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  • In the second film of the five-part Cremaster cycle (chronologically the fourth made), Matthew Barney indulges his obsession with Gary Gilmore, the murderer who made legal history by insisting that his execution proceed in spite of efforts by the American Civil Liberties Union and others to postpone it, if not rescind it altogether. Does an individual have the right to insist on his own state-sanctioned death?

    The film opens with Gilmore's parents visiting a medium of some sort, segues into a heavy metal/Goth band with lots of bees, moves on to the reenactment of the first of two murders Gilmore committed in Utah (that of gas station attendant Max Jensen; ironically, it was the second murder for which Gilmore was tried, convicted, and executed), and effectively ends with Gilmore's symbolic execution. Interspersed throughout are scenes involving Harry Houdini (Norman Mailer), from whom Gilmore's mother claimed descent.

    Although Gilmore was intelligent (reputedly with an IQ of 130) and artistically talented, he was also an alcoholic habitual criminal completely lacking in impulse control. Barney himself plays the role of Gilmore (what a surprise!) and the casting of Norman Mailer is inspired. Some may remember that Mailer was instrumental in securing the early release from prison of Jack Henry Abbott who authored "In the Belly of the Beast: Letters from Prison." Mailer felt such a talented individual should be given special consideration. Shortly after his release, Abbott stabbed a deli worker to death because he had the temerity to tell Abbott he couldn't use the employees' bathroom. Thanks, Norman.

    With panoramic shots of the Utah salt flats, the western setting is reminiscent of the surreal films of Alejandro Jodorowsky set in Mexico (e.g., "El Topo (1970), "Santa Sangre" (1989)) as well as the latter part of David Lynch's "Wild at Heart" (1990), and there are hints of David Cronenberg's influence in the early scene involving Gilmore's parents. In one scene, the viewer is treated to some fine Texas two-step dancing by a couple who clearly know their way about it, and there is one notable use of theremin and modern synthesizer music that slowly climbs in pitch, reaching a physically uncomfortable sonic range before ascending to the frequencies privy only to dogs and bats. Very artsy and a bit overwrought, Cremaster 2 is the kind of work one expects from Barney. Rating: 6/10.
  • Cremaster 2 is one of the strongest -- I won't say best because the 5 films are "best" taken as a whole -- but one of the strongest and most challenging episodes of the series. To say that the film is numbing is not really the point -- everyone has their own idiosyncratic negative reactions to some part or other of the series -- the music in Cremaster 1, for example, drove me crazy. One of the strong points of Cremaster 2 is that it is not as circular as the others -- the film starts in the nineteenth century and passes through Utah in the seventies and ends somewhere on a glacier -- there is linear movement. Because the story of Gary Gilmore is familiar to anyone who has read The Executioner's Song, and because this is the only film in the series that includes dialog, it is clearest in this film how and why Barney is breaking down the tradition narrative form. Thus, because this film uses traditional art elements -- and borrows from another work of art (Mailer) -- Barney is actually working from a more limited (and conventional) palette and is not just "out there" in a universe completely of his own making. The effect is devastating. The Executioner's Song was not entirely about Gilmore either, it was meant to confer some kind of broad idea about American masculinity and working class frustration. The book was considered groundbreaking when it came out, it did not fit into any conventional non-fiction format. Barney shatters the old forms of biography and destiny even more. Someday people will understand Barney better -- that he is not breaking with narrative conventions because he wants to, but because he has to. This is a deep film about nature and conflict and it is not necessary to be fluent in "Barnese" to get it. It is important to not let Barney be hijacked by movie criticism -- he is actually much more relevant to literary and visual art traditions, which are older traditions and the ones with which Barney is engaged in dialog. Not film...
  • tedg19 January 2007
    Barney is starting to drive me crazy. It would be simple if he were worthless, but he isn't.

