Matthew Barney & Jonathan Bepler: “River of Fundament”
The Brooklyn Rail
A staircase emerging from a river of feces, ancient Egyptian myths engaging in sexual intercourse in a bathroom, the double-amputee actress, model, and sports pioneer Aimee Mullins cutting herself with a knife. About four minutes into the screening of River of Fundament it’s crystal clear that this is the work of Matthew Barney. Weaving together dark humor, twisted violence, and overt sexual imagery, the artist’s new movie—that took seven years to complete and that has once again been developed in collaboration with composer Jonathan Bepler—is as muscular, morbid, dense, and full of twists and turns as one would expect. This is both good and bad news. Unfortunately, a considerable number of the film’s scenes appear a bit clichéd, especially now that 20 years have passed since the debut of The Cremaster Cycle. Barney makes extensive references to his famous epic in this latest project: from the character played by Barney who is almost dressed as the Entered Apprentice, to the 1967 Chrysler Imperial from “CREMASTER 3” that plays a key role in the first act of the new film. The artist’s penchant for quoting his earlier work can be frustrating at times.
Nonetheless, River of Fundament takes the Barney and Bepler group effort to new heights. The further exploration of alternative modes of storytelling, and the incorporation of elements of opera as well as recorded live performances, generate a powerful and incisive narrative structure that captivates the viewer for the film’s entire six hour duration. The live acts, which occurred over the last six years (the first was recorded in 2008 in a car showroom outside of Los Angeles, the other two were shot in Detroit in 2010 and New York City in 2013), are crucial in highlighting the importance of unpredictability (and capriciousness) in Barney’s practice. “I’m not particularly interested in the control of traditional filmmaking,” the artist recently said in an interview with Linda Yablonsky, “I’m interested in the unpredictable element, whether it’s 25 tons of iron or a live animal.” And yes—in case you were wondering—the film features precisely 25 tons of iron (melting down five huge cupolas built on the shore of the Detroit River), and plenty of live animals too. There is also a dead cow. And one protagonist has to disembowel it before crawling into its inside: full-blown Barney.
The inclusion of quasi-live elements in conjunction with staged lyrical and instrumental performances creates a multi-layered connective tissue that links stories, characters, ages, and spaces. Music plays a key role and is elegantly interwoven throughout the plot. Like with Bepler’s previous explorations of sound as a vehicle to channel transgressive states, the musical component of River of Fundament is an autonomous element that acts to shape the subliminal drives at play within the storyline. The film offers transcendent melodic intervals, like the virtuoso compositions played throughout the film by an incredible Lonnie Smith, or the entrancing chant of the Mystic River Singers that blends with the sound of a set of iron cellos and the vocalisms of three powerful sopranos. Still, even more than music, it is literature that takes center stage in River of Fundament. The whole project is based on Ancient Evenings, Norman Mailer’s sexually twisted novel that elaborately chronicles the ancient Egyptian belief in the seven stages of the human soul as it passes from death to rebirth.
In the film, it is the spirit of Norman Mailer himself (who died just before the production started, in 2007) that is reincarnated three times. The first reincarnation is played by the writer’s son, John Buffalo Mailer, followed by legendary jazz drummer Milford Graves, and finally Chief David Beautiful Bald Eagle, a 94-year-old Lakota tribal leader. An abstraction of Mailer’s wake, set in a meticulous reproduction of the author’s Brooklyn Heights apartment, serves as a pivotal scene in the film. The house, extracted from its original location and placed on a boat floating up and down the East River in New York, is packed with a wide range of mourning guests—both fictitious and real. Paul Giamatti portrays a pharaoh and Salman Rushdie features as himself. Alongside them also sits Jeffrey Eugenides, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Middlesex. It is an interesting reference since both River of Fundament and Eugenides’s book focus on out-of-the-ordinary family sagas, on notions of nature versus nurture, and above all, on rebirth. Ernest Hemingway also plays a fundamental role in the film. His looming spirit haunts Mailer as he transitions from one body to the next.
It is also interesting to note that in the midst of the hundreds of books lying in Mailer’s house, the camera frames—for a fraction of a second—Hemingway’s “By-Line.” Amongst all the pieces included in that exquisite collection of articles and dispatches, there’s a remarkable eulogy written for Joseph Conrad:
It is agreed by most of the people I know that Conrad is a bad writer, just as it is agreed that T.S. Eliot is a good writer. If I knew that by grinding T.S. Eliot into a fine dry powder and sprinkling that powder on Mr. Conrad’s grave Mr. Conrad would shortly appear… I would leave for London early tomorrow morning with a sausage grinder.
That is, a skilled hunter paying homage to an old sea dog; death, rebirth, literature, and rivers (from “Heart of Darkness” to “Across the River and into the Trees”), all majestically blended in one single book and in the blink of an eye. Allusions, references, insinuations, quotes are scattered all around Mailer’s house, and in the film in general. This wealth of metaphors and symbols is fascinating and dangerous, in equal measure.
Take, for example, the faith of The Cremaster Cycle. Even a dictionary of terms defining a meaning for each symbol in the work was published. Needless to say, the reduction of a work of art to a glossary significantly diminishes its potential. Over interpretation never did well for art. The same risk is at stake in River of Fundament: one could easily walk out of the screening room feeling the hubris of saying, “I get the entire thing.” But trying to interpret every detail in each frame is a dull exercise. In River of Fundament, images of the Twin Towers briefly appear three times—one for each act—during the film: on a doormat, on a firefighter’s hat, and on a t-shirt. One could imagine it being an allusion to New York City’s post-9/11 reaction as a symbol of rebirth (perhaps a little hackneyed for Barney’s standard). When asked about this possibility, after a critical pre-screening that took place earlier in February, the artist’s publicist laughed heartily and said, “No, that’s just a coincidence.” As Barney knows best, for he’s a huge fan of Harry Houdini, the beauty of magic does not reside in knowing how the trick works, but rather the contrary.