River of Fundament (2014)

Review first published by FilmLand Empire

It is difficult to know where to start in trying to describe the tapestry of references that constitute River of Fundament, Matthew Barney’s strange threnody for, and celebration of, the novelist and essayist Norman Mailer, who died in 2007. Perhaps the best place might be Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountain Range, where this grand work begins and ends, and where Mailer’s muse Ernest Hemingway once had a cabin.

Here, in the final sequence, we witness salmon swimming upriver from the Ocean to respawn over the corpses of their own dead, and a shift from the polluted industrial and urban settings that dominate much of the tripartite film’s five and a half hours to idyllic (if not altogether pure) nature, even as Barney also returns us to Mailer’s (literary) source. After all, this epic is obsessed with recycling, rebirth and resurrection – with the movement from life to death and back again running very much counter to the flow of the mainstream.

Or perhaps we should start with Barney’s earlier Cremaster 2 (1999), which figures the conception, life and death of convicted killer Gary Gilmore, drawing in part from Norman Mailer’s 1979 book The Executioner’s Song, and featuring Mailer himself as the illusionist Harry Houdini – the same Houdini who once survived being thrown in a casket from the Belle Isle Bridge into the Detroit River, just as Osiris (played by Barney) plummets in a car from the same bridge in Part 2 of River Of Fundament.

Or perhaps with Mailer’s 1983 novel Ancient Evenings, about the attempts, ultimately unsuccessful, of an Egyptian from around 1100 BCE to gain immortality through three reincarnations – a story which Barney here reimagines with the late Mailer himself (played variously by his own son John Buffalo Mailer, by Milford Graves and by Chief Dave Beautiful Bald Eagle) as the undead initiate, traversing the River of Fundament beneath his own New York brownstone as a wake for his death takes place upstairs.

Or perhaps we should go even further back to the regenerative myths of Isis and Osiris, of Nephthys, Set and Horus, a divine dynasty whose incestuous allegories are here interwoven into a modern milieu. Or perhaps we should instead be thinking of Detroit itself, in which the film’s second part is set, and the industry that once flourished there, but has since given way to recession, leaving behind a concrete and metal landscape that nature is already visibly beginning to reclaim. Or perhaps of New York City, the setting of the third part, where even the mightiest of erections were seen to come crashing down in 9/11 (the slogan “remember the heroes” is prominently visible in one scene), but which keeps rising like a phoenix – or Horus-like falcon – from the flames.

Or the cars. Barney’s preoccupation with both Chrysler vehicles and the Chrysler Building in New York was already well established in Cremaster 3 (2002), and Part 1 of River of Fundament features an elaborate funeral rite for a damaged 1967 Chrysler Imperial held at a Chrysler dealership in Los Angeles. Indeed, both Mailer’s and Osiris’ cycles of rebirth are represented through the destruction of automobiles, the recovery of their parts and their reintegration into new objects, while the 1979 Pontiac Firebird that appears prominently in Parts 2 and 3 suggests through its very name (it is a ‘Trans Am’) a nation in metamorphosis.

Here Mailer’s passing is also the deterioration and transition of the automotive industry that was once a mainstay of the American economy and identity. And let’s not forget the faeces. Even if you try, Barney will not let you. Having emerged from an underworld sewer, all three incarnations of Mailer are covered from head to toe in the stuff, as are his two Ka spirits (played by Barney and Aimee Mullins), the Pharaoh Usermere (Stephen Payne), and his retinue of anally focussed servants.

Later we shall witness diarrhoea streaming from a woman’s rectum, some enthusiastic rimming, an excrement-covered object used as a dildo, and the Pharaoh Ptam-nem-Hotep (Paul Giamatti) showing off the elaborate pipe system that collects his royal stool for use in the garden. Indeed, before Mailer has even entered the picture, we see Barney’s Ka in an ornate bathroom, picking up a log of the brown substance in his bare, already pooh-stained hands and wrapping it in gold foil before returning it to the toilet bowl. That is the alchemical trick of this work – to take the rawest of waste materials, and to make something of them, be it treasure or art or life. Shit, after all, is a marker of disgust, decay and death, but also of fertilisation and renewal.

The truth is that Barney’s cine-operatic myth of Mailer, metempsychosis and merde offers so many matrices of allusion and subtext that cultural cosmonauts could spend an eternity going in circles through its heady, reeking flow. For it is a relentless cavalcade of abject materialism and ritual mysticism that brings the grotesque and the sublime, the ancient and the modern, the mythic and the historical, the living and the dead all together at the one table for a carnivalesque feast – and a divine fart joke.

The ever-present ghost of Mailer holds all these disparate motifs together, whether it is his library of books (and his son) in the first part, his interest in crime scenes and police procedural informing the second part (with Osiris’ murder and Isis’ recovery of his body figured as a river-trawling murder investigation), or his love of boxing reflected in the third part’s violent bloodsports.

Barney’s starkly hyperreal images are edited together to maximise the crosscurrents of tension between them, while John Bepler’s extraordinary score is a transformative soundscape of lyrics, vocalisations and instrumental experimentalism, almost all (absurdly, brilliantly) intradiegetic. Though certainly challenging in its exuberant obscurity, its forbidding length and its transgressive offence, River of Fundament represents ambitious, uncompromising art of the highest ordure.

River Of Fundament was presented at the English National Opera in London at the end of June 14.

Anton Bitel