    Where I stand: I'm watching the Cremasters in numeric sequence and have seen number one. I've also seen two other projects. In half of the four, I felt rewarded. He's a bit too much preoccupied with notation than form, disconcerting in a sculptor, but "Drawing Restraint" and "Cremaster 1" had moments that were transcendent. The projects as whole compositions collapsed under their heft, but when they impressed, they really did.

    Where he gets into trouble is when he tries to impose narrative. You can be visually strong in terms of pure form. Or you can be narratively strong using cinematic form, which is visual in a different way. He understand the first and is wholly incompetent in the second. Unfortunately here he "has something to say." Fragments of actual stories appear where they were avoided in the other projects.

    Lynch knows how to do this. Medem. Tarkovsky. Its what I call the long form and it requires an understanding of whole realms not just bits from them.

    Stay away from this one. It fails and the collapse is uninteresting.

    Ted's Evaluation -- 1 of 3: You can find something better to do with this part of your life.
  • desperateliving22 October 2004
    I only gave this a six, because it was a painful movie to sit through at the time, and I found myself very bored, frustrated, and begging the film to end. But as the film gestates in my mind I've been able to select the moments that did stick with me, and so I may see it again if the entire series is ever released on DVD and change my mind about the film. It made an impression, and that's more than can be said of most movies.

    Barney continues his Vaseline-fetish, and I'm not sure what he intends it to represent, if anything, but where in the first "Cremaster" they seemed to exist as molds, the same way the women existed as identical objects from the same mold, here it's much more sexual in nature: when we see Gilmore smother two balls with Vaseline we can't take our eyes away; it's not sexy, but it's certainly sensual (if a malleable inanimate object can be called sensual). That soulless, cold sex is depicted physically with the robotic sex we see from below, where it looks like bees procreating.

    There are a lot of individual moments that don't seem to have any relation to one another, but stick with you regardless: cowboy line dancing, a woman at a seance who toes a cowbell, Gilmore being sentenced by Mounties to ride a bull, men in a giant boardroom, and the scene with two of the most famous death metal musicians playing incarnations of Johnny Cash. Norman Mailer, too, should be mentioned, as he's perhaps the most memorable aspect of the entire film. (I haven't read his "The Executioner's Song.") 6/10
  • Not since Warhol has a visual artist made movies as masterfully as Matthew Barney. "Cremaster" describes a muscle in the testicles, and Barney's career-long subjects--masculinity and the biological, rather than societal, roots of male behavior--are given a hypnotic treatment here. Barney organizes the movie as rigorously as if it were an argument; but rather than rhetoric the movie is powered by dream logic. For an image such as the soon-to-be-killed gas-station attendant sniffing around Gary Gilmore's car--two sixties beauties joined with a mass of canvas like Siamese-twin mutants--you'd have to go back to the top shelves of Kenneth Anger and David Lynch. Filled with genital prostheses and heebie-jeebie-giving hive imagery, CREMASTER 2 has a hidden, hivelike structure that suggests a way out of out post-MTV, post-web-surfing image surplus. Barney has at times seemed a preening poseur; CREMASTER 2 reveals him as focussed in his private ecstasies as Cocteau.
  • There is a lot that could be said and a lot that will continue to surface about this film, and I have not even seen the others in the series.

    The film is simply staggering. I always see movies cold, with little or no knowledge of the sometimes pretentious "concept" behind the film, but for this film Cocteau is a great reference. The cinematography is a worthy tribute to Kubrick's early style. It is clear that there is sophisticated and complex metaphor embedded throughout the film, though it's not as pretentiously baffling as say, Tarkovsky's "Sacrifice". I have to grudgingly recommend that one should see the website for an overview of cremaster 2 to fully appreciate the sequence, if not the brilliant execution, because in cremaster 2, writer/director Matthew Barney shows a gift for making stunning, almost schizophrenic connections among wildly disconnected stories which are each revolutionary even when taken alone. If you can stay with the film, the dawning of their connections is devastating.

