The slam-dancers chant in call-and-response formation. Agnostic Front lurch into a full-bore onslaught, but Jimmy Gestapo, bent double and red-faced as he screams into his microphone, makes no sound. The same disjointed course plays out with Murphy's Law. Finally breaking the tension, the bands attack simultaneously, a sound clash of apocalyptic proportions. Ringed by oversized security in blue "Staff" golf shirts, the punks circle sharklike as the Scotsman beats a pink path through the maelstrom.

++ The constant here, throughout all the dissonance, significatory decay and patent absurdity, is the soundtrack. Jonathan Bepler's score for the film, like his score for "Cremaster 2," harnesses as many codes and fragments as Barney's filmic images. Everything collides — not just the two hardcore bands, but all kinds of styles, quotations, emotional registers. In a film steeped in ritual and fetish, Bepler's score harnesses sonic icons and turns them against each other. The Gaelic ballad is rent by bebop jazz blasts. An Irish reel (or perhaps a jig — Bepler himself admitted to me that he wasn't sure which it was) spins out of control like errant fireworks until it resembles one of Paul Hindemith's psychotic fugues. (In "Cremaster 2," Bepler even melded death metal with beehive drone and then followed up with a haunting country ballad sung by Patty Griffin.)

As a composer, Bepler says, he resists resorting to genres, codes and icons, but soundtrack work is his "excuse" to stretch out and play with the vocabulary of sampling and pastiche. (Don't call it sampling, however; every element of his soundtracks is composed, scored and recorded more or less as it will ultimately be used, albeit with multitracking.) Still, this postmodernist approach never prevents him from easing into a language of pure sonority: during a slapstick bar scene which I couldn't put into words for the life of me, a buzzing Theremin makes the backdrop for a slowly blooming sequence of piano figures, like lean stalks sporting broccoli flowers, that draw on Scriabin and the Serialists alike to fashion a musical study of color and brightness.

An astute student of sound's spatial and physical properties, Bepler even succeeds at making sound incarnate in the manner of Ryoji Ikeda. In a long, painful crescendo built of Theremin peals, the strands of sound twine and climb Maypole-like (the significance here will be clear if you've seen the film) until no more than a sliver of air seems to separate them, and they vibrate with a dangerous tension, daring you not to cover your ears. And there, in that sonic space, a curious thing happens — several octaves beneath the shrieking treble sheets, bass tones begin rippling up and down the surface of your eardrum. This is not an exaggeration; standing in his Brooklyn studio, Bepler explained to me that these tones do not exist in the space of the room itself; they're harmonic byproducts, ghost frequencies created within the very apparatus of your hearing. Bepler describes it as a "zipper effect," and explains the first time he ever discovered it. As children, he and a friend would face each other, with a few inches between them, and scream in piercing tones until this spectral motion began zipping up and down their ears, a sonic YKK scraping up and down the seam of perception itself.

It sounds absurd, sure, but it's that very absurdity that informs the logic of "Cremaster 3." Hours, days later, you'll find yourself tugging at your perception of the film and its score like a stuck metal mechanism, trying desperately to bring the two halves of your consciousness — the intuitive side and the cognitive side — together again.


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