River of Fundament: Film Review

"River of Fundament"
Art-film epic is tiring and revolting but represents a distinctive creative voice.

Artist Matthew Barney makes the spirit of Norman Mailer the star of a six-hour, excrement-filled mythological journey.

NEW YORK – When Norman Mailer released Ancient Evenings in 1983, critics were not kind. Words like "disaster" and "ludicrous" were tossed around; its tale of reincarnation in ancient Egypt was accused of providing "unintended hilarity." In basing his new work, a three-part filmed "opera" called River of Fundament, loosely on this novel, Matthew Barney surely knows he's inviting the same response: Overlong, willfully obscure and scatologically extreme, the film will elicit a variety of negative responses despite offering some individual elements that, on their own, would surely impress any of Barney's admirers. The work simultaneously is more fully realized and less creatively inspired than the Cremaster cycle, the five-film series that introduced Barney to art house patrons. A tour of venues associated with avant garde stage productions will surely sell tickets, but early reports should keep this one from catching on as its predecessor did.

A few blocks away from the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where the film's world premiere was held, the Brooklyn Museum once attracted scandal by exhibiting a portrait of the Virgin Mary that incorporated elephant dung and images from porn magazines. (Chris Ofili's now-famous painting isn't as one-dimensionally offensive as it seemed to noted art critic Rudolph Giuliani.) If the people who were outraged by that art show ever got wind of what happened onscreen at BAM this week, their heads would explode.

Sensitive readers should skip ahead. Really. A partial inventory of the acts on view here ranges from the mundanely gruesome (animal disembowelments, close-ups of human defecation) to the pornographic (a woman's spasming anus fills the screen occasionally, sometimes with a man's tongue licking it) to the What-In-Amun-Ra's-Name-Is-Going-On-Here?: Late in the game, as two pregnant women are making out, one plucks a glass eye from its socket and shoves it into her partner's anus. (It should be noted that any effects work here, which one assumes includes a full-frontal, not-what-you're expecting childbirth scene that looks very, very real.)

Readers may detect an excretory theme here, but they don't know the half of it. Fecal matter and other bodily fluids permeate the film, right down to the river of sewage our protagonist must traverse. Oh, yes, there's a protagonist, though the plot is wholly incomprehensible without the admirably straightforward synopsis in the program. To oversimplify and omit much: While a wake is being held for Norman Mailer in his Brooklyn home, the author's spirit is struggling to be reborn, hoping to climb the ladder of literary greatness in successive incarnations. Three versions of his soul emerge in succession from a River of Feces. (This is a mythological muck hidden underneath Mailer's home, unrelated to the nearby, all-too-real Gowanus Canal.) They spy on the wake's guests, interact with Egyptians both mortal and divine, and try, but fail, to reach their destination. In between are (more) cryptic sequences, partly staged at real-world art happenings, in which three different cars are destroyed, transformed and treated as if they hold strange supernatural powers we cannot fathom.

Characters are played both by actual members of Mailer's orbit -- Dick Cavett and Fran Lebowitz are among the artists and writers at the wake -- and by actors: Paul Giamatti is a pharaoh; Maggie Gyllenhaal and Ellen Burstyn play two versions of Hathfertiti, the human conduit for Mailer's rebirths. (Gyllenhaal is the most underused here: After she squirts a little milk from her breast and sings a song while ignoring the pornographic acts going on in the background, Barney is done with her.) The artist himself plays one of two "ka" figures, filth-coated spirits who accompany Mailer on his journeys.

The film's lack of comprehensible narrative is neither a surprise nor, necessarily, a failing. Having worked with Mailer on Cremaster and taken loose inspiration from his The Executioner's Song, Barney began mulling the idea of a piece inspired by Ancient Evenings before the author's 2007 death. But any such adaptation was bound to extract themes and structure only to add, extrapolate and confuse in the manner of Barney's previous work. Fusing the book's story (in which a man tries to take charge of his own reincarnation) with Mailer's real-world literary ambitions and his death is a rich way of exploring a novel Mailer always believed was underappreciated. And clearly, the book offers infinite opportunity for Barney to explore the bodily transformations and biological abominations that have long featured in his art.

In the absence of compelling narrative, though, Barney owes us more inspired imagery in exchange for six hours of lives that we are not likely to wrest back from the rulers of the Underworld.

River of Fundament benefits from a significant upgrade in cinematography over the Cremaster works, where varying image quality sometimes disserved its subject. (Peter Strietmann served as DP then and now.) And the wildly experimental music by Jonathan Bepler justifies the description of River as an opera: From clouds of dissonant horns to ambient gurgles to upsetting bouts of vocalese that admirers and detractors alike might describe as "caterwauling," the soundscape is all of a piece and works to lend shape and gravity to action that sprawls through three cities, some nether realms and uncertain leaps back and forth in time.

But Cremaster offered more images and actions worth imprinting on our psyches -- scenes that individually deserved comparison to work by Luis Bunuel and others, even if Barney remains incapable of distilling his visions into something as spellbinding as Un Chien Andalou. Cremaster was more effective in staging Barney's dubious anatomical obsessions without appearing asinine. And Cremaster's use of cinematic language succeeded at something River of Fundament usually forgets to attempt: It formed psychologically convincing ties between the different imaginary spaces in which Barney sets his action. Chunks of a brownstone home float on a barge, a vintage Trans Am inseminates a police detective with the child of a god, men climb into the carcasses of various large animals as if they were portals -- but the magic, more often than not, fails to take hold.

When the action doesn't require trans-dimensional sorcery, Barney sometimes delivers. The identical-twin opera singers Herbert and Eugene Perry conjure profane majesty in roles nearly impossible to explain here. A long sequence in which a car body is disassembled and, in massive Detroit furnaces, transformed into rivers of flaming steel, has a primordial awesomeness worthy of Werner Herzog.

These are marvels for the patient viewer to discover, lurking long downriver from images whose deliberate offensiveness is usually hard to justify. Among the crowd of hard-to-shock New Yorkers who stayed to the production's end (the one seated in front of me and the two to my right did not), it was hard to catch someone flinching or turning aside even at the vilest things onscreen. But derisive snickers were not rare, and conversations overheard during the two intermissions had a "do you really want to sit this out?" tone. One suspects New York's literati in 1983 received Ancient Evenings in much the same way. But that time around, one might give up on a celebrated artist's 700-page slog after 200 pages without having all one's peers witness the surrender.

Cast: Matthew Barney, Aimee Mullins, Joan La Barbara, Paul Giamatti, Elaine Stritch, John Buffalo Mailer, Milford Graves, Chief Dave Beautiful Bald Eagle, Madyn G. Coakley, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ellen Burstyn, Herbert Perry, Eugene Perry

Director-Screenwriter: Matthew Barney

Producers: Matthew Barney, Laurenz Foundation, Mike Bellon

Director of photography: Peter Strietmann

Production designer: Matthew D. Ryle

Music: Jonathan Bepler

Costume designer: Anna Maria Diaz-Balart

Editor: Katharine McQuerrey

No rating, 311 minutes