From the Editor:
In this month's feature, Wayne Bremser compares the properties of Donkey Kong to the aesthetics of Matthew Barney's provocative film, Cremaster 3. Wayne is a writer and old-school game enthusiast. His current projects include Harlem.org, a jazz history site, and BeatThief.com. It's obvious from his writing that he is skilled and smart; but you should also know that he brandishes a positively wicked sense of humor, too. He lives in San Francisco and is working on his first novel.
Matthew Barney's Cremaster 3 begins a serious negotiation between art and video games. There have been exhibits and books celebrating game design in recent years, while digital art has introduced interactivity into museums. Painters have created canvases with game characters. Cremaster 3 lacks the obvious cultural references, but its absurdity, repetition, level design and use of landscape as narrative establishes a stronger connection to video games than these other works.
Despite the popularity of the Cremaster films, only a small percentage
of museumgoers have ever seen an art film. After twenty-five years of
cultural relevance, video games still do not have a serious place in
museums and galleries. Cremaster 3 is important not only because it
has attracted a wider audience to an art film, but also because it is
one of the first works of contemporary art to incorporate video game
film and game adaptations
Most museums and galleries have ignored games, while technological progress has drawn mainstream film and games together. This relationship can be charted by the number of games adapted from films. More recently, a number of films have been based on popular video games. Most of these films have been terrible.
Faced with adaptation, a film director has less freedom than a game designer. Technology limitations are small obstacles compared to a mainstream film audience that will not accept the absurd and abstract elements found in games. Audiences will not watch a film that has no spoken dialogue, forcing the film director to make her video game star speak for two painful hours.
While nuances of character remain a challenge for many designers, games have been able to capture film environments for quite some time. Film to game adaptation is more successful because the medium forces a reduction of plot and character without sacrificing a film's narrative world.
Beyond adaptation, several directors have been able to translate the compelling elements of the game medium into original films. One of the first successful attempts was Tron, which distilled sweeping, cool blue silent film landscapes from early games like Battlezone and Missile Command. Incorporating graceful motion and an element of minimalist abstraction, the film's gladiatorial sequences are wonderful cinema. Audiences didn't respond; Tron's arcade adaptation was more popular and profitable than the film.
Twenty years after Tron, Cremaster 3 presents a mythic narrative cobbled together from Masonic legend and Matthew Barney's self-referential symbols. This is the last film in Barney's five Cremaster films, named after the muscle that controls the rising and lowering of the testicles. Without the expectations of a mainstream film audience and the responsibilities of a commercial director, Barney has the freedom to create a film loaded with the repetitive, ritualistic and quasi-mythical elements commonly found in video games. Offering three dialogue-free hours of whimsy and discomfort, Cremaster 3 is an art world adaptation of Donkey Kong.
At a Cremaster 3 screening Richard Flood, the chief curator of the Walker Art Center, mentioned that he had recently seen Gangs of New York. He wondered whether Barney was "a better director than Martin Scorsese." Answering himself, Flood said, "I think he might be." Critics and curators should not be concerned with the comparison of art films to commercial films, Matthew Barney versus Martin Scorsese. Cinema's journey to get into the museum is over. Today's struggle concerns Matthew Barney versus Donkey Kong.creating narrative landscapes
The plot of Cremaster 3 is taken from the Masonic order and the myth
of Hiram Abiff (see sidebar), but the narrative center of the film is
found in its architectural spaces. Before being populated with adversaries,
spaces in Cremaster 3 and video games are transformed sculpturally to
create an arena for action. Barney and game designers look for strong
visual landscapes that are ripe for a character's running, jumping,
smashing and climbing.
Barney's locations include a heavy layer of personal and cultural meaning that game designers often ignore. He builds and qualifies levels with variations on color and light, giving the viewer signs about the amount of danger the protagonist faces. The majority of the film takes place in the Chrysler Building and the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The interiors have been altered to remove the buildings from reality, much in the way a game that relies on real locations focuses on certain details and erases others to establish a backdrop that enhances game play without getting in the way of it.
