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Cults of Personality

Bush Comes to Shove; Barney Goes for Baroque

Even worse, Cremaster 4(1994) features the artist in goat-boy mode tap-dancing on the deck of an empty yacht as three naked, brawny, androgynous creatures in red Raggedy Ann wigs crouch at his feet. Any description makes the movie seem funnier than it is—repeated exposure to the migraine-inducing Grand Prix intercut with the shipboard antics is guaranteed to freeze the chuckle in your throat. After this 40-minute structural exercise, Barney goes for baroque in the posh, lugubrious Cremaster 5 (1997), an hour-long piece that gives the ridiculous a bad name, alternating between the Budapest opera house and Hotel Gellert spa. Ursula Andress pretends to sing, but Barney is the real diva, climbing the theater walls—in four or five costumes, including another goaty getup.

If Barney's wardrobe is the best thing about his movies, it may be because, for him, drama is psychodrama and cinema is essentially a recording device and delivery system. Unlike Maya Deren, who invented this heroically narcissistic mode in the 1940s, Barney has little sense of editing. His idea of camera placement is banal at best, but the shot is the thing: Every image is designed to impress, with its cost, splendor, or outlandishness. Paradoxically, perhaps because Barney is never afraid to distend his ideas beyond ostentation, the three-hour Cremaster 3(2002) is by far the most substantial part of the cycle. (As shown on a five-screen hexagon suspended from the Guggenheim ceiling, its site-specific final movement also dominates the installation.)

Over the course of this art-world allegory, Barney mutates from rural faun to serious young workman—doing metaphorical battle with Richard Serra's master builder, first atop the Chrysler Building, which is thoroughly trashed. (As a sculptor, Barney is at his best when making a mess—he specializes in creepy surgical procedures and organic goo.) After a spooky interregnum at the Saratoga racetrack, the movie winds up in the Guggenheim itself. It's Barney's apotheosis—the museum populated by chanting metal rockers, bubble-bath sirens, and a reverse Circe who challenges the artist in the guise of a naked tigress. (He's dressed for the occasion in pink kilt and a beige knockoff of the outsized furballs worn by the guards at Buckingham Palace.) Unlike anything else in the cycle, Cremaster 3has a truly lunatic quality. What's more, it's edited.

Unelected and unplugged: Dubya with Pelosi in Journeys with George
photo: HBO films
Unelected and unplugged: Dubya with Pelosi in Journeys with George

Details

Journeys With George
Written and directed by Alexandra Pelosi
Opens March 14, at the Quad

The Cremaster Cycle
Written and directed by Matthew Barney
Through June 11, at the Guggenheim

Platform
Written and directed by Jia Zhangke
Opens March 14, at Cinema Village

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One of the richest films of the past decade, Jia Zhangke's Platform finally gets a theatrical run. Jia's three-hour epic spans the 1980s, filtering the period through the mutation of the propaganda-performing Fenyang Peasant Culture Group into the equally cheesy All Star Rock and Breakdance Electronic Band. Jia, whose brilliant follow-up, Unknown Pleasures, opens later in the month, has a strong visual style (based on long fixed-camera ensemble takes) and a powerful set of concerns (the spiritual confusion of contemporary China, caught between the outmoded materialism of the Maoist era and its market-driven successor). Elliptical yet concrete, Platform is a laconic tale of lackadaisical love and even more haphazard entertainment, as played out in a series of unheated factory halls and outdoor courtyards.

The environment is at once prison-like and vast; with its objective viewpoint and lovingly bleak locations, Platform looks like a documentary, but it's Pop Art as history. Perhaps influenced by Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Puppetmaster, Jia finds subtle ways to transform the world into a stage. The play of the proscenium against the filmmaker's taste for unmediated reality is fascinating. The penultimate image, held long enough for the full weight of quotidian despair to infect the audience, epitomizes the odyssey from kindergarten collectivity to failed privatization.


Related Article:
"Cultural Evolution: Jia Zhangke's Lost Highways" by Dennis Lim

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