I pulled the curtains open Saturday morning to be greeted by a brightly-shining sun and a near-cloudless sky(this being Seattle, that little situation changed in no time, but I digress), which inspired me to tread lightly down the stairs, open the door a crack, carefully survey the world outside the apartment, and then make a MAD DASH to my local movie theatres lest I miss two cinematic arrivals I was intent upon catching while they still flickered on the silver screen.

First, I joined a corral of people- geeks and arty University students, plus a few who seemed to be there because the papers hyped them into coming (much of the audience reaction bore this admittedly shallow perception out, and then some) outside the Varsity Theatre for a matinee of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 3. Now, Barney’s chronology is just as complicated and circuitous as the “plots” of these incredible films of his, so I’ve no idea where 3 sits in the actual order of the five-film cycle; I think it may be the final “episode.” Frankly, though these films certainly share a similar style and film, I’m not sure order in which they’re seen matters much. I saw Cremaster 2- or, as I refer to it, “The Gary Gilmore One,” with its rich visual themes of bees, Mormonism, and mass-murder celebrity, with Norman Mailer as the MC- and I can definitely say it wouldn’t affect my feeling on either film if the order had been reversed. And that feeling is one of intense surprise and awe. Barney’s films, if only by default, are purely avant-garde efforts. Even the “dreamlike” films of someone like David Lynch hinge on something approaching a traditional narrative- even if that narrative exists only to call attention to Lynch’s subversion of it. Barney’s films are breathtaking in their audacity, stretching their dreamlike free-associations into feature-length works that, though very superficially seeming disjointed and episodic, are very, very consistent conceptually, thematically, and symbolically, which makes the series (what I’ve seen of it, anyway) an unqualified success on its own terms. 3 is the longest of the bunch- a bit over 3 hours with a 10-minute intermission- and has an overarching visual scheme of vertical struggle, which, when you think about it for less than a moment, is virtually primal when it comes to us humans and our myths and endeavors.

It’s fitting that a retrospective of all 5 films was a major event at The Guggenheim earlier this year; the post-intermission, accelerated section of Cremaster 3 features the interior of the Guggenheim as a “Donkey Kong”-like gauntlet, where our hero (dubbed “The Entered Apprentice” and played by Barney himself, in a kilt and extravagant pink headdress, just one of the myriad evocatively outlandish costumes of Cremaster) must confront battling hardcore bands (played by real-life punkers Agnostic Front and Murphy’s Law) and their slam-dancing fans, a beautiful and seductive amputee (played by a real-life amputee) who turns into a predatory cat when approached, something called “The Five Points of Fellowship” (a blatant Masonic reference in a work apparently suffused with them), and a relentless, disconcertingly cheerful Rockettes-like chorus line. The other riff on this vertical theme is the Chrysler Building, the shape, existence, and history of which is explored in a bizarre, free-associative way that could very literally be termed “The American Dream”; Celtic myth, New York architectural history, elements of class and sex roil and bubble in a symbolic admixture that’s both very innocent (of sarcasm, irony, “postmodernism”) and at times very menacing. These specifics fade and merge into each other, overlapping in ways that really do only make sense by a certain genuine dream-logic.

It’s that sexual element that I find very intriguing. Cremaster 3 contains no scenes of sex, but there is some very noticeable nudity that takes place in an already-discomfiting scene involving a dental chair and a compacted vintage Chrysler. The dental subject’s genitals and anus are exposed in the chair, and it’s very revealing to my mind that the Sea Monster-looking “penis” that resides between the patient’s legs resembles nothing so much as the mental image held by a female child who’s never seen male genitalia. We’re in a place, here, that shows “real”-looking anatomy and bodily functions that are distorted but very familiar, because they’re present in the subconscious of all of us. In addition, as the patient’s bleeding mouth is operated upon, the anus excretes a strange organic tube which then deposits a series of teeth. It’s nightmarish but hardly beyond belief; this is the sort of thing that resides in our dreams, our subconscious, our imagination. Sex and basic bodily functions will always be mysteries to civilized human beings, no matter how demystified. There’s actually something very beautiful about it, disturbing but also very right. I sincerely doubt that any of it was done for shock value, despite the tittering reaction of far too many audience members.

It’s to Barney’s credit that his films derive their tension in this manner, a suspense that comes, as in a dream, from not knowing what shapes will shift next, what telling distortions of “reality” await. He’s also to be commended for avoiding the overtly supernatural, the cop-out of many an inferior creator of this type of film; Barney’s films work on myth, not faith in the unseen; they’re extremely present, more vivid not only than most films of their kind, but of most films, period. It really demands to be seen by any movie-lover; I can’t wait for the rest of the cycle, which hits Seattle theaters next week.

Immediately afterwards, I hopped a bus to the Harvard Exit to catch Francois Ozon’s Swimming Pool starring Charlotte Rampling (whose distinguished, ageless beauty I find reminiscent of Judy Davis). The two Ozon films I’ve seen (this and 8 Women) use, in the great tradition of the best of Brian de Palma and Hitchcock, genre as a bare skeleton, a takeoff point to pile on obsessive psychosexual visual manifestations. It’s not a “thriller,” necessarily; there’s not much suspense, not much of a whodunit here at all. Rather, it’s a really engaging hybrid of the sort of interpersonal conflict you see in a domestic melodrama, combined with the sort of mordantly humorous detachment of some of the Hitchcock murder stories (like The Trouble with Harry), in which a murder is a catalyst not to the “story,” but to the relationship of the characters who are still alive. It’s also a meditation on the cannibalistic and cruel elements of creating a fiction (Rampling plays a writer).

In addition to Rampling, the young Ludivine Sagnier (who you’ll barely recognize as the spunky youngest daughter in 8 Women) plays a trashy, ultralibidinous young troublemaker whose sexuality stirs things up in the Rampling character, and, as we’re seeing her through the Rampling character’s eyes, may be something entirely other than what she appears to us. Highly recommended; I’m totally inspired to seek out more Ozon (he directed an unfilmed Fassbinder screenplay, 2000’s Water Drops on Burning Rocks, also with Sagnier, and Under the Sand, also with Rampling, that same year).

Speaking of Fassbinder, what can I say of the Criterion DVD of his Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, which I treated myself with last night? It’s the missing link between Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows and Todd Haynes’s Far from Heaven; an older working-class woman in early-seventies Germany falls for a forbidden other (in this milieu, an Arab immigrant). Trouble ensues; drama and acute social observation simultaneously, seamlessly spring forth. In addition to the many great extras in the 2-disc set, there’s a 20-minute introduction by Todd Haynes that is, as usual, extremely erudite and cinephilic. Very, very gratifying.

Finished Austerlitz. It’s a Holocaust novel, but not. Its technique of labyrinthine but completely apt digression (one memory leads to another leads to another in a sort of relay race of narrative voices) is reminiscent of Y Tu Mama Tambien, except it’s all asides, which become so much more. It’s both contemplative and breathless. I hit on a perfect line for this blog, in the voice of the title character, whose recollections and anecdotes as told to our narrator (Sebald himself, blurring the line between fiction and non) make up the entire contents of the book):

”My mind often dwelt on the question of whether there in the reading room of the library, which was full of a quiet humming, rustling, and clearing of throats, I was on the Island of the Blest or, on the contrary, in a penal colony...”

One last thing; happy 85th birthday, Ingmar Bergman!

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