For the uninitiated, "The Cremaster Cycle" is a series of loosely-connected films: a set of five art movies, (rather than arthouse movies), written, produced and directed by New York artist Matthew Barney. Each film has its own theme, and its own, unique interpretation. They can be seen either chronologically or in date order. The entire series runs for a mammoth 6 hours 40 minutes, but it's an experience that is worth all the bum-numbness!

It is most common for cinemas showing the series, to pair them up in sets of two or three "programmes", and show them over a weekend, or - as I viewed them - over one very long day! Just be prepared, irrespective of how you view them, because I guarantee you will never see anything as truly out-of-this-world, as the stuff that Barney conjures up!

The first thing you need to understand about the "Cycle", is that there are no real plots to any of the films. None of the five parts really have beginnings, middles or ends. Essentially, the films just exist, and it is down to every viewer or audience member to extrapolate anything they feel is pertinent, and read into the series what they want too. Thus, everyone will have their own, personalised and ultimately unique interpretation of the saga. But, if you really need somewhere to start, then the films cover life, and what it means to exist. At first, this seems a difficult concept to grasp, but just knowing that this is approximately what the films discuss, can often help you comprehend all the weird, wacky and surreal goings-on.

If you trawl the internet, you will find several essays and reviews of the films, but they often fall into one of two categories: either a very generalised (and simplified) review, stating whether they are worth watching or not, or highly detailed, or rather mind-numbingly technical discussions about the context of the films and how they relate to Barney's original artistic intentions. (Themes of the body, the essence of existance, and other intellectual topics, are frequently brought up.) Sadly, none of this is likely to help you really understand the film's concepts.

The word "Cremaster" refers to the muscle that regulates the height of a male's testicles! However, the film has very little to do with this muscle, or testicles in general. In fact, if you're expecting lots of bizarre sexual material, this is going to elude you on a gigantic scale. But, the films are absolutely not for youngsters. There is gore, and violence in the films, both in the form of gun violence, and more personalised violence. Plenty of nudity from both genders, and some extremely surrealistic erotica, also make appearances. The films also deal with some dark and adult themes and images, including fetishism, religion and witchcraft, not to mention scenes of autopsies and other medical footage. As such, expect a very intense and unnerving ride!

It's extremely difficult to even begin to explain "The Cremaster Cycle". However, to try and help readers, it is possible to boil them down, into the following, extremely simplified scenarios:

Cremaster 1 - A group of chorus girls perform a Busby Berkeley-style musical, on an American footbal field, whilst high above them, aboard two Good Year airships, similar choreography takes place as two women form artistic shapes out of grapes.

Cremaster 2 - A surreal story about magic, in the style of a Western.

Cremaster 3 - A creature scales the construction of the Chrysler Building, and comes across various mysterious beings on the journey.

Cremaster 4 - Two pairs of men, travel around the Isle Of Man, on a TT motorbike race.

Cremaster 5 - Hungarian Opera about birth, life and death!

As you will see, at first sight, the films sound pretentious! The problem with reviewing them, is that they divide the audience, right down the middle: half will loathe everything about them, whilst the remainder will adore everything about each one, and be able to give you ten good reasons for their opinions. I find the best way to approach these films, is to go expecting nothing but a series of five performance art stories. There is no dialogue, (except for Cremaster 5, which is all sung in Hungarian, and has no English subtitles), only music and sound effects. Just sit back, watch, and let the images sink into your subconcious, and don't try to initially interpret them at all. This way, you will probably get more out of the viewings.

Each of the films are all about imagery and symbolism of one kind or another. Men and women appear in all manner of strange and Dali-esque costumes, or performing everyday routines in the strangest of settings. The combination of retro style (1930's Chicago hoodlums), with modern-day inventions (like rollerblades), somehow works, even when it looks as bizarre as can be. In "Cremaster 3", there's a brilliant and extremely lengthy sequence of five 1940's American cars, doing nothing but smashing into one another, one ends up as nothing more but a cube of scrap metal! It sounds rather trite, but when you see it on the big screen, it's actually quite cool.

Rather shockingly, none of the five films are technically available on DVD. I use the word "technically", because you could obtain them on silver discs, but at a price. Firstly, each of the five films was available from The Guggenheim Museum's website. Each film had been transferred in its original aspect ratio (as listed at the end of this review), but has been limited to just 10 of each title in the entire world. The price, a measly $10,000 per set of five discs!

Now, that price sounds truly extortionate, but you have to understand that each film is a genuine limited edition! No cheap plastic, novelty cases here. Each disc has been individually numbered and autographed by Barney. Then, each disc comes in a specially designed case - made of hardwood - in the shape of oversized drinks coasters, with the "Cremaster" symbol embedded in the case!. I would personally love to own a complete set, but at that price, I think I might have to wait a bit. (Please see the end of the review for more info.)

Dubious pirated editions turn-up on e-Bay, claiming to house all 5 films, but these are bootlegged versions recorded from cinema screenings! Also, because the films have never been officially released, except in the original Limited Edition versions, then, you have to presume that the people flogging such copies, are only interested in ripping you off.

For the rest of you, a sequence from "Cremaster 3", entitled "The Order", which depicts a special kind of sporting event, has been put onto DVD, on Region 1, 2 and 4, courtesy of Palm Pictures. There are plenty of extras on the discs, and you also get the option of Stereo and DTS soundtracks, plus an anamorphic widescreen image. Sadly, at just over 60 minutes in length, (including all the extras), it's quite pricey, and in all honesty, I don't think "The Order" is actually worth watching on its own, away from the rest of the saga. It's good, but not strong enough to warrant repeated viewings. I can't therefore justify that readers purchase this disc. To make matters worse, all the discs have been deleted, although you may still be able to obtain copies from some companies.

Many people have e-mailed and campaigned for the films to be released to the public, but alas, Barney has resisted. Partly due to the financial cost involved, but also because the films would only be desirable to a very limited and niche audience. So, Palm Pictures would be unlikely to recoup the production costs. This is a real shame, because if more people got the chance to see these films, I think that they could build up a really big audience.

At the moment, the series of films do occasional screenings at major arthouse cinemas around the UK. To date, the films have been shown in Manchester, Birmingham, Brighton, Newcastle, Liverpool, Cambridge, Sheffield and Bristol. As such, if you live relatively near to these cities, you may want to contact the bigger arthouse cinemas in these areas, to see if any screenings are being planned.

For those of you, without deep pockets, cinema screenings are probably going to be the only way to see these films. Alternatively, it is possible to obtain a deluxe hardback book, which includes some jaw-droppingly amazing photography. But, if you can afford it, go visit Matthew Barney's site and order the discs! If you're a fan of really unique art, or way-out and baroque cinema, then I'd heartily recommend the entire saga! For a preview of the entire "Cycle", a 35mb trailer can be downloaded from the "Cremaster" website. Highly recommended!

Review by "Pooch".

Released by Palm Pictures / Arthouse Films Inc
Rated 18
Book : "Matthew Barney: The Cremaster Cycle" by Nancy Spector, Thyrza Goodeve, and Neville Wakefield (544 pages, hardback, 50, ISBN No: 0-892-07-284-9, Guggenheim Museum Publications)