Cremaster 2 Synopsis
Cremaster 2 (79 min, 1999) was the first project Barney shot on HDTV (all of the Cremaster “films” are shot on video and then transferred to 35mm film for theatrical projection). The film cost about 1.7 million dollars to produce. An enormous amount of footage was shot -- estimates range from 17 to 30 minutes of tape for every minute used in the final edit (Hollywood films usually shoot at a ratio of 12:1).
The story of Cremaster 2 is loosely based on the life of Gary Gilmore (played in the film by Barney). Gilmore, born a Mormon, was sentanced to death for killing two men in Utah (a gas station attendant and a motel clerk) while on parole from a 12-year armed robbery sentance. Gilmore’s execution was the first in the US in a decade and attracted a lot of attention in the media. He did not appeal his death sentance, choosing instead to face execution by firing squad. Gilmore’s execution was a public relations nightmare for the Mormon Church: although both men he killed were Mormons, by choosing to make a “blood atonement” for his crimes Gilmore was absolved of his sin and entitled to all of the benefits of his Mormon baptism. Barney says he was drawn to Gilmore’s story because it, “was like a version of the whole ‘Cremaster’ dilemma, of a character in conflict with his destiny.” Gilmore’s story was the subject of Norman Mailer’s book The Executioner’s Song (Mailer, himself, appears in the film acting the role of escape artist Harry Houdini), parts of which form the foundation of Cremaster 2.
Within the Cremaster Cycle, Cremaster 2 represents the next first stirrings of gender difference. The idea of conflict between the sexes is explored using the metaphor of the queen bee and her drones (the beehive is also a symbol of Mormonism, signifying the importance of the collective over the individual, and appears on the Utah state flag). Another important motif in Cremaster 2 is the two-step. The dance is used as a metaphor for doubling back, Gilmore moving back through his own conception to Houdini’s metamorphosis.
Cremaster 2 is the only episode with substantial spoken dialog (much of which was apparently added by Barney to make the film more comprehensible). The lyrics to the songs in the film are taken from letters written between Gary Gilmore and his girlfriend Nicole Baker while he was in prison awaiting execution.
Cremaster 2 opens with a close-up of a saddle which has been covered in squares of mirror like a disco ball (the saddle, which makes several apperances in the film, was based on one that Barney saw hanging above the bar at Denim and Diamonds -- a line-dancing club in midtown Manhattan). Beacause of the extreme close-up, the saddle at first appears to be a mountainous landscape. The saddle is filmed upside down with the stirrups pointing upwards, which makes it resemble a reproductive system. Next, Barney presents a number of landscape shots filmed in the Bonneville Salt Flats and the Columbia Ice Field. In prehistoric times, the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah were covered by a lake whose source lay in the present-day Columbia Ice Fields in Canada -- the glacier that formed during the ice age is now performing a “two-step” and melting backwards towards Canada. After several minutes of landscape shots, bees fly towards the camera and the “C2” logo appears dripping with blood.
The story begins with a seance held between Baby Fay La Foe (Gilmore’s grandmother), her son Frank, and Frank’s wife Bessie (Gilmore’s parents). They are trying to raise the spirit of Houdini (the real-life Baby Fay La Foe was Gary Gilmore’s grandmother, a mystic who claimed to have had an affair with Houdini -- if this is true, Houdini would be Gilmore’s father). The room features a hexagonal beehive motif. The three figures wear stiff corsets (wasp waist) and sit at a bizarre table. The tabletop is split in two with a hoop attached a few inched below. The chairs have hexagonal seats and curved backs that fit into the Gilmores’ corseted waists. The corsets to signify the high level of control that is exercised in the Gilmore family.
During the seance, it appears at times that Baby Fay is alone with Frank or Bessie, sometimes in a different room containing an enormous beehive. They perform a series of strange rituals including running a white hook along the hoop under the table and Frank rubbing polen (a stalactite of which grows under the table during the seance) on Bessie’s leg. While she is alone with Bessie, Fay places her toes on a silver bell and lifts the table with her knee. The motion of the table (and the design of its legs) mimic sexual intercourse.
The seance represents the sexual union of Frank and Bessie and the conception of Gary Gilmore. The seance is intercut with close-ups of Frank copulating with Bessie (who is wearing a clear corset) and scenes of Houdini’s metamorphosis at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 (the “Chicago World’s Fair”, here imagined in the Columbia Ice Fields) . At the moment of sexual climax, Frank withdraws from Bessie and we see that the head of his penis resembles a behive. A bee flies out of his penis, symbolizing the conception of Gary Gilmore and the death of Frank (since drones die after maiting). Barney uses this scene to show that Gary has been born a drone and destined to follow his father’s path.
Following Gary Gilmore’s conception, the film cuts to a recording studio where Dave Lombardo, drummer for the speed-metal band Slayer, plays a frenetic drum solo accompanied by the buzzing sound of a swarm of bees. A behive in the shape of the Cremaster field emblem is built into one wall of the studio. A man wearing a Raiders football jersey (with the voice of Steve Tucker, lead vocalist of the metal band Morbid Angel), growls into a telephone while covered in bees. The dark tone of this scene fortells the violence about to occur and the buzz of the bees serves to identify Gary Gilmore’s role as a drone. This scene also alludes to Gary Gilmore’s wish (supposedly granted) to speak with country singer Johnny Cash on the telephone on the eve of his execution. The band is listed in the credits as “Johnny Cash” and, like Cash, wear all black. Preparatory sketches indicate that Barney had originally intended for Rick Rubin, the man who produced Cash’s final records and has a somewhat foreboding appearance, to play the role of the man on the telephone.
