Genre and Narrative

Genre and Narrative

“He continues to push the envelope of his eccentric ideas about beauty, sexual ambiguity, symbolic narrative, and in the way he propels his characters through space, in their startling physical acts, transformation, and inspired costumes.”
—Roberta Smith [1]

Each of the five Cremaster films has its own distinct look that invokes a specific time period and style. Barney is drawn to certain periods because their design aesthetic supports his narrative.

Cremaster 1: 1930s Busby Berkeley musicals and Leni Riefenstahl’s Aryan propaganda films.

Cremaster 2: Gothic western.

Cremaster 3: Gangster and disaster films.

Cremaster 4: Road movie.

Cremaster 5: Romantic tragedy.

By employing diverse genres Barney accesses different vocabularies with which to articulate his central conflict.

Although never straightforwardly realistic, the narrative moves ahead based on imagery rather than dialogue. The films are pervaded by saturated color, and while there are almost no spoken words, the soundtracks are elaborate and important. Things happen sequentially, as well as simultaneously. It is never clear how much time actually elapses.

The plot for each of the Cremaster episodes has emerged as the project has unfolded. According to Barney, “It’s like a game of add-on. The pieces have become more about storytelling: character zones are created for a given project, and as they reach their limit of development (or lack of it) the remaining, unarticulated aspects of the zone become the outline for the next set of characters.” [2]

1. “From a Fantasy Film, Luxury Transformed,” New York Times, Nov 14, 1997.
2. quoted in Thyrza Nichols Goodeve, “Travels in Hypertrophia,” Artforum 33, #9, May 1995.

View + Discuss

Cremaster 1: Goodyear Chorus, 1995. C-print in self-lubricating plastic frame, (shown unframed).

Cremaster 5 production photograph.

1. View the image from Cremaster 1, the first film in the cycle. Take five minutes to write a list of all the words you can use to describe this image. Share this list with your classmates. What are the most frequently used descriptive words? Which are unique?

View the other image from Cremaster 5, the last film in the series. Write another list of words. In what ways are the two images similar? In what ways are they different? Describe the genre that each suggests. Describe the narrative that each suggests.

2. Barney’s films typically have no clear plot. How does this affect your enjoyment of them as art? Do films need to have a plot?

3. Barney has said that he is often attracted to what is repulsive. How does he reflect this in his art? Can you think of an example where this is true for you?

4. It has been said that Barney creates work that follows his own imagination. Based on what you saw, what kinds of things stimulate his imagination?

5. List as many film genres as you can (e.g., science fiction, romantic comedy). Describe the type of storyline that you expect from each genre. Which film genres are most appealing to you? Why? Are there some that you avoid? Why? If you were to choose a genre for your own film (or a combination), which would you use? Why?

Art Explorations

A work of Barney’s scope could not be accomplished alone. He has assembled a talented team of collaborators including costume designers, makeup and special effects experts, fabricators, and a musical composer. Barney has said, “I was a quarterback, I'm very comfortable working on a single thing with a group of people.”

As a class create an interdisciplinary, collaborative video. Begin by brainstorming a list of roles and responsibilities that will be necessary to complete the video. As the project progresses pay special attention to the process of collaboration. 

On View

This presentation, comprised of selected materials from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Archives, pays homage to the first Frank Lloyd Wright–designed structures in New York City.

Works & Process

Photo: Petrus Sjövik

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