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River of Fundament | Review

All that Glitters: Barney’s Operatic, Caterwauling Art-house Epic

River of Fundament Matthew Barney PosterThose familiar with the work of Matthew Barney, namely his impressive Cremaster Cycle (2003) and Drawing Restraint 9 (2005), either appreciate his artistic ambition to collapse, discombobulate, and erase the distinction of form, or discount his credibility (an appraisal that can be attributed to most provocative artists). His filmic language generally consists of a grand mixture of anthropomorphic fascination, formal cinematic composition, musically discordant fascination with opera, and a kind of live performance art/sculpture exhibit, amongst others. Sprawling, decadent, and enigmatic, fans and critics vacillate between lobbing appellations that range from ‘pretentious,’ to ‘genius,’ and he’s been referred to as one of the most important artists of his generation.

Whatever your opinion of his work, one cannot overlook the sheer audaciousness of his latest long-gestating hybrid, River of Fundament, a seven year project that kinda, sorta, maybe is the most interesting adaptation of Norman Mailer’s infamous 1983 novel Ancient Evenings we may ever see (the film premiered in early 2014 in New York, and the April 2015 screening at UCLA is only the second time the film has ever been shown in the US). With a running time that niftily eclipses six hours of your life (plus a necessary reprieve of two thirty minutes intermissions), this is an art-house opera marathon. Maddening, and not always in the perversely pleasurable sense of that word, Barney has concocted a raging coil of a film that is at times an onerous, angry scream, and at others a work of impeccable, galvanizing artistry with some filmed images that are impossible to ever forget.

To make a long story short, Fundament consists of three parts, beginning beneath the basement of Norman Mailer’s estate, where two of his kas (spiritual entities, played by Matthew Barney and Aimee Mullins) navigate their way through a river of fecal matter and wander into his wake where his widow (Joan La Barbara) welcomes guests (a random smattering of notables including Elaine Stritch, Lila Downs, Salman Rushdie, James Toback, Fran Lebowitz and more) as they mourn Norman (basically replacing the main character from the Mailer novel). It is Norman’s desire to transform three times, something also allegorically told through the narrative of the automobile (including three separate vehicles) in Detroit, Los Angeles, and New York. Both Maggie Gyllenhaal and Ellen Burstyn portray Hathfertiti in the second and third segments, respectively, as agents of Norman’s transformation, the last of which is considered a failure, in what has been described as his “attempt to attain a higher status among the ancestry of Great American Letters,” wherein Norman is essentially c*ckblocked by Ernest Hemingway.

An attempt to logically interpret these happenings seems impossible, and yet, there are times when Fundament seems desperate to be considered as a subtext of the ongoing disintegration of the American empire. Using Mailer as a conduit into the rich, cultural fabric of Egyptian culture and the notion of reincarnation (of which the river is fundamental, darling), the auto industry serves as the archaic structure that will usher us into our own demise, as evidenced by the gold Trans Am used as a tomb plunged into a river, later resurfacing, rusted and horny, as it impregnates a woman that we watch give birth to a bird. Like the Egyptians, our dogged attachment to tradition, our dependence on a way of life, forever locked in intergenerational ellipses, will eventually bring the extinction of our culture. But even that sounds utterly too simplistic for the art-house sprawl on display, which potentially has higher aspirations, but could very well be one giant examination of the circle of life (as the program indicates, it is a story of regeneration and rebirth). Except that the taxing mix of the literal and hyperbolic metaphor often highlights Barney’s glaring weakness—his inability to edit. The parameters of the River of Fundament may as well be described as the solar system…and beyond, when such a theme could be much more succinct (like Renoir’s The River, for instance).

To label Barney’s film as incoherent would be an understatement. This would be all but impossible to understand without the crutch of a printed synopsis, which certainly doesn’t do justice to the visual motifs and themes all jumbled up in it. But Barney can’t maintain a certain level of stimulation without resorting to shock valie. Recall the drug induced stupor of Burroughs’ prose in Naked Lunch, an ‘unfilmable’ novel that David Cronenberg managed to sling into a deliciously perverse cinematic suit. The insurmountable running time of Fundament works against the spells he casts. Barney’s strengths lie in his visual concoctions, around every corner awaits a building crescendo to yet another appalling image meant to capture the warts and all avenues of the cycle of existence. But as far as directing actors and writing monologues, Barney seems to have less of an astute ear. As a pharaoh attending Mailer’s funeral, Paul Giamatti is distracting, rumbling off into the forced artifice of a Shakespearean thespian. Several lesser known cast members deliver lines with wooden discomfort (and that’s not when they aren’t made to gnash, mewl, and squeal their whatever out in the universe), and it’s no surprise to learn that Barney borrows many pieces of dialogue from the works of famed authors like William S. Burroughs, Hemingway, and Whitman, among others.

As a riff on Mailer’s infamous failed endeavor, Barney’s film aims for the same kind of distinction with his own version that wishes to be as impenetrable and misunderstood. It is, after all, exactly these types of monolithic endeavors that crash and burn upon the flames of the derisive masses only to emerge like a phoenix from those ashes for the worship of a later generation. So overwhelming an onslaught, it’s not the kind of work that can be automatically damned or praised and even detractors must be forced to acknowledge the impressiveness of putting a project of this magnitude together. And yet, neither can it be simply praised with the elitist stamp that we simply aren’t going to see anything else remotely like it. Initiating the kind of shock value that rivals the putrescence of Pasolini’s Salo, Barney wades us though the throes of anilingus, defecation, vomit, urine, and genital fluids of both sexes (to go on listing any number of searingly odious scenes would seem pointless, but one can’t help but revel at two pregnant women making out while one removes an eyeball from her socket and pushes it into the anus of the other; or another derriere oozing a literal river of fecal matter, and more—the infamous literary porn of Georges Bataille pales in comparison). And yet, to deny the absolute beauty and perverse delight at ingesting these images would be artistic blasphemy.

Barney reteams with his Cremaster team, composer Jonathan Bepler and DoP Peter Streitmann (capturing an innumerable amount of unforgettable visuals, including one of the film’s final frames containing an eerie sequence of fish copulating), together concocting an aural and visual symphony that’s impossible to forget. Bepler’s trance-inducing score ranges from an unsettling siren of the prologue to the divine hypnotism of a car being smelted (*transformed) into liquid rivers of fire, signifying the closest mankind will ever come to harnessing the power of gods.

And threaded throughout is the color gold, used to wrap, embrace, and cover all these unsightly aspects, beginning with a piece of fecal matter Barney scoops out of a toilet bowl to wrap in a gold tissue only moments prior to serving as bottom for the similarly wrapped penis of another Mailer ka. You can wrap as much shit as you want in gold, which recalls the famed warning about ‘all that glitters…’ It’s uncertain whether River of Fundament rightly asserts the necessity of a six hour running time or as a relevant work of art. And yet, it’s an experience that may prove interesting for those masochistic enough to endure Barney’s high expectations. At the end of the day, the only real victim will be your very own fundament.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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