The film moves to a Sinclair gas station in Utah at night. Two blue and a white 1966 Ford Mustangs are parked at the gas station facing in opposite directions. These cars are meant to symbolize Gary Gilmore and his girlfriend Nicole Baker (both owned ‘66 Mustangs, and at the time of the murders the couple had just broken up). A gas station attendant named Max Jensen slowly tends to the cars, checking the oil, washing the windows, etc.
The front seats of the cars are connected by a tunnel that resemebles both Goodyear’s coccoon under the tablecloths in Cremaster 1 and the Loughton Candidate’s tunnel in Cremaster 4 (although its hexagonal-shapeis in keeping with the beehive motif of Cremaster 2). The tunnel, like the corsets worn by Gary Gilmore’s ancestors during the seance, symbolizes confinement. Gilmore spent most of his life in jail and never really integrated into society.
Gilmore appears to be trapped inside the cars and looks ill. He picks at the upholstery, finding that it is stuffed wih Vaseline. He bends two pieces of the car interior into loops and connects them with a piece of wire. He attempts to sculpt a mountain range over the wire using Vaseline. However, he can’t get the Vaseline to stay and looks progressively sicker. He changes out of his prison uniform and into jeans and a t-shirt (revealing a tiny, malformed penis) and reaches into the glove compartment for a pistol.
Max Jensen pulls his squeegee over the driver’s side window on Gilmore’s car, and the window slips down a couple of inches. Gilmore leaves the car and forces the attendant into the gas station. He robs the register, then shoots the attendant twice in the head in the bathroom. Jensen collapses in a pool of blood on the tiled floor (a Goodyear logo can be seen through the windows behind Jensen’s dead body).
The film moves to the hall of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (in fact, a 1/8 scale model with a computer-animated choir). The Mormon Tabernacle in many ways resembles a beehive and also is a symbol of the body for Mormons. The gigantic organ that dominates the hall is significant as both an “organ” (ie a vital part of the body) and as an instrument that produces a “drone” (a long sustained tone). This scene represents the judgment of Gary Gilmore. He accepts his death sentence without appeal. This blood atonement will, according to Mormon doctrine, allow Gilmore into Paradise and guaruntee his immortality.
Gilmore’s execution is envisioned in a prison rodeo arena made of salt in the middle of the flooded Bonneville Salt Flats. Four large white beehives crown the arena. The execution begins with a parade of mounted troopers moving in a series of formations, much like the chorus girls in Cremaster 1. The troopers carry ten flags, each representing one of the lost tribes of Israel. There were originally twelve tribes -- the two that were not lost were the tribes of Judah and Joseph. The descendents of Judah became the Jews and the descendents of Joseph became the Mormons. Harry Houdini, born Ehrich Weiss, was a Jew; Gary Gilmore a Mormon.
Gilmore is presented with an ornate belt buckle (marked with the dates 1893 and 1977, the years of the Columbian Exposition and Gilmore’s execution, respectively) and is escorted to the arena. He wears a suit of prison stripes, a cowboy hat, and chaps. He is mounted on a Brahma bull and wraps the reins around his hand (the walls of the bull’s corridor have a beehive pattern). The bull bucks viciously, but Gilmore remains astride. Then the bull slows and collapses -- both Gilmore and the bull are dead (a fake bull with a pump inside to simulate breathing was used to film this scene). During the death scene, the film cuts back to Houdini being shut into a hexagonal case by Canadian mounties at the Columbian Exposition. Houdini is locked into a hexagonal chest by Canadian Mounties. The mounties smear Vaseline on the beehive-shaped ends of the chain that secures the chest. At the Salt Flats, Bison appear and circle around Gilmore’s fallen body, symbolizing Gilmore’s salvation within the Mormon faith.
Music plays, and we see the mirrored saddle again. Two dancers perform the Texas two step iside a room with beehive patterns embossed on it’s metallic walls. The shape of the room is based on a drawing of the universe made by Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. The film then doubles back (two-steps) from the Bonneville Salt Flats to its source, the Columbia Ice Fields; from Gilmore’s execution to Houdini’s exposition. Everyone has left the exhibition hall except for Houdini, who is wrapping things up amidst melting ice sculptures (another symbol of metamorphosis). Baby Fay La Foe makes her way through displays of taxidermied animals and surprisingly modern-looking snow mobiles.
Fay finds Hodini and announces herself as the Queen. She asks if he wants to transcend his place in the hive and experience true metamorphosis. He informs her that with every escape he goes through a metamorphosis, becoming one with the locks that hold him. The Queen is worried by one of Houdini’s tricks where he would “change gender” by switching places with his wife Bess while shackled inside a cage. She is worries that by transforming into a female Houdini could transcend his position as a drone and attempt to usurp her power. If she can seduce him, she can neutralize his threat. She takes his hand, dropping her pug dog, who runs out of the hall.
Houdini has accepted the Queen’s invitation, but the viewer is left not knowing what, other than the eventual birth of Gary Gilmore, will be the result of their union. The film closes with landscapes shots of the Columbia Ice Fields, eventually moving down a deep crevice. The mirrored saddle appears one last time and the credits roll. The film ends, but Gary Gilmore will return in Cremaster 3.