Matthew Barney delivers his masterpiece in “Cremaster 3,” unquestionably the 35-year-old sculptor-performance artist-filmmaker’s most linear, most narratively inclined work to date. The film’s greatest thrill, at least in cinematic terms, lies in Barney’s clear authority as a cinematic storyteller, his innate ability to imbue pictures, sound and music with novelistic depth. Though there is no traditional narrative in “Cremaster 3” and no spoken dialogue, pic rushes past like an oncoming subway, and its intoxicating visual beauty, and sheer size and scope — at three hours, more than twice as long as any of the previous “Cremaster” films — may well help to take it beyond the standard mix of theatrical and museum bookings afforded Barney’s prior works.
The latest and last film in the five-part “Cremaster” cycle, which opened May 15 at Film Forum in New York and will subsequently embark on a Guggenheim-organized world tour, the underlying tissue of Barney’s work as an artist — and the “Cremaster” films in particular — is connectivity between things both literally and figuratively, so it is appropriate that the soaring achievement of “Cremaster 3” lies in watching Barney draw together the two extant halves of his series. (Though numbered “3,” this “Cremaster” is actually the fifth to be made.)
Pic is bookended with the apt metaphor of a bridge, with sequences shot at a series of independent crystalline volcanic rock formations at Northern Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway and Scotland’s Fingal’s Cave.
We’re introduced to two giants — Fingal (played by wrestler the Mighty Biggs) and Fionn MacCumhail (Peter D. Badalamenti) — and the action that transpires is based on Irish folklore, about how Fingal built the Giant’s Causeway to cross from the isle of Staffa to Ulster only to be frightened away by MacCumhail, destroying the Causeway in the process.
A further “bridge” involves the passage from “Cremaster 3” to “Cremaster 4” (the first of the five films, produced in 1994) set on the Isle of Man, where a tap-dancing dandy played by Barney bears more than a passing resemblance to the giants depicted here. Legend has it that MacCumhail inadvertently created the Isle of Man by throwing a large lump of Irish land into the North Irish Sea.
The real thrust of “Cremaster 3” begins in New York City — a proper midpoint on this epic journey from an Idaho football field (the setting of 1995’s “Cremaster 1”) to a Budapest bathhouse (in 1997’s “Cremaster 5”).
In the first of the pic’s many images that touch on themes of man’s bloodthirstiness and the urge to both build and destroy, we see an ashen corpse struggling to emerge from the bowels of the Chrysler Building. The year is 1930 and the Chrysler is nearing completion.
The corpse, that of Gary Gilmore (the executed serial killer Barney portrayed in 1999’s “Cremaster 2”), is picked up by a pack of young men in charcoal coats and loaded into the back of a 1930 Chrysler Imperial, parked in the building’s lobby. The Imperial is surrounded by five 1967 models of the same car. Soon, there will be a demolition derby in which Gilmore’s remains will be fused with Chrysler steel.
It’s at this point that we meet Barney’s character — the Entered Apprentice — who appears to be a mason building the tower. (Though later, Richard Serra appears as the Chrysler building’s architect, he is credited as Hiram Abiff, the architect of Solomon’s temple rather than as true Chrysler architect William van Alen.)
A pungent strain of autobiography flows through the “Cremaster” cycle, and there is even the suggestion that Barney’s own appearances in the films may not be as separate and individual characters, but rather as a single entity traveling through space and time. For instance, the Imperials from the first Gotham set piece are circa 1967, the year Barney was born.
Already by “Cremaster 1” (the second produced film), it was possible to see Barney’s enormous talent — his striking compositional eye, the breadth of his imagery, the suggestiveness of his cutting style. “Cremaster 2,” the fourth film, was a great leap forward, and this latest work is light years beyond that.
Here, in “Cremaster 3,” Barney has done nothing short of digesting the entire canon of American gangsterism, the immigrant (specifically, Irish) experience and the birth of New York City.
We stop off at the Cloud Club, a Prohibition-era speakeasy located on floors 66-68 of the Chrysler Building to find a pratfalling bartender (Terry Gillespie) unable to pour a proper glass of lager; a maitre d’ (Paul Brady) who intones Gaelic hymns; a gangster’s moll who cuts potato wedges with her bladed shoes (and is one of several roles portrayed by paraplegic athlete Aimee Mullins, whose every appearance in the film draws attention to her artificial legs).
Later scenes set at the Saratoga Racetrack (which features perhaps the film’s most unsettling metaphor for man’s bloodthirstiness) and in the Guggenheim Museum itself (transformed into a veritable technicolor “Dante’s Inferno” set to videogame music) are perhaps the pic’s most striking.
Shot in 24-frame high-definition video, Peter Streitmann’s ravishing cinematography is by far the best yet in this nascent format. Jonathan Bepler’s score, as in the previous films, is married to Barney’s imagery in a way that few filmmakers and composers have ever been bound: It is impossible to think of the one without the other.