In the fourth and penultimate installment of his increasingly ambitious “Cremaster” series, 32-year-old phenom Mathew Barney has created a visually stunning experimental Western. Pic will greatly enhance his reputation in the art world, where the former model and Yale art school standout has long been in a league of his own. Telling the story of murderer Gary Gilmore’s search for Harry Houdini in the afterlife, the film packed the newly renovated Film Forum with young hipsters during its initial week of release. While “Cremaster 2” is destined to cause a similar stir in showings at museums, art schools and select specialized venues, this nonlinear, esoteric pic undoubtedly will be met with slack jaws when preaching to the unconverted. Ancillary sales — which in Barney’s case means the sale of sculptures used as props in the film and of limited-edition videodiscs —should more than cover the pic’s $ 1.7 million budget.
One needs to go in having read a host of articles and seen the previous “Cremaster” films to have any hope of “getting” “Cremaster 2”; without such preparation, the film seems like the high-priced doodlings of a coddled art star. But after one thinks about it and studies up, pic begins to make some sense. At any rate, Barney tells his story with visual authority.
“Cremaster 2” interweaves the stories of magician Harry Houdini, played by Norman Mailer, and Gary Gilmore, whom Mailer made famous in “The Executioner’s Song.” Houdini and Gilmore are linked through Gilmore’s grandmother’s claim that she once had a dalliance with Houdini, and also through Barney’s belief that they are the ultimate escape artists, capable of endless transformations. Houdini escaped from locked boxes, while Gilmore’s execution by firing squad provided a transformation from a tortured life on a desolate earth (symbolized by a middle-of-the-night gas station where he first committed murder) to a less violent afterworld (shown here as a gold hexagonal room where two cowboys do the Texas two-step).
Pic’s central images play with the fact that Gilmore was raised in Utah as a Mormon. The beehive, the symbol of Mormons and of Utah, appears continually in the film, and bees seem to buzz throughout. Gilmore’s execution is beautifully imagined as a netherworld rodeo performed in the middle of the Utah salt flats in a giant arena made of salt. This rodeo scene, which features stunningly choreographed work from horses and buffalo, is coupled with an exhibition in which Houdini meets Baby Fay La Foe (Anonymous), Gilmore’s aforementioned grandmother. The circular time structure of the film is further symbolized though images of a glacier field in Canada.
To Barney’s credit, some of the film’s annoyingly arty pretension is undercut by his use of symbols that are decidedly unpretentious. Indeed, many of the elements in Barney’s personal mythology — rodeo, heavy metal, the lionization of outlaws and escape artists — seem to be born of a decidedly average, suburban upbringing. And in crafting American pop-culture detritus into an idiosyncratic biography, Barney’s experimental film is not unlike its more mainstream counterparts, such as “Being John Malkovich.”
There are some graphic but rather clinical views of Gilmore’s parents conceiving him. Though these segs are sure to offend some, Barney’s way of showing that Gilmore was “infected” with the Mormon seed turns out to be the film’s funniest visual joke.
Unlike traditional filmmakers, Barney does not seek a visceral response from his audience, seemingly content to have his work appreciated purely on an aesthetic level. As a result, pic provokes more then a few yawns due to “action” that is at times mind-numbingly slow. The actors, who are really more art materials than traditional performers, are deliberately lifeless. And the few bits of sparse dialogue, thrown in during post-production as concessions to the audience, seem stilted and forced.
The film is really a way for Barney to add context to his sculpture exhibit, and, fittingly, pic’s strongest elements are the sculptures themselves. The star piece is a fascinating rodeo saddle caught in mid-action and covered in hexagonal mirrors. Other elements, from the seance table where Gilmore’s brother tries to reach him to the sarcophagus where Houdini is locked, are also intriguing.
The film purports to be the first shot on digital high-density television and transferred to 35mm. Judging from the results here, it will not be the last. Even in scenes that are seemingly underlit — such as the one featuring a heavy metal singer covered in bees (he is one of three transmogrifications of Johnny Cash, who supposedly made a phone call to Gilmore before he was put to death) — the murky colors retain intensity. Undoubtedly, Peter Strietmann’s slow, fluid camera movements were aided by the less-bulky digital camera.
Tech credits (bare-bones crew consisted of no more than 10 people) are impressive throughout, from the lifelike mechanical bull to the gigantic salt rodeo.