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In that video piece, that was exhibited as an installation comprised of three monitors hanging from the ceiling, Barney confounded the audience with images of satyrs struggling with each other in the back seat of a white limo as if it was some hot first date for these pagan creatures. With his other projects including the Cremaster cycle Barney brought a freshness to the medium of video/film in terms of both his production values and erotically strange, gender-bending content.
I remember thinking that this was some of the most interesting work I had seen in a while especially in the medium of video. It was hard to pin down in a art climate awash in politically charged work that seemed to shun with a vengeance poetry or ambiguity. I had not a clue as to what Barney was up to in these works, but it looked great and suggested some strange sexual tensions. In fact, Barney's cross-dressing and openly male-to-male sexuality angered some in the gay community: What was this supposed straight white male doing tampering in this territory?
The main problem with his new film, Cremaster 2 , is that he tries to follow too literally an established text, The Executioner's Song, Norman Mailer's non-fiction novel that chronicled Gary Gilmore's dark saga of crime and punishment that ended with Gilmore electing to die by firing squad in Utah. Of course this is a great subject of the dark side of the American dream and Mailer handled it exceedingly well on the page. But as a film especially one that attempts to be a work of visual art , that attempts to tell a narrative story of sorts as visual poetry with little dialogue , Cremaster 2 comes off in most instances as being overblown, riddled with clichés and ultimately tedious.
Barney in the past has survived these indulgences because his work has been exactly about melodrama and baroque visual effects. Moreover, usually the work is driven by his own peculiar vision (or nightmare) of the cult of masculinity, and the scatological regimen of prostheses that hyper-realize this state of being. His way of visualizing this material is often extremely seductive and puzzling, that is, in the best sense of puzzlement. He can be at times the master of exotic images or situations and there are moments in Cremaster 2 when he still manages to accomplish this. But these moments are too few.
Finally, I get the sense that he was trying to make a crossover work, a
film that would have more commercial possibilities (and a wider audience),
hence the appearance of Norman Mailer and the quasi narrative story line
plus the lavish budget. This is probably his biggest mistake. Once you
give up the really strange, the really hermetic, you risk competing with
the likes of David Lynch or David Cronenberg and there you will loose.
While I am loath to register an opinion on a film seen only once, and any work can often seem different on repeated viewings, the informality of our newsletter encourages me to make this call: Cremaster 2 was worse than garbage.
Barney has absolutely no feeling for cinema. His "film" (shot on HDTV, transferred to 35mm film for exhibition) is a series of impressively portentous images whose "aesthetic" represents an uneasy mix of Fellini, Kubrick, Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi, and bad travelogues. The many helicopter shots over an icy wilderness, the camera passing close to icy peaks and plains in that all-to-familiar you-are-there motorized-swooping effect seen in a zillion bad films, provide one clue as to the mindlessness of this one.
Most great films do their work through the articulation of space. This depends on a careful consideration of the perspective of each composition - the relationship of the lens to the object and/or characters, of the foreground to the background, of the composition to the focal length of lens chosen. Most importantly, and even in many great films of classical (not current) Hollywood, cuts are calculated according to the spaces being intercut; an overall feeling for a specific kind of space is developed over the assemblage of shots that make up the whole film. From the stately and distanced architectural solidity of John Ford to the impossible visual contradictions of Douglas Sirk to the intensely physical but also malleable spaces of Orson Welles, a filmmaker's vision is expressed through visual qualities, not through "content," not through symbolic possibilities, and certainly not through the use of over-produced images that look more like the work of a high-end New York interior decorator than of a filmmaker.
The superficial gloss of Barney's images is as empty-headed as the multiple cultural references of his objects collapse into a mindless, drug-like babble: even if an object an undersized prosthetic one meant to represent the supposed impotence of Gary Gilmore rather than the true crème de la Barney, the message is the same as that in so much of the work of "his generation": "Look at me!" Well, no thank you. The images are so pumped up with glitz that they in fact are cut off from each other. No matter; they will look "great" as stills -- and doesn't Barney also peddle stills from his films at high prices in his galleries? The filmmaker Stan Brakhage, a real filmmaker whose work is hardly ever screened here and which would be unlikely to attract the local art elite --and, because he's a real film artist who has been making films for almost 50 years rather than an art world flavor-of-the-month, would be unlikely to be imported by the MCA -- once suggested that he tried to make his film compositions seem incomplete in themselves, possessed by some imbalance or lack so that each would require a new composition to follow.
Barney's film is worse than garbage for one simple reason: his sterile,
self-enclosed images do nothing for the eye, mind, or spirit, aside from
perhaps providing the same kind of superficial charge that one can get from
an advertising image or videogame for those who enjoy that sort of thing.
They may cause you to think at great lengths about mysterious symbolic
associations and meanings, but perceptually they are stillborn. But if on
the other hand you get down on the floor and root through the objects in
your garbage can, the crumpled papers and discarded junk and opened
envelopes, and do so with an active eye, you can actually have, to quote
Brakhage, an "adventure in perception." That, however, might be too much
work for viewers who prefer to have their images prepackaged, predigested
-- profound-looking in the manner of high fashion rather than in the
self-questioning, viewer-engaging manner of great modern art.