Deep in the catacomb-like foundations of the Chrysler Building, a zombie creature emerges from the murky soil; a five car demolition derby ensues in the luminous Art Deco lobby of the building; and its 180-foot needle spire, transformed into a colossal maypole, crowns man's ambitious if not vain attempts to reach the heavens. Death, resurrection, self-destruction and spiritual transcendence become the basis for Matthew Barney's delirious and fantastical interpretation of the construction of the Chrysler Building in Cremaster 3—the final installment (they were made out of order) in his five-part epic, The Cremaster Cycle, now on view at the Guggenheim Museum.
While it may not be uncommon to see glimpses of notable works of architecture in films, the Chrysler Building is itself a character in Cremaster 3, and in many ways, is the protagonist of this tale where inner conflicts and external obstacles beset the tower as it nears completion. The story is set vaguely in the 1930's and it traces the construction of the tower through a visual narrative that is so stunningly beautiful that it makes up for the lack of dialogue.
The story centers on an ongoing struggle between the building's architect, Hiram Abiff—a character from Masonic lore—and the Entered Apprentice, a rugged looking fellow played by Barney. Despite the architect's attempts to complete the structure, Barney spends most of the film trying to sabotage the skyscraper by ascending from lobby to spire through the elevator shaft. At the same time, the tower has begun to implode at its base. In the lobby, five 1967 Chrysler Crown Imperials begin ramming into each other, ruthlessly attacking and destroying a 1930's Chrysler Imperial New Yorker and trashing the marble entrance hall of tower in the process. Barney has gotten hold of an elevator car and filling it with concrete, he sends it plummeting to the ground floor. The tower itself is placed at the heart of the conflict. Torn between the hostile interactions of these characters who systematically scheme, order, build, betray, and destroy, the building begins to assume an eerie life-like presence. One can almost hear it whispering as it creaks and howls to the silent gestures of the characters who battle for dominance over it.
Photo © Todd Spencer In the midst of the Chrysler Building's story, the film's narrative makes a short excursion to the Guggenheim Museum for an episode called "The Order" where the architect and apprentice appear again as opponents. Again, architecture is placed at the heart of their struggle. Barney must climb the vertical side of the museum's ramps to reach the architect, played by the sculptor Richard Serra, who is throwing petroleum jelly against a black canvas on the top tier. Along the way, the apprentice meets chorus girls, punk bands, and a half-woman/half-leopard temptress.