Cinematic excess

By ANNIE LARMON  |  November 10, 2010


While the Cremaster films may seem overwhelmingly indecipherable, it is important to consider that the work is not purely cinematic. The films are intended to be experienced alongside supporting sculpture, photographs, and books. Nevertheless, every minutia of the production seems drenched in metaphor and intention, and a seven-hour engagement with Barney's circus will leave even the most astute interpreter reeling. Inquiring minds may find some solace entering Barney's phantasmagoria with these key reference points.

Cremaster 1
• The blue Astroturf is Bronco Stadium in Boise, Idaho, where Barney grew up and played football. Masculine identity and athleticism have been themes in his work since he staged a performance in the Payne Whitney Gymnasium for his senior thesis at Yale.
• Chorus girls are directed into the formation of an undifferentiated reproductive system, which marks the first six weeks of fetal development. This form is also mimicked by the Goodyear blimps overhead, and represents equilibrium.

Cremaster 2
• Corresponds to the phase of sexual division in fetal development. Barney depicts this process as one filled with conflict, in which the fetus resists differentiation.
• Barney describes the film's structure as interweaving three themes: the landscape as witness, the story of Gary Gilmore (who murdered a Mormon gas station attendant in 1977), and the life of the drone bee.
• In an explicit sex scene partially obscured by a beehive, Gilmore is symbolically ejaculated as a male bee.
• Gilmore's grandfather may have been Houdini, who is played here by Norman Mailer, whose 1980 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Executioner's Song detailed the events of Gilmore's execution.
• Johnny Cash is represented by Dave Lombardo, former Slayer drummer, and Steve Tucker, the lead vocalist of Morbid Angel. Cash is said to have called Gilmore before his execution.
• The judgment of Gilmore is set to singing by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. His execution is staged as a prison rodeo.

Cremaster 3
• It is ambiguous where this chapter fits into the biological metaphor, but the narrative connects the construction of the Chrysler Building and the formation of the Isle of Man.
• The female corpse represents a resurrected Gilmore, and appears to be a bog woman, perhaps from Irish poet Seamus Heaney's "Bog Queen."
• Minimalist sculptor Richard Serra and Barney play Hiram Abiff and the Entered Apprentice in the reenactment of the Masonic myth of Hiram Abiff, the omniscient architect of Solomon's Temple who is murdered after refusing to divulge a secret of the Master Masons. Ultimately this is a parable about egotism, and the Chrysler Building inevitably a phallus.
• Barney, as the Entered Apprentice, uses an elevator cabin as a mold, casting a perfect ashlar and cheating the Freemason system of initiation. Ashlars are symbolic of progress, a rough stone from a quarry, which through proper work by a stonemason becomes smooth.
• The potato cutter is played by Aimee Mullins, an athlete, actress, and model with two prosthetic legs.
• The sequence staged in the Guggenheim, or "The Order" (the most iconic segment of the Cycle), runs through the initiation rites of the Masonic fraternity as a competition. At the top level, Richard Serra restages his early molten-lead work, but throwing Vaseline in a gratuitous homage to Barney. The Guggenheim was also the venue for the exhibition of the completed Cycle.

Cremaster 4
• Represents the system's rush toward descension as Barney's character plunges from an oceanic-state-like pavilion into the cold ocean; the testes are forced to descend.
• Takes place on the Isle of Man, and alludes to island folklore as well as the International Isle of Man Tourist Trophy motorcycle race.
• Barney plays the Loughton Candidate, a tap-dancing satyr born from the Loughton Ram, native to the Isle of Man, whose ascending and descending horns symbolize equilibrium and undifferentiation.
• The Candidate's companions are androgynous female bodybuilders, deniers of gender roles.

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