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Directed and written by Matthew Barney Starring Matthew Barney and Norman Mailer Classification: NA Rating: You must be kidding

'N ow 32, Matthew Barney is the most important American artist of his generation." Michael Kimmelman, chief art critic of The New York Times.

Holy encomium. Wow, when The Times drops a superlative like that, attention usually gets paid. But it's hard to be attentive to what you can't see. Matthew Barney plies his art in the medium of film. However, because the films he makes are not exactly conventional -- not the kind that aspire to mere entertainment, or that use trained actors to tell a comprehensible story with a clear theme -- they don't show up at your local multiplex and, in these northern parts, have seldom made an appearance anywhere. So tonight's one-time screening (at Toronto's Bloor Cinema) doubles as a rare exception and a golden opportunity. Just who is this "most important American artist of his generation," and what is he up to?

Well, Cremaster 2, to be exact. If the title exudes a faint whiff of the horror flick, like a creepy offering from Wes Craven in his early years, don't be deceived. The truth, as anyone with a good medical dictionary will know, is a tad different: The word "cremaster" refers to the muscle that raises and lowers a man's testicles. And don't take that "2" on faith either. This is actually the fourth instalment in Barney's series, which is only fitting -- linear logic and basic continuity aren't part of his cinematic vocabulary. Consequently, for a plebe like me toiling in moviedom's mainstream, his work constitutes a refreshing yet formidable challenge.

Anyone trying to meet that challenge will immediately be struck by a single overriding impression: My God, this film is visually stunning. From the lyrical opening shot of a vast crystalline shape vaguely resembling a saddle, to the concluding tableau of an icy stream cascading down an overarching mountain, the picture is a wonder to behold. More than that, as the bizarre sights operate in perfect tandem with a mesmerizing score, it exerts on you a strange hypnotic pull -- you feel compelled to watch even (and this is often the case) when unsure of what the hell it is you are watching. Although Barney describes himself as an abstract artist, he seem to have more in common with surrealists like Bunuel and Dali. So the "props" in the film -- beginning with erotically configured tables and chairs, escalating to plastic female nudes and weirdly conjoined Mustang cars -- are his own sculpted creations, forming part of an always fantastic montage of images. Normally, you figure out what a movie "means" from its story line; here, in the virtual absence of narrative, the meaning is embedded in this imagery, which, in turn, is embedded even more deeply in Barney's singular imagination.

Happily for us, any artist worth the name deals in images that arise out of a collective culture and thus enjoy a shared meaning -- otherwise, he'd just be a self-indulgent narcissist. While difficult, Barney's symbology has precisely that quality, and is less arcane than it first seems. In this case, for example, we encounter the figures of Gary Gilmore (played by Barney himself) and Harry Houdini (etched by Norman Mailer), along with an amazing special-effects vision of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir followed by an equally arresting shot of a horse and rider on the Utah salt flats. Gradually, some of these dots begin to connect: Mailer wrote a celebrated bookabout the convicted killer Gilmore, who (according to an urban myth) may have been the illegitimate grandson of Houdini, and whose mother was certainly a Mormon. Later, in an extraordinary visual pun, a bull and the convict appear on the same salt flats, both escapees from their respective pens -- a pair of beasts sharing their different burdens, and, in an oddly touching finale, living and dying in two-part harmony.

I don't mean to suggest that, on a sole viewing and without the benefit of the other films in the series, anything like a full comprehension can emerge. Still, you'll grasp enough to know that a fierce intelligence is at work and at play here, as Barney explores a personal mythology where all the primal components -- sex and violence, birth and death -- are evocatively present (if not easily accounted for). Maybe it's best just to sit back and allow the unforgettable images to wash over you. In that sense, watching Cremaster 2 is the movie equivalent of dipping into Finnegans Wake, like entering a private dream that defies complete understanding to anyone but its creator, but where the sights are so astonishing and the rhythms so alluring that at least one message is unmistakably clear -- you're at the service of a major talent harnessed to an exceptional mind.

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