The project is filled with anatomical allusions to the position of the reproductive organs during the embryonic process of sexual differentiation: Cremaster 1 represents the most "ascended" or undifferentiated state, Cremaster 5 the most "descended" or differentiated.
The cycle repeatedly returns to those moments during early sexual development in which the outcome of the process is still unknown—in Barney's metaphoric universe, these moments represent a condition of pure potentiality. As the cycle evolved over eight years, Barney looked beyond biology as a way to explore the creation of form, employing narrative models from other realms, such as biography, mythology, and geology.
The full series was released in a limited series of 20 sets of DVDs, sold each for at least $100,000, and will not be made available on mass-market DVD. However a 30-minute part of the third film is available on DVD.
A musical revue performed on the blue astroturf playing field of Bronco Stadium in Boise, Idaho, Barney's hometown. Two Goodyear blimps float above the field while four air hostesses tend to each blimp. In the middle of each cabin interior sits a white-clothed table, its top decorated with an abstract centerpiece sculpted from petroleum jelly and surrounded by large clusters of grapes. In one blimp the grapes are green; in the other they are red. Under both tables resides a character known only as ‘Goodyear’ (played by Marti Domination) who apparently inhabits both blimps simultaneously. After prying an opening in the tablecloth(s) above her head, she transfers grapes under the table and uses the grapes to create shapes which are mirrored by the dancers on the field below. The camera switches back and forth between Goodyear's designs and aerial views of the chorus girls moving into formation: their designs shift from parallel lines to the figure of a barbell, from a large circle to an outline of splitting and multiplying cells, and from a horizontally divided field emblem (Barney's signature motif) to a rendering of an undifferentiated reproductive system (which marks the first six weeks of fetal development). Gliding in time to the musical score, the chorus girls delineate the contours of a still-androgynous gonadal structure, which echoes the shapes of the two blimps overhead, and symbolizes a state of pure potential.
The film is rendered as a gothic western that introduces conflict into the system. Moving from 1977, the year of Gary Gilmore's execution, to 1893, when Harry Houdini—who may have been Gilmore's grandfather—performed at the World's Columbian Exposition. The film is structured around three interrelated themes—the landscape as witness, the story of Gilmore (played by Barney), and the life of bees—that metaphorically describe the potential of moving backward in order to escape one's destiny. Gilmore’s relationship to Houdini and his connection to the male bee are established during a séance to channel Houdini’s spirit. Gilmore's self sense of doom is expressed in a sequence in a recording studio where Dave Lombardo, former drummer of Slayer, plays a drum solo while the sound of bees hums in the background and Steve Tucker, of Morbid Angel, sings into a telephone handset while covered in the insects. These figures are meant to allude to Johnny Cash, who is said to have called Gilmore on the night of his execution in response to the convict's dying wish. Intercut with this sequence are images of a man and a woman copulating behind curtains made of honeycomb.
Barney next represents Gilmore’s relationship with his girlfriend, Nicole Baker, through two conjoined cars; blue and the white 1966 Ford Mustangs that they, coincidentally, both owned. In a murder sequence, Gilmore shoots a Mormon gas station attendant in the back of the head setting in motion a trial where Gilmore is sentenced to death by firing squad. His execution is staged as a prison rodeo in a cast-salt arena in the middle of the flooded Bonneville Salt Flats. Gilmore is lowered onto a bull and rides to his death.
Gilmore's metaphoric transportation back to the turn of the century is rendered in a dance sequence featuring the Texas two-step. The film ends in the Columbian Exposition Hall where Houdini is seduced by Gilmore's grandmother Baby Fay La Foe, an act that sets in motion the circular narrative of Cremaster 2.
The narrative begins as a female corpse (meant to be Gary Gilmore from Cremaster 2) digs her way from under the foundation of the building. Somewhere inside the building, five pallbearers place her into the back of a Chrysler Imperial New Yorker, which five 1967 Chrysler Crown Imperials are aimed at. The Apprentice climbs through one of the building’s elevator shafts to find a car whose cabin he will use as a mold to cast the perfect ‘ashlar’ (a symmetrically hewn stone that symbolizes moral rectitude in Masonic ritual). Meanwhile, the five Chrysler Crown Imperials pummel and ultimately destroy the Imperial New Yorker containing Gilmore in a dramatic demolition derby, which was later reprised in a Cadillac advertisement. By using a mold for the ashlar rather than carving it, the Apprentice has thus cheated in his rites of passage and has sabotaged the construction of the building.
The Apprentice comes to wait for retribution at the Cloud Club bar. In a room adjacent to the bar, a woman (paralympic athlete Aimee Mullins) systematically cuts a large number of potatoes, using blades attached to her shoes, into the shape of a wedge. She uses the wedges to tilt the bar so that it is not level (mirroring the Chrysler Building’s newfound disruption). The bartender, in his efforts to serve the Apprentice, keeps having accidents: breaking shelves, breaking glasses, squirting himself with beer from pressurized kegs, etc. An interlude at a horse track sees the Apprentice getting his teeth violently knocked out by hitmen as punishment for his fraud.
Back in the Cloud Club, he is escorted to a dental office, where he is stripped of his clothes, under which he is wearing the costume of the First Degree Masonic initiate. An apron of flesh obtrudes from his navel, referencing the lambskin aprons worn by Masonic candidates as a symbol for the state of innocence before the Fall. A hot sheet of plastic is molded over his face keeping his mouth open to accept the compressed remains of the Imperial New Yorker like a pair of dentures. At that moment, the Apprentice's intestines prolapse through his rectum. This ceremonial disembowelment symbolically separates him from his lower self. For his hubris he is simultaneously punished and redeemed by the Architect - whose own hubris, however, equally knows no bounds. The architect returns to his office to construct towers (in further reference to the Temple of Solomon) which he uses to climb to the top of the building to which the Apprentice has escaped. The next scene describes an apotheosis, the Architect becoming one with his design, as the tower itself is transformed into a maypole.
The next section of the film is an interlude called “The Order,” in which initiation rites of the Masonic fraternity are rehearsed. This game takes place in the spiraling levels of the Guggenheim Museum. Each level is introduced to the audience by five showgirls each wearing little besides a pearl thong and headdress: the First Degree, a chorus line of girls—dressed as lambs—performing an elaborate dance; the Second Degree, a battle between two punk bands (Agnostic Front and Murphy’s Law); the Third Degree, Aimee Mullins wearing a set of Plexiglas prosthetic legs transforming into a half cheetah/half human hybrid; the Fourth Degree, a set of sculptures which must be fitted together in a certain way; and the Fifth Degree, a man (Richard Serra) throwing melted petroleum jelly against a metal plate. The Apprentice must overcome each obstacle, but only succeeds after reaching the top and working backwards.
In the ensuing scene, which returns to the top of the Chrysler Building, the Architect is murdered by the Apprentice, who is then killed by the tower. Both men have been punished for their hubris and the building will remain unfinished. The film ends with a coda (a continuation to the opening scene of the movie) that links it to Cremaster 4. This is the legend of Fionn mac Cumhail, which describes the formation of the Isle of Man, where the next installment of the Cremaster cycle will take place.
Nancy Spector, Matthew Barney: The Cremaster Cycle, New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2002.