DON'T BE AFRAID, even though Cremaster 2 sounds like the schlocky sequel to a horror film. Instead, summon your courage for this completely wacky, transfixing, nonnarrative art film from Matthew Barney, "the most important American artist of his generation," according to The New York Times. If that doesn't send you screaming down the aisles, it must be conceded that, yes, Cremaster 2 has its share of inscrutable symbolism and, yes, the handsome 32-year-old ex-model and Yalie is the NYC art world's flavor-of-the-decade. But that doesn't mean there isn't something worthwhile behind the hype.
directed by Matthew Barney
runs January 1-13 at Grand Illusion
The plot elliptically relates the conception and life of Utah's Gary Gilmore (played by Barney), whose 1977 execution for a gas station murder received national attention and inspired Norman Mailer's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Executioner's Song. Gilmore's story begins with the purported affair between his grandmother Fay (a wasp-wasted fetish model) and Harry Houdini (Mailer) at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition (a kind of World's Fair in Canada). We also witness Gilmore's crime and his atonement for that sin. Gilmore can be seen as the spiritual grandson of Houdini, advertised as a "world famous self-liberator." Before meeting his fate, Gilmore grunts, "Let's do it"—his actual words to the '77 firing squad. In passing from life to death he undergoes a metamorphosis like Houdini, who boasts of becoming the cage from which he escapes.
Cremaster 2 is the fourth non-sequential installment in Barney's five-film series, reiterating signature themes: Mormonism (symbolized by bees, hives, honeycombs, and hexagons); transformation (symbolized by Harry Houdini and bees); fertility (bees, again, and graphic albeit stylized human intercourse); community (Mormons, choirs, equestrian teams, and still more bees); death (bull riding); the West (saddles, horses, bison, two-step dancing, and country music); sexual differentiation (genitals, echoed by countless visual analogues); landscapes and water (flooded salt flats, rivers, glaciers, ice, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police).
CONFUSED? What does cremaster mean? It's the medical term for the muscle that raises and lowers the testicles. Latent, unlowered, unrealized, they're ovaries. The two sexes start as one, when we slumber in the womb like larval bees, like Gilmore fitfully dozing in his car at the fateful gas station. He then wakes into solitary masculine violence; differentiation is his downfall.
Barney's trendy work is part of the current art-world preoccupation with what makes us men or women, how our sexual identities are formulated by language, biology, and culture. But it's entirely possible to forget all that and simply concentrate on the frequently and startlingly beautiful images Barney produces. The horizon reflected off a lake splits the screen vertically; aerial images of water, rivers, and glaciers unfold majestically; even a blood-spattered tile floor has a certain terrible aesthetic. Plus, all those bees and the speed-metal drumming of Slayer's Dave Lombardo! (Don't ask.)
Besides being a visual journey from Gilmore's arid basin home upstream to the glacial source of water (life), Cremaster 2 is also a genealogical epic about a rootless Western bad man and how his solitary identity was forged. "Ask me no questions, sing me no songs," Gilmore's girlfriend Nicole sings, "I'm already gone." She's pining for Gary, whose final transformation from man to myth follows the path of the glacier, receding into the past.