    I apparently saw Cremaster 1 and then 2 shown together which was actually even better, especially without the benefit of knowing they were separate films. Cremaster 1, which is like Kubrick's best work- beautifully minimalistic, quietly disturbing, seductive and surreal. It's also completely disconnected from the essential sequence of cremaster 2 so it serves to provoke imagination and destroy conceptual barriers before cremaster 2 starts. The sequence starts with the pristine, amorphous canvas of cremaster1, then becomes gradually more coherent in some unknown direction, and finally crystallizes into an almost tangible object. There is not a normal conclusion or an ending. The separate stories form an object. A beautiful, complete and complex object.

    The film is truly working at all levels, and I believe it manages to break new ground conceptually. I consider it a genuine modern surrealist masterpiece, somewhat in the vein of Kubrick.
  • In the Cremaster cycle, I think the whole starts to tear the further we move away from the feminine absolute. There's already signs of breakage in just the second entry. This is, I believe, because as a sculptor Barney has natural intuitions about cinematic space, so at its best the work is pregnant with a feel and subdued, but as a guy and thinker - like most of our species - he is a blowhard.

    So it's not enough to be quietly effective. He has to think big and show bigger. He has to have cool insights that hint at things of importance.

    You will need no better clue than the guys he has chosen to surround himself with here, all of them tribal tokens. Dave Lombardo has a drum session, a really cool figure to have in your art film that shows you are not effete. Steve Tucker bellows into a phone. And of course no one cooler than Norman Mailer. Barney himself plays killer Gary Gilmore.

    But wait, I get that this is meant to be about the onset of male aggression, so the figures have their proper place. Mailer wrote the book and all that. But it has to be Dave Lombardo and not just some drummer, don't you see? It's all a matter of association, as well and (skin)deep as choosing to wear a specific band's t-shirt.

    So here's the overall problem with Cremaster; I believe they were conceived in terms of space first, solid sculpted space communicating the air around the matter. He decided for whatever reason to make films around the actual objects, to be sold together, and because a story would be too ordinary, he came up with the testicular concept, as silly as that, for a map and to give him a pattern to sculpt to, ovaries, penises, vaginal tunnels. The copies made would be limited, 10 of each package, so important enough to own, another tribal token of underground music. Later, he could have the chance to explain that all of that also substitutes for the creative process and has personal value (a less precocious insight is that every film reflects its creative mind, down to Bay's Transformers).

    So look what happens. The film itself is the air around the things he wants to present and that air, let's say the breath of the camera as it dissects space, has appealing qualities. It resonates with a female mystery, nearly transcendent, discovered.

    You should know, however, that when the Buddhist - or any spiritual practice - speaks of transcendence, the word is not vaguely synonymous with any other superlative, the 'ecstacy' is always a transcendence of self; a transcendence of who you think you are and what you think you have to say, all of that conscious effort about propping up a self. In practical terms, it means Marienbad. It means The Passenger.

    So the film works in the way it was put together, in this being sculpted with a camera. But when we reach the stage where the form in front of that camera has to mean something, all of that associative context is bogus. None of it cultivated with deep intuition.

    Our insight is that the landscape does reflect its creative mind. In our case, all of it is ego satisfied at its own erection. It's Kubrick with Guggenheim pretensions. It's Greenaway without the sometimes deep thinker in Greenaway.
  • For me, this is the most interesting, and most 'story driven' of the series, although it's still very surreal.

    Cremaster 2 combines the story of Gary Gilmore – who spends most of the 1st half sitting in a Mustang at a gas station that has an umbilical like tube attaching it to another Mustang (he and Nicole both drove Mustangs). He commits the murder, and then is executed by being forced to ride a rodeo bull until both rider and animal die of exhaustion.

    We then go to a section involving Harry Houdini (played by Norman Mailer?!?) who may have been Gilmore's grandfather.

