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Knight at the Movies: The Cremaster Cycle; The Tillman Story
by Richard Knight, Jr.
2010-09-01

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Between Matthew Barney's epic, five-part art film The Cremaster Cycle and the epic cover-up that followed the death of football star-turned-soldier Pat Tillman revealed in the riveting documentary The Tillman Story, the display of testosterone in theaters this weekend will be more than a little palpable.

Artist; model; boyfriend of Bjork; and a sexual provocateur with a thing for oral and anal protuberances, biomechanical erotica, confined areas secreted inside gigantic architectural spaces, large breasted women in showgirl drag and sculptures made out of Vaseline-like material, Barney has been the darling of the art world since his arrival on the scene in the early '90s. His appeal to gay men is immediately apparent. In addition to those often sexually tinged artistic proclivities, he's handsome, hunky and often appears in his movies nude or nearly so, with some sort of self-stimulation added to the mix.

The five films that compose The Cremaster Cycle—created between 1994 and 2002 and clocking in at a whopping seven hours—and 2007's hour-long De Lama Lamina ( a collaboration with Brazilian musician Art Lindsay ) include pretty much all of the above. "Cremaster" is the word for the muscle that controls the descent of the testicles and the cycle, taken as a whole, could be interpreted as Barney's artistic exploration of masculinity—or not. Staggering in their metaphorical and visual complexity or numbingly vapidity ( for pretty much the same reasons—depending, one suspects, on the mood of the viewer at any given moment ) , these films are undeniably the work of a unique artistic vision.

The heavy hand of David Lynch, Busby Berkley and the guy that made the late '70s midnight-cult fave Liquid Sky hangs heavy over the first part while Part 2 ( aka "the Gary Gilmore episode" ) features author Norman Mailer, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, two Ford Mustangs parked at a gas station linked by a hive-like blob ( more Vaseline ) , bees and Barney himself engaging in some of that kinky arousal activity.

The real power of Barney's large-scale vision comes to fruition in the third part of the cycle—a mythic, three-hour, two-part film set in New York City ( with stunning location shots from Ireland and Scotland that set up the Celtic mysticism that infuses the film ) . We follow The Entered Apprentice ( Barney again, his skin-tinted pink and sporting a pink tartan kilt ) as he attempts to scale the interior of the Chrysler Building ( while a demolition derby goes on in the lobby ) and the Guggenheim Museum encountering torture and other physical adversities in his attempt.

Part 4, the weakest of the cycle, gives us a motorbike race and Barney as a tap-dancing satyr with a trio of hunky male attendants. Part 5, however, finds Barney back on track, and this film will be nirvana for opera queens. Ursula Andress, gorgeously costumed, is an audience of one for a lavish opera that features Barney, dressed in a harlequin costume, who scales the proscenium arch of a lavish 19th-century opera house in Hungary.

Although your reaction to the individual parts and Barney's artistic excesses will vary ( and be warned, there are some very gross moments sprinkled throughout ) , the contributions of his cinematographer—Peter Strietmann—and especially, his composer, Jonathan Bepler are huge assets. Bepler's score is available separately though—and this is something to note—the distributor of the films has made it clear that, a portion of Cycle 3 aside, none of these films will ever be made available in DVD editions.

The Music Box, 3733 N. Southport, in the year's most courageous film booking ( talk about testosterone ) is playing not only the entire Cremaster Cycle Sept. 3-9 but it's including the Chicago premiere of the aforementioned 2007's De Lama Lamina as well. This features Barney strapped beneath a huge truck engaging in perhaps his most infamous display of biomechanical self-stimulation. ( The film opens with a close up of his flaccid penis becoming erect. ) And yeah—ya gotta see that to believe it. Tickets are $10 for individual films, $24 for the series. See www.musicbox.com for complete screening schedule.

Now we move onto another exercise in bravery—The Tillman Story, the searing, investigative documentary by Amir Bar-Lev. The movie finds the family of the slain war hero going head to head with the Bush regime and not backing down until the relatives got answers about the true nature of his untimely death in Afghanistan.

For reasons that have never been clearly explained, square-jawed, movie star-handsome Pat Tillman turned down a multimillion dollar pro football contract to defend his country after the attacks on 9/11. But whatever the reason, once Tillman made his decision, that was that—no questions asked. Tillman signed up along with one of his brothers and after the media blitz that focused on his decision he dropped out of the news until he was reported killed in action. Almost immediately, as Bar-Lev's film reveals, the Bush White House endeavored to use the death of this all-American jock to its own advantage.

The film lays out how the government, in collusion with the media, attempted to turn Tillman into a propaganda agent for its war on terrorism. The urge to reshape Tillman's life story; to make his actions and words fit the public's mythic perceptions was apparently too tempting. But the family was/is tough and unrelenting ( especially Tillman's mother ) and wanted answers about his death and when push came to shove, the truth of his death from friendly fire was much less heroic than espoused by government and media officials.

While fighting for answers, the list of indignities thrown at Tillman's surviving family members, catalogued by Bar-Lev in the film, is jaw-dropping ( with the military starting by drowning the family in 3,000 pages of documents ) but, ultimately, unsurprising—keeping in mind the boundary lines the Bush administration crossed in its zeal.

Like Pat Tillman himself, apparently, Bar-Lev's movie stubbornly refuses to fit neatly into a box and come up with traditional, rousing solutions. The Tillman Story leaves you feeling frustrated, angered and deeply saddened—by the waste of the life; by the ease that the individual's life was used; by the shortcuts employed to present the guy in simple broad strokes; and most, by the dumb and/or lazy public's quick willingness to fall for the transparently phony-baloney story.

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitytimes.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.


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