Both Barney's Entered Apprentice and Mario climb structures modified
from what architects have intended. In the Chrysler Building Barney
ascends the elevator shaft, which exposes the building's innards. In
the rivets degree of Donkey Kong, Mario must climb around an exposed,
unfinished structure, walking over rivets to remove them. The perfect
disorder of the titled girders in the ramps degree of Donkey Kong, transformed
by an enormous jumping ape, match the perfect order of the ramps in
Guggenheim rotunda, created by the most famous American architect. A
climbing rig allows Barney to scale the rotunda, bypassing the ramps.
In both Cremaster 3 and Donkey Kong, reaching the top level of the
structures both rewards the protagonist and punishes him for hubris.
When Mario reaches the top of the steel structures, Donkey Kong finds
a way to take Pauline away to the next screen. When Barney's Entered
Apprentice reaches the top of the Chrysler Building the film cuts to
a scene where he suffers a setback: his teeth are knocked out.
The Entered Apprentice is then placed in the Guggenheim sequence, which opens with naked women that introduce players to each level of the game. The scene feels like a parody of a television quiz show mixed with a video game's level introductions. Recall Donkey Kong asking the player, without a wink, "How high can you get?"
In Donkey Kong and Cremaster 3 levels are determined by a combination
of architecture and dangers that await the protagonist. Each ramp of
the Guggenheim features a test, symbolizing Barney's five Cremaster
chapters, his own quasi-Masonic ritual of passage, an artist testing
his own artistic progress. Barney uses the museum space as an interface
to both confront and create art. With the tools of a Mason, Barney calculates
and smashes his way to the top of the rotunda, leaving a trail of work
cobbled together from shards of previous generations.
characters and myth
Donkey Kong's myth of a man fighting a giant ape on a skyscraper has its origin in the King Kong films. After being captured in the jungle and brought to the city by greedy men, the largest ape in the world climbs the tallest building in New York where he fights humans to the death. Cremaster 3 is based on the Masonic myth of Hiram Abiff, the architect of Solomon's Temple. Barney uses the Chrysler Building as a character to play the temple.
The construction worker Mario moves in pursuit of Pauline, while Barney's
construction worker, the Entered Apprentice, climbs in pursuit of the
architect, Hiram Abiff. Both workers are presented with a single facial
expression, no dialogue and no significant character development except
their determination to move ever upwards.
The hubris of the Entered Apprentice and Mario is both awarded and punished. The ability to honor the rites is highly valued in Masonic culture. During his climb of the Chrysler Building, Barney's Entered Apprentice bypasses rites by casting rather than carving a Masonic stone. He is punished by having his teeth knocked out. By jumping for a hammer, Mario also gets the chance for an easier climb to the top. The hammer gives Mario the power to smash the barrels headed towards him. If he stays confident for too long, the hammer vanishes, leaving him dashing into the deadly barrels.
Game designers populate levels with a higher concentration of adversaries than friends. These minor adversaries have varying degrees of animosity towards the player. Upon the player's entrance to a new screen, level-specific characters charge immediately or wait for a trigger, which allows a player to observe sentries walking a beat, workers building, monsters feeding or shitting.
The minor adversary plays an important role in Cremaster 3. With the camera disconnected from the Entered Apprentice, Barney allows the audience to observe ceremonies and rituals of level-specific characters, showing us what awaits the climber at the top of the Chrysler Building. These characters include a group of Freemasons smoking cigars, the Cloud Club Barman and Aimee Mullins playing the Entered Motivate.
At the top of the Chrysler Building, the Entered Apprentice interacts with the Cloud Club Barman in silent-era comedy scene. Because of the tilted bar, representing the uneven structure of the unfinished temple, the Barman can't quite deliver a glass of beer to Barney without spilling it. Besides recalling the physical humor of Chaplin or Harold Lloyd, the scene evokes Tapper and Burger Time, funny, yet stressful early video games in which players faced the never-ending production of food and beverage.
The rhythms of adversaries vary dramatically in Barney's Chrysler and
Guggenheim sequences. Characters in the Chrysler sequence move slowly
and deliberately, arranging things, cutting potatoes, smoking cigars.
