Cremaster 3 Synopsis
Cremaster 3 (182 min, 2002) was the last film in the cycle to be completed and is the longest film in the series. As the midpoint between the two reflected halves of the Cremaster Cycle, the main themes of Cremaster 3 are Narcissism and hubris. The Architecht, the Apprentice, the Novitiate, and the Chrysler Building can all be seen as “reflections” of one another. In keeping with the Narcissitic theme, Cremaster 3 directly references all five films in the cycle in a number of scenes: the demolition derby (each car represents a different film), the harness race (each team wears silks bearing the logo of a different installment), the Order (each level of the Guggenheim Museum presents a challenge related to a different Cremaster film), and the closing scene atop the Chrysler Building (the Architecht holds five bouquets, whose flowers symbolically refer to the five films).
The bulk of Cremaster 3 is set in New York during the construction of the Chrysler Building in 1930. At the time, the Chrysler Building and the Bank of Manhattan Building were both vying to be the world’s tallest skyscraper. The Bank of Manhattan Builiding was designed to be 927 feet hign - two feet taller than the Chrysler Building. Shortly before its completion, a secret 18-foot Nirosta steel spire was raised atop the Chrysler Building, making it the taller building. Much of the labor used in the construction of the Chrysler Building was provided by Irish Laborers, many of whom were also Masons. Organized crime (the “Syndicate”) was heavily involved in New York City’s construction industry.
Barney intertwines the story of the erection of the Chrylser Building with Masonic lore and rituals. Candidates for Masonic initiation must pass through three degrees: Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft, and Master Mason. At the culmination of Masonic initiation, Masons reenact the murder, burial, and resurrection of Hiram Abiff, the Biblical architect of the Temple of Solomon. Abiff constructed two massive brass pillars at the entrance of the temple and was thought to be the keeper of cosmic secrets. According to Masonic legend, Abiff was killed by three apprentice stonemasons who were trying to get him to divulge the secret name of God. When he refused to tell them, they killed him with a blow to the forehead from a maul (a club-like masonry tool). When Abiff’s body was discovered, King Solomon embraced him with the grip of the Master Mason, bringing him back to life. Revived, Abiff whispered the words “Maha byn” in King Solomon’s ear, a phrase now used by the Masons to symbolize the divine knowledge lost with Abiff’s death.
Irish symbolism is present throughout Cremaster 3. The film begins and ends in Ireland, and Barney’s character (and the artist, himself) are of Irish descent. The Cloud Club is modeled on a traditional Irish pub and the bar is eventually thrown out of allignment by wedges cut from potatoes, a vegetable closely identified with Ireland. The lyrics to the film’s score (which narrate the construction of the Chrysler Building) are sung in Gaelic by Irish tenor Paul Brady. The dominant colors of the film are orange and green, the colors of the Irish flag. Moreover, the symbolism of the Irish flag -- green for the Catholics, orange for the Protestants, and white for peace between the two -- directly relates to the Cremaster Cycle’s exploration of the potential for equlibrium between two opposing forces.
The film begins with a prologue recounting the Celtic legend of Fionn and Fingal. The setting is two coasts flanking the Irish Sea -- Fingal’s Scottish cave on one side and the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland on the other. The unusual geology of the area - the coast is made up of large polyhedral columns of rock (generally either hexagonal, echoing the beehive motif of Cremaster 2, or pentagonal, the dominant shape of Cremaster 3) - is explained by the legend Barney depicts. Fionn carries large rocks to sea, building the Giant’s Gauseway so Fingal can cross the water to Ireland for a fight. However, as Fingal approaches, his footsteps shake the ground, making it clear that he is much larger than Fionn. Fionn’s wife Oonagh suggests that he disguise himself as a baby to hide from the Fingal. Fionn bakes loaves of bread with white plastic wedges inside (in the original legend he uses cast iron skillets) and lies in wait for Fingal.
The film then moves to 1930 New York, deep underneath the Chrysler Building (whose construction is in progress). A female corpse (shot in the heart four times like Gary Gilmore) slowly digs her way upwards through a goat burial ground. The corpse is, in fact, the reincarnation of Gary Gilmore. The corpse’s presence indicates that Gilmore successfully entered the sphere of Houdini at the end of Cremaster 2 and transformed into a female. The corpse is led up a series of staircases by five boy undertakers, eventually emerging in the lobby of the Chrysler Building. The corpse is deposited in the back seat of a 1938 Chrysler Imperial New Yorker parked in the lobby (the Imperial New Yorker was introduced in 1930 - the same year as the "birth" of the Chrysler building - and was one of Chrysler’s most deluxe models).
