Cremaster 2 is the second episode, and the fourth to be completed, of the Cremaster saga (the title refers to the suspensory muscle of the testis), a five-part work by the American artist Matthew Barney. Cremaster 2 is Barney’s first film with spoken dialogue, and the first to make use of a specific story and text: The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer (1979). Cremaster is an epic that begins with the human reproductive system to enter a mysterious universe of symbols and signs, somewhere between contemporary mythology and psychological metaphysics.
Matthew Barney, through his images, in an absolutely personal way, meditates on the reality of the individual in a society in which every possible identity is multiplied and mutant. After a journey among the fairy people of the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea (Cremaster 4, 1994), a surreal musical shot on a football field in Idaho (Cremaster 1, 1995) and a melancholy ending in the baths and theaters of Budapest (Cremaster 5, 1997), Matthew Barney, in a sort of gothic western, returns to his exploration of the nervous system of American culture.
Taking his cue from the book by Norman Mailer, the artist focuses on the figure of Gary Gilmore –played by Barney himself- the pathetic killer who became an American legend when, after the reinstatement of capital punishment in the 1970s, he became the first to be sentenced to death, refusing to plead for clemency due to his belief in the principle of Blood Atonement, the Mormon doctrine according to which all sins are washed away by death itself. Gilmore represents the capacity of every human being to escape from the destiny that has been decided at birth. It is no coincidence that the story also includes another one of Barney’s icons, the great magician Harry Houdini, played in the film by Mailer, who narrates, in The Executioner’s Song, a meeting between Gilmore’s grandmother and Houdini toward the end of the 1800s.
Navigating amidst the brutality of the murders committed by Gilmore, the symbolism of the Mormon religion, the salt flats of Utah and the glaciers of the Rocky Mountains, Matthew Barney creates his visionary fable on the theme of destiny. With its unique visual language, Cremaster 2 reaches the heart of American culture, where myth, violence, religion and nature intertwine, giving rise to all the contradictions that generate the contemporary sense of individuality.