There is a feeling of the organic ritual operating in the world of the
late 1920s, bodies in synch with the turning wheels of industry. Even
the dread evoked in the lobby by the 1967 Imperials smashing the 1938
Imperial results from a precise rhythm and slow edits that give the
viewer time to anticipate. In the Guggenheim sequence the absurd mix
of adversaries are kicking, dancing and flailing. The atmosphere and
tempo of the cast recall Fellini's Roma and Satyricon.
(fay wray, pauline, aimee mullins, hungry like the wolf)
Model, athlete and double amputee Aimee Mullins plays the two primary female characters. Many early video games, including Donkey Kong, also had singular female roles, where women played the fetishized captive, goal, and prize saved for the end of the game. Barney fixates on Mullins' truncated limbs, sculpting fetishes, elaborate prosthetic legs for her to wear.
Barney dances with Mullins in the Guggenheim sequence, symbolizing
the moment at which the fetus becomes either male or female. She morphs
into a feline and tussles with him, but he easily strikes her down.
This sexy pussy that scratches clichÃ© takes form in a scene reminiscent
of Duran Duran's "Hungry Like the Wolf" video. Undertones
of bestiality are also significant in the King Kong films, but are stripped
away by the primitive graphics and animation of Donkey Kong.
Richard Serra plays Donkey Kong, waiting at the top of both New York
buildings. Serra is one of the most famous living sculptors, a great
white man from the previous century, Picasso-like in appearance, gruff
and bald. He maintains this persona playing two roles in the film. Both
Barney and Serra are Yale alumni and, by placing him at the top of the
order in both sequences, Barney makes it clear that he considers Serra
the most important artist of the previous generation. With this casting,
Barney praises Serra as Master Mason, but also winks at the art world's
Warholian order of celebrity.
In the Chrysler sequence Serra plays Hiram Abiff, the Architect of
Solomon's Temple. He wears a sharp suit and waits at the top of the
building drawing and constructing two pillars of black metal plates
(a reference to temple pillars Jachin and Boaz). In the Guggenheim sequence,
Serra plays himself, donning an apron and tools with which to mold hot
metals. While Donkey Kong tosses barrels at Mario that catch fire and
populate the ramps with happy, dancing demons, Barney engages Frank
Lloyd Wright's architecture with his own hot stuff.
Richard Serra tosses melted Vaseline at the top level of the Guggenheim, which trickles down the rotunda. Vaseline is one of many materials, including tapioca, which Barney has become famous for using. The tossing is a reference to some of Serra's most important work. Using molten lead thrown against a wall, Serra performed the physical dance of Jackson Pollack's dripping and tossing, challenging the assumption that sculpture is a static object on a pedestal that is separate from the space around it. Barney challenges the need a sculptor like Serra has to create any physical object, instead making his sculpture exist as characters in films. While Mario causes the ape to fall several stories onto his head, Barney castrates his Donkey Kong, robbing the older artist of his material of choice.
discount mythsThe art world has suffered a deficiency of myth in the past fifty years. Critics are both impressed and confounded by Matthew Barney as mythmaker. In an article titled "Strange Sensation" Time's Richard Lacayo calls Barney a "gee-whiz mythomaniac." "OK, it's weird," writes Jonathan Jones for the UK's Guardian. These critics are aware that Barney's film is inspired by the Hiram Abiff myth, but are swept away by fact that he dabbles in myth at all. They never refer to video games, where myths are a dime a dozen, where characters regularly morph shape and gender.
At the same time that they are overwhelmed by the films, critics have
routinely panned the sculpture that Barney has created for the Cremaster
series. Some snidely compare filling the Guggenheim with artifacts from
the films to the "The Magic Of Myth" museum show of Star Wars
costumes and props
The Guggenheim exhibit allows Barney to show Cremaster 3 in the physical space in which the film was set; an opportunity never given to a game designer. Barney transforms the rotunda like a designer would. Flags and icons adorn different levels of the museum. Sounds echo through the spiraling chamber. A spaceship attached to the ceiling delivers scenes from Cremaster 3 on five video monitors. The exhibit feels like a visit to watch movies and play video games in the finished basement of a wealthy childhood friend. The first gallery has elaborate cases that Barney has designed for videodisc and DVD versions of the films. From these discs at the bottom level, up to the giant fantasy television that dominates the top of the rotunda, the Cremaster exhibit is an exaltation of video, but without the game depicted in the film.