    None of it makes a lot of literal sense, but it does work as cinema poetry. I suspect how anyone responds to this kind of work is highly subjective, and there are no right or wrong opinions. Only whether it speaks to something deep inside you or not
  • Cremaster 2 proves two points: that art and art films alike are not judged as works alone but run as a popularity contest by a small elite few and also that the less people understand something the more intellectual it must be. After viewing this insanely substanceless film I was neither moved nor spurned to thought nor any emotional response that a truly masterful filmmakers works invoke. Barney's overused references to bee's and grossly overused stock footage of scrolling landscapes (at least I hope they were stock film as no cinematographer with any knowledge of composition would waste filming such boring landscapes in such a bland way) made this a tedious chore to sit through. For the love of all things good in film boycott garbage like this. Remember - if the message is unclear it might not be because you didn't understand it - sometimes it just isn't there.
  • The Cremaster Cycle 9/10

    The Cremaster Cycle is a series of five films shot over eight years. Although they can be seen individually, the best experience is seeing them all together (like Wagner's Ring Cycle) - and also researching as much as you can beforehand. To give you an idea of the magnitude, it has been suggested that their fulfilment confirms creator Matthew Barney as the most important American artist of his generation (New York Times Magazine).

    The Cremaster films are works of art in the sense that the critical faculties you use whilst watching them are ones you might more normally use in, say, the Tate Modern, than in an art house cinema. They are entirely made up of symbols, have only the slimmest of linear plots, and experiencing them leaves you with a sense of awe, of more questions and inspirations than closed-book answers. The imagery is at once grotesque, beautiful, challenging, puzzling and stupendous. Any review can only hope to touch on the significance of such an event, but a few clues might be of interest, so for what it's worth ...

    Starting with the title. The 'Cremaster' is a muscle that acts to retract the testes. This keeps the testes warm and protected from injury. (If you keep this in mind as you view the piece it will be easier to find other clues and make sense of the myriad allusions to anatomical development, sexual differentiation, and the period of embryonic sexual development - including the period when the outcome is still unknown. The films, which can be viewed in any order (though chronologically is probably better than numerically) range from Cremaster 1 (most 'ascended' or undifferentiated state) to Cremaster 5 (most 'descended'). The official Cremaster website contains helpful synopses.)

    Cremaster 2 is told as a gothic western and corresponds to that phase of fetal development when sexual division begins. It features such different images as a classic car in a service station, Bronco-busting cowboys, swarms of bees, a Texan two-step and music ranging from a capella singing to a heavy rock band. Houdini reappears (played by Norman Mailer) and is asked a question about metamorphosis - rather than maintain a position within the 'beehive', does he truly metamorphose and become one with the cage?

    The Guggenheim Museum (which houses a parallel exhibition) describes the Cremaster Cycle as "a self-enclosed aesthetic system consisting of five feature-length films that explore processes of creation." As film, the Cremaster Cycle is one to experience in the cinema if you have the opportunity to do so, or to experience and re-experience at leisure on DVD (the boxed set is promised for late 2004 and will be a gem for lovers of art-cinema fusion).
  • I had the possibility to watch the whole Cremaster-Circle(part 1-5) in an exhibition, here in cologne.

    My first impression was that the pictures are brilliant, each of it a sculpture of it´s own, but in a way I was afraid of it - it was strange, far away of how I used to watch films - no story, or a story that I am normally used to in my dreams when I am asleep.

    And alike to your dreams at night, it is quite difficult to remember what you have seen, afterwards. And more difficult it is to understand the sense of your dreams, because dreams are feelings in pictures.

    And Barney´s films are like this - they produce a feeling, deep under your skin - it is not intellectual, although every detail is designed very carefully.

    It changed my way of looking at my everyday seeing.
  • I wish I could have liked this art film more. It starts out with eerie synthesizer washes over shots of mysterious landscapes, really hooking in the viewer. Then there are some strange goings-on with a couple, an older woman, and some insects in a house. However, it becomes a weird mishmash of some sort of link between murderer Gary Gilmore and writer Norman Mailer, and is largely incomprehensible, but not in an entertaining way. I looked at my watch about four times, and nearly fell asleep. 6 out of 10.