While this is going on, we see the Entered Apprentice (Matthew Barney) trowelling cement over Nirosta steel gas caps mounted on the rear ends of five 1967 Chrysler Crown Imperials. The Crown Imperials are each marked with the insignia of a different Cremaster episode and are painted in the dominant color of the episode. The cars refer to Barney’s own biography: both the 1967 cars and the Imperial New Yorker holding the corpse were part of Chrysler’s Imperial line; 1938 is the year of Matthew Barney’s father’s birth and Barney was born in 1967. The Imperials (generally prohibited from demolition derbies, having superior engines and chassis to most other automobiles) circle around the older car and begin to ram into it with their cement-encrusted gas caps.
While the cars bash one anoter, the Entered Apprentice sneaks away and starts to climb one of the building’s elevator shafts. When he reaches an elevator stopped between floors, he enters the car and lights a cigarette to trigger the sprinkler system. As the elevator fills with water, he begins to pour cement, using the elevator car as a mold to cast a perfect ashlar (an ashlar is a symmetrically-hewn stone often used in ceremonial architecture and a symbol of moral and physical rectitude in First Degree Masonic intiation). By casting the ashlar rather than carving it, the Entered Apprentice is cheating on his initiation rites - he has laid a false foundation for the development of his character (and by extension, the construction of the building).
Three members of the Syndicate (whose aprons indicate that they are Master Masons) meet in the Cloud Club bar on the Chrysler Building’s 66th floor to discuss the Apprentice’s punishment. The Cloud Club resembles a traditional Irish pub, but with Art Deco flourishes inspired by the Chrysler Building. Part of the bar is made from frozen Vaseline, and the bar stools are pentagons (the shape of the Chrysler logo) supported by compasses (a Masonic symbol). The floor is carpeted in Green and Orange (the colors of the Irish flag and Cremaster 3’s predominant color scheme). Two Cremaster field emblems are embroidered in the carpet: one filled with the symbolic Masonic tools, the other with a Celtic harp.
In a room beside the bar, a woman (played by paraplegic athlete/model Aimee Mullins, who also played Oonaugh in the prelude) cuts potatoes (another symbol of Ireland) with blades on the soles of her shoes (the blades resemble the funnel on Goodyear’s shoe in Cremaster 1). The woman cuts the potatoes into wedges, and then reaches through an opening in the wall to insert the wedges under the bar.
Meanwhile, the Entered Apprentice has poured so much concrete into the elevator car that it falls to the bottom of the shaft. The Apprentice continues his climb and exits the elevator shaft into the Cloud Club, where he is met by the Maitre d’ (played by Irish tenor Paul Brady). The two men form a harp out of the elevator cables and make a wind organ by wedging the elevator doors open. The Maitre d’ then “plays” the building, singing a song in Gaelic. While he is singing, we see external scenes of the Chrysler Building under construction and the Apprentice slips past the Masons into the bar area.
At the bar, the Apprentice shakes the barman’s hand with his dirty work glove. The barman looks at his own glove (now soiled), removes it, and pulls on an identical clean glove. The Apprentice orders a pint of Guinness, and a slapstick routine ensues (one of the few moments of humor in the Cremaster Cycle). The bartender drops glasses, sprays beer everywhere, and ends up playing the tap system like a bagpipe. It becomes evident that his mishaps are being caused by the potato wedges, which by now have thrown the bar (and by extension the entire Chrysler Building) out of alignment. The instability of the building is noticed by the three Master Masons, who measure the extent of the shift using a plumb line and level (two of the symbolic Masonic tools). Barney says he also sees the bar as a gigantic level, with the Bartender as the plumb.
At this point, the film abruptly shifts to Saratoga Springs, New York. This upstate location was a popular getaway for members of the Syndicate when they needed to hide out from the authorities. The Apprentice and his moll (also played by Aimee Mullins) are at the Saratoga racetrack watching a harness race. Five teams are competing, each wearing satin jackets with the logo for a different Cremaster episode embroidered on the back. When the camera comes in close to the horses, ithe viewer sees that they are all putrefying zombies. The Cremaster 5 horse is the first to cross the finish line, but the team is disqualified for performing a foul on the Cremaster 1 team. The Cremaster 3 team is declared the winner and crowned with a blanket of narcissus flowers in the shape of the field emblem.