Barney uses the building as an interface, confronting the Guggenheim with the goal of creating a single piece of art. Barney wants each piece of sculpture, each of video screen and the museum itself to organically fuse into one experience. The exhibit is another masculine battle, an arm-wrestling match. Will Barney be able to reign in the landscape and make it work for the piece? The stakes are high: If the art merely reacts to the space it becomes decoration for the rotunda.
The most significant thing Barney has changed in the museum is the light. A giant blue object covers the skylight of the building. In the midday sun, this dims the light and casts a blue tinge. The blanket of blue material is in the shape of the Cremaster logo.
Both the film and exhibit are heavily branded. Like Freemasons, game designers and advertisers, Barney pays careful attention to logos, colors, flags and uniforms. During its three hours, the film sometimes feels more like an advertisement for Barney's imagination than a myth. The epic cinematography is not unlike Ridley Scott's famous 1984 Macintosh television ad. We are hammered with serious faces and statuesque bodies. Shots of Barney climbing the elevator shaft could be adopted by a financial firm to advertise its perseverance. By tying the disparate elements with the thread of ritual and mythology, Cremaster 3 is mythic without imparting an actual story.
In both the film and the exhibit, this absence of story keeps the viewer at a distance. The film reaches its most visually luscious point with women in bunny suits kicking, two hardcore bands thrashing and Matthew Barney climbing, dancing and tumbling though the Guggenheim. It feels like watching a foreign sport that you do not know the rules of. Barney rejects the inviting qualities of film narrative and creates a virtual space between viewer and art that mimics the feeling of seeing a large piece of classical sculpture in a museum. Don't get too close and don't touch. We aren't called to join the parade like we are in a Fellini film. We don't feel emotionally involved like we do in a good musical, action film or video game. We never get to play.
Experiencing Cremaster 3 in the exhibit space of the Guggenheim bridges the distance between viewer and art, but there is also a sense of loss. You are the Entered Apprentice moving up the ramps. You are in the landscape of the game, but there are no adversaries. It's like arriving to engage in LARP (live action role play), but finding nobody dressed as alchemists and orcs. Even the Star Wars exhibit had mannequins dressed in costumes. Looking down from the top level of the museum, you see no punk bands or dancers. You see no naked women frolicking in the fountain. What you see are museumgoers gawking up at the video screens with their backs turned to the sculpture.
While the film successfully alters the narrative landscape of the Guggenheim to inspire characters to dance, climb and interact with objects, the exhibit's use of the space obliterates the impulse to action. Watching Barney on a giant video monitor toss white plastic sculpture as you stand in the same space, next to the same objects does more than just distract you from the sculpture. It taunts you. The museum interface keeps your body still as the video images violently tease you with Barney's body in action. Kafka would have enjoyed this situation. Characters peek out from film stills on the walls, their stoic faces and muted voices whispering: Pick it up and throw it. At the same time the giant monitors scream at you: You are helpless. You cannot climb. You cannot pick up the objects. You cannot throw them. You cannot be the epic hero. If you listen to Barney's characters, if the art inspires you to action, you will be thrown out on your ass to wander aimlessly around Central Park.
Barney may have successfully re-imagined the Guggenheim in the film,
but despite placing his logo over the building and changing its light,
despite the overwhelming combination of video and sculpture, the Cremaster
exhibit fails to conquer the museum's interface.
the future of video games and art
A game adaptation of Cremaster 3 could include all of its characters, sculpture, mythical elements and action. You could climb the rotunda, pick up objects and toss them. You could confront punk rockers and legless felines. Why would a game designer want to create this game? The effort could be the first game recognized as a relevant piece of contemporary art. It could be more compelling than the film or the exhibit. It could even be a great game.
The dialogue between those that create games and those that decide what is art has just started. Adaptation and the exchange of ideas will expand what is considered fine art and what is considered a video game. The critical feedback that artists and cinematographers are used to will force designers to view their work as part of the larger continuum of art. This will spawn some bloated egos and boring games, but a wider set of influences and greater personal responsibility will inspire game designers to create engaging works of art that are also fun to play.
The Cremaster films open today at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco.