Cults of Personality


The third (and best) installment of Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster Cycle” begins with a koan that’s (mis)attributed to football coach Vince Lombardi: “Will is character in action.” If that’s the case, then Barney’s current Guggenheim blockbuster might be subtitled Triumph of the Will—and so too Alexandra Pelosi’s deeply depressing campaign portrait of our unelected president, Journeys With George.

Pelosi’s self-described home movie, shown last fall on HBO and amply covered in the media even before its telecast, opens theatrically at the very moment George W. Bush’s will is about to be unleashed upon the world. Americans, who tend to confuse “character” with “personality,” may be comforted to see our maximum leader relaxed, an affable—even likable—joker who’s unafraid to pull funny faces, talk with his mouth full, or trot out a bit of the old rah-rah-sis-boom-bah. The least one can say is that Bush II can limbo beneath the bar of pork-rinds populism against which his more openly patrician pop smacked his head. The younger Bush doesn’t come across as stupid so much as sly. Indeed, the spectacle of Dubya unplugged shows a politician whose contempt for his constituents (or should we say his audience?) might well be boundless.

A former NBC producer and the youngest daughter of Democratic congressional leader Nancy Pelosi, the filmmaker is a scion of a lesser political dynasty and something of an extroverted wiseacre herself. As the junior member of the campaign press entourage, she happily plays class clown, and Bush cannily responds in kind. (“I’ve always liked your stylishness,” he tells her.) Pelosi narrates the movie, but the candidate—who supplies the title—is de facto producer. Bush takes over the show at will, whether teasing Pelosi by involving himself in her crush on another reporter or freezing her out when she asks him about the record number of executions he presided over in Texas. Having made his point, Bush allows Pelosi ample face time—mostly peering drolly into her wide-angle lens.

Co-opted even by the standards of its genre, Journeys With George neither goes backstage, as D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus did with Bill Clinton, George Stephanopoulos, and James Carville in The War Room, nor deconstructs the candidate’s image, as Kevin Rafferty and Voice columnist James Ridgeway did with the 1992 Democratic field in Feed, to mention two documentaries that emerged the last time a Bush ran for president. Pelosi’s 30th birthday party—for which, as she notes with evident irritation, she receives four cakes from the Bush campaign and none from her employer NBC—has more narrative weight than any particular issue. Indeed, the movie barely glances at the Republican convention (boring) and the Bush-Gore debates (boring, boring) and not at all at the post-election coup (get over it, you sticklers for democracy).

Reality TV writ small, Journeys With George is all camcorder, all the time. Personality trumps perspective. The movie is virtually without context—journalistic or historical. What’s worse is that Pelosi knows it. If she has a point, it’s that America got the president it deserved—thanks largely to the media. Although largely devoid of dramatic interest, Journeys With George does convincingly document the horror of life within the campaign “bubble”—the pointless 2 a.m. rallies, the grueling sameness, the disgusting road food, the enforced intimacy with rival journalists, the pathetic dependency on the candidate they are covering.

The revelation of Bush’s old drunk-driving arrest notwithstanding, the real “feeding frenzy” is the press’s daily scramble for the baloney-and-cheese sandwich that someone cleverly explicates as a metaphor for the Republican campaign. Indeed, chow time might be the movie’s ruling metaphor. Pelosi surely didn’t vote for him, but Bush was—and is—her meal ticket just the same.

The artist-impresario Matthew Barney is also a filmmaker, albeit in a special sense. His movies exist less for their own sake than to provide content—in the form of clips, production stills, and props—for his epic installations.

The afternoon I saw Barney’s phenomenally well-received Guggenheim show, museumgoers seemed to spend less time inspecting the artist’s artifacts than watching the video monitors generously scattered throughout the Guggenheim. This fascination with the moving image is striking in view of the sparsely attended press screenings of the filmed “Cremaster Cycle”—which the Guggenheim is also showing in its entirety. (It will be repeated later this spring at Film Forum.) But then one scarcely staggers from this six-and-a-half-hour magnum opus inclined to proclaim the second coming of David Lynch—or even Julian Schnabel.

For the most part, cine-Barney works best at music-video length. Extravagantly alternating between chorine formations on a blue football field and mildly kinky posturing supposedly filmed in a deco dirigible cruising above, the 40-minute Cremaster 1 (1995) is a glib homage to Busby Berkeley and the moon-shuttle scenes from 2001. The narcotized self-satisfaction of this piece is, however, preferable to the narrative Cremaster 2 (1999), which, twice as long, features actors—including the artist himself as Gary Gilmore writhing in his car for many long minutes before robbing a gas station that might have been designed by Ed Ruscha. Other attractions include Norman Mailer, a simulation of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and Barney riding a steer in slow motion.

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 3 has a truly lunatic quality. What’s more, it’s edited.

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

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 11, 2003

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