When he sees that the horses are all zombies, the Apprentice begins to run but is intercepted by three hitmen from the Syndicate (referencing the three masons who killed Hiram Abiff). They join two mason’s trowels into a bridle-like configuration and insert them into the Apprentice’s mouth. Then they smash the his mouth into a railing, destroying his teeth.
The film then cuts back to the Cloud Club. Although it appears that no time has passed during the Saratoga interlude, the Apprentice’s mouth is now bleeding. The three Master Masons and other Syndicate members escort the Apprentice out of the Cloud Club and up to a dental office on the 71st floor. The Apprentice is stripped of his work clothes and we see that underneath his clothing he wears the costume of a First Degree Masonic initiate. He also has a small fleshy apron hanging from his abdomen (echoing the mason’s apron he was previously wearing). The hit men place the Apprentice in a dental chair and one of them raises apron of flesh, revealing that instead of a penis the Apprentice has genitals that resemble a splash or sea anemone. One of the hit men melts a sheet of white plastic and pulls it tightly over the Apprentice’s face, leaving only a hole for the Apprentice’s bloody, damaged mouth.
The film then moves one flight up from the dental office to the office of the Chief Architect (played by artist Richard Serra). The Architect’s office is the nerve center of the Chrysler Building. We see him studying drawings and models of the building as it is being erected around him. He descends to the dental office carrying the remains of the 1930 Chrysler Imperial New Yorker (which has been compressed by the Crown Imperials into a fist-sized lump). In the dental office, the Architect fits the crushed car into the Apprentice’s mouth. At the moment the teeth are inserted, the Apprentice’s intestines prolapse through his rectum.
The Architect returns to his office and begins to construct two columns (referencing the columns Hiram Abiff built at the entrance to the Temple of Solomon) out of flat black plates which he stacks using a chain hoist. One column is made of pentagram-shaped plates, the other is built out of plates in the shape of a half-field emblem.
While the Architect is building his pillars, a thick goo begins to drip out of the Apprentice’s distended rectum and down a trough molded into the dental chair. The fluid (conaining shards of the Apprentice’s teeth) falls into a tray beneath the chair and solidifies into a porcelain rod. The apron of flesh on the Apprentice’s stomach lengthens, symbolizing his passage from Entered Apprentice to the final degree of Masonic initiation: Master Mason. He removes the molded plastic from his face and rises from the dental chair. He leaps up and climbs through an opening in the ceiling towards the Architect above..
Meanwhile, the Architect has built his columns nearly to the ceiling of his office. He climbs one column (mirroring the Apprentice’s climbs) and ascends through a skylight into a room directly underneath the building’s spire.
In external shots, green and orange ribbons are shown flowing from the spire of the Chrysler Building. Workmen throw the ribbons from window to window, weaving them around the building like a maypole dance. The ribbons are then passed up through the building into the room where the Architect is. The Architect is shown wearing a Masonic apron and holding five bouquet of flowers representing the five Cremaster films (white orchid, Rocky Mountain sage, narcissus, Irish gorse, and calla lily, respectively). The Syndicate killers attach the ribbons to hooks above the Architect’s head. Like the spire, the Architecht his encircled with a web of ribbons, showing that he and his building have become one - this is his moment of crowning achievement.
At this point, the film breaks into a choric interlude called “The Order”. This interlude was filmed in the Guggenheim Museum in New York City and is structured as a game in which the Entered Apprentice must scale the Guggenheim and compete in five “levels”: one for each film in the series. The architecture of the Guggenheim is similar to that of a beehive, which is an important symbol for Masons, as well as the Mormons of Cremaster 2 (Joseph Smith, one of the founders of the Mormon church, was also a Mason). The Apprentice’s fleshy apron has now turned into a pink tartan kilt and he wears a furry orange hat, but his mouth is still bloody (he has stuffed a cloth into it to stop the bleeding).
