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But is it a good movie?

By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  November 11, 2010

I like C2 even more than the Cycle's showstopper and most recently-filmed episode, the three-hour Cremaster 3 (2002). That said, if you only have time for one of these films, make it this opus. The first half, largely set in New York's Chrysler Building, mostly consists of: five pastel-colored vintage cars reducing a hearse to a pile of dust in the building's lobby; a well-dressed Barney climbing the building's elevator shaft; a prolonged vaudeville routine involving a bartender failing to pour Barney a beer into a field emblem-shaped glass; and art-world icon Richard Serra making mischief (torturing Barney in a harrowing bit of dentistry, which introduces us to Barney's curious phallus); and a steel sculpture atop the building. Individually, it's all gripping and fluidly shot, and gorgeously tied together by Barney's innovative use of diegetic sound: open elevator shafts producing wind; metal wires played as a harp; the entire bar as bagpipe; a cat activating a Theremin.

The more-infamous second half of Cremaster 3 doesn't quite maintain the momentum of all of the beginning's parallel action, but it's essentially a lavishly-costumed episode of American Gladiators with musical breaks by Agnostic Front and Murphy's Law set in the Guggenheim above a bath of naked women, so it's also pretty entertaining.

After all that, it's a bit jarring to return to Early Barney, as the first completed episode of the Cycle, Cremaster 4 (1994), obviously is. Back are the garish colors, sloppy cuts, and relatively simplistic juxtapositions, not to mention the monotonous action of two cars racing through some highlands. But, there are a couple buts. Playing "the Satyr" (sort of a morose goat-boy with saggy flesh), Barney, after tap-dancing a hole through a pier and falling into deep water, spends many minutes navigating through a tunnel of (again) Vaseline/semen, a sequence that becomes fascinatingly grotesque and squirmish as the tunnel gets narrower and knobbier. And the episode's end, which I won't deign to spoil, is an effectively gruesome sick joke. Just remember, as my companion told me: "It's all about balls." It makes the whole piece a lot more engaging.

As for the grand finale, 1999's Cremaster 5, it is a literally operatic climax, but a vaguely anticlimactic one. Filmed in Budapest, mostly in the city's Hungarian State Opera House, this final stage of Barney's descent is as opulent and visually ravishing as C2 and C3 but about as redundant as C1 and C4. Barney's final feat of strength (here as "the Diva") is to scale the arch that frames the stage; meanwhile, the singer Ursula Andress, the Queen of Chains, sings from an opera box, and a magician (Barney again), bound in Vaseline/semen-molded chains, prepares to plummet into a river. C5 suffers mostly from hubris; it feels final in its intent, but the film's purpose and intentional inconclusiveness is hard to decipher. That said, the Jacobin pigeons are a great touch.

You may be asking which part of The Cremaster Cycle you should see, and the best answer is, "All of it, and all in one day." (That'd be Sunday, November 21.) It's difficult to imagine anyone (of a somewhat stern constitution) watching the best segments of the cycle and not being interested in how the rest pans out. And, however vaguely dissatisfying some of the lesser pieces are, every one of Barney's visions is unlike anything you've seen. (As an added bonus, the worst films are also the shortest, and the most gooey.)

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