The floor of the Guggenheim is covered in blue Astroturf like the playing field in Cremaster 1. The Apprentice’s five opponents appear in turn on a stage on the Guggenheim’s floor. Level One is represented by the Order of the Rainbow for Girls. These are the chorus girls from Cremaster 1, now wearing lamb costumes (the lamb is a symbol of the Masonic First Degree, representing innocence and purity) and white tap dancing taps similar to those worn by the Loughton Candidate in Cremaster 4. The Level Two opponents are members of the hardcore bands Agnostic Front and Murphy’s Law (preparatory sketches indicate Barney originally wanted to use Boston Hardcore band SSD instead of Murphy’s Law, which would have added an additional layer of meaning due to the rivalry between the New York and Boston hardcore scenes), referencing the death metal band appearing in Cremaster 2. For Level Three, we are presented once again with Aimee Mullins, this time in a white dress and transparent crystal legs. In “The Order” she is known as the “Entered Novitiate” and represents the Third Degree of Freemasonry. She can also be seen as an alter-ego of the Apprentice. The Level Four opponent is a large abstracted bagpipe made out of a Loughton Ram. Finally, for Level Five, we see Richard Serra. In “The Order”, Serra appears as himself, not Hiram Abiff. He hurls molten Vaseline against the Guggenheim’s ramp (one of Serra’s famous art projects involved throwing molten lead against a wall) providing the timer for the game. The Apprentice must beat the challenges of each level before the liquid Vaseline flow reaches the bottom of the ramp. Serra’s macho performance also alludes to Cremaster 5 -- the episode when maleness is fully achieved.
The Apprentice begins climbing the walls of the Guggenheim. On Level One he crawls through a tunnel formed by the legs of the chorus girls and is presented with a lamb, which he wears around his waist. On Level Two, the Apprentice must solve a puzzle built into the floor underneath the feet of moshing punks while the bands perform on stages made of salt (referencing the arena in the Salt Flats where Gary Gilmore was executed in Cremaster 2). The puzzle, which involves fitting square plates together to form a cross and then a perfect cube, represents learning Fellowcraft, the Masonic Second Degree. After solving the puzzle, the Apprentice climbs past Level Three to Level Four. On Level Four he must throw five plastic bagpipe pipes into the Loughton Ram to complete the instrument in imitation of the traditional Scottish game of caber toss. The Apprentice must lodge five pipes in the bagpipe, representing the five points of Masonic fellowship. After many unsuccessful tries he eventually inserts the final pipe and returns to Level Three. On Level Three, the Apprentice is blinded by the beauty of the Novitiate (again, the theme of Narcissism). They give each other the Masonic embrace and the Novitiate whispers “Maha byn” (the words spoken by the revived Hiram Abiff) into the Apprentice’s ear. At this moment, the Novitiate transforms into a cheetah-woman and attacks the Apprentice. They wrestle around the Guggenheim, but he eventually kills her with blows to the head from three different Masonic tools. Having killed his double, the Apprentice has achieved the level of Master Mason.
During the battle between the Apprentice and the cheetah, the film starts to cut back between “the Order” and the Architect atop the Chrysler Building. He is basking in the glory of his accomplishment, not knowing that the Apprentice has escaped from the dental office and is climbing towards him. At the moment the Apprentice kills the cheetah in the Guggenheim, he also deals a fatal blow to the Architect’s forehead in the Chrysler Building. However, as he kills the architect, the Chrysler Building thrusts the base of it’s spire through his head killing the Apprentice as well. These murders represent the simultaneous slaying of father, son, and self; and illustrate the cyclical structure of the Cremaster series.
Cremaster 3 ends with a coda that returns to the Celtic myth that opened the film and connects it to Cremaster 4. Fingal has completed the crossing of the Giant’s Causeway and approaches Fionn’s hut. Entering the hut, he sees an enormous baby (the disguised Fionn) nibbling on a loaf of bread. Fingal is worried -- if this is the baby, how large must it’s father be? While he is thinking this over, he helps himself to a loaf of bread. Biting into the bread, he breaks his teeth on the plastic wedge baked inside (much like the Apprentice’s broken teeth). While Fingal is distracted by the pain of his teeth, Fionn reaches up and bites off his magic brass finger, the source of his power. Fingal flees over the Causeway back to Scotland, destroying the bridge with his heavy foosteps as he runs. Fionn throws a stone at Fingal, but the stone misses its mark. Instead, it falls into the ocean forming a new land mass: the Isle of Man, setting for Cremaster 4.