In isolation, River of Fundament, Matthew Barney’s mythopoeic epic of death and rebirth, excrement and divinity, cars and men, is a towering morass of ideas, symbols, and anuses. Given enough rope, as Barney amply furnishes, the film might convincingly be seen as a spectacular auto-execution, like that of Gary Gilmore, whose life and later death-by-firing-squad Barney welded into his Cremaster Cycle. To its detractors, the Cremaster Cycle was what its title, referring to the muscle that lifts and lowers the testicles, suggested—a masturbatory mess. River of Fundament (at BAM through February 16) could likewise be dismissed as a stream of shit.
But River of Fundament invites such criticism. Adapted from the Norman Mailer’s disastrous 1983 novel Ancient Evenings, the nearly six-hour-long art film repurposes the wreckage of Mailer’s grand overreach, a 700-page, decade-in-the-making tome chronicling the three-time death and reincarnation of an Egyptian nobleman, Menenhetet I, who must pass through a river of feces to be reborn. Fast and loose in its use of the book, the film replaces Menenhetet with “Norman,” at whose wake the bulk of the story takes place, the production unstintingly reproducing Mailer’s Brooklyn Heights brownstone. Joining his three reincarnations across three acts are some famous friends and family—Jeffrey Eugenides, Fran Lebowitz, and Salman Rushdie playing themselves as gathered literati—and, as the wake grows lower and more decayed, Egyptian spirits and pharaohs: Paul Giamatti as the carnal, indolent Ptah-nem-hotep; Madyn Greer Coakley, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Ellen Burstyn as different version of the the devoted Hathfertiti.
With the wake scene, Barney crosscuts a narrative of automotive death and renewal. Standing in for Norman and Osiris are a 1967 Chrysler Imperial, a 1979 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am and a 2001 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor. Here and elsewhere, Barney’s direction is remarkably assured. His camera scrolls moltenly across scenes rich in shadows and light, suffused with great beauty and wanton baseness. Music-laden sequences—composer Jonathen Bepler lends a portentous, fitful score—play out in the flowing streams of LA’s freeways, the tainted rivers of Detroit, and the Brooklyn Navy Yard. River of Fundament approaches Pier Paolo Pasolini and company in its incontinent commitment to the sacred and the profane, Barney conjuring a vertiginous allegory to the sordid transcendence of waste, life and renewal. The expression “it has something to do with” will probably circle around this film for some time, like so many flies to excrement.
More immediately interesting and significant, though, is the way in which River of Fundament roils the line between art and cinema, melding avant-garde sensibilities with the aesthetic sorcery of a high-quality film production. One sequence alone, KHU from Act II, has long been rumored to have had a budget of $5 million. In burrowing deeper into the alchemy of film and his often overloaded imagination, Barney is a luminous challenger to the look and experience of not just film but of a totalized art film, that of a modern-day Gesamtkunstwerk.
That’s the good part. The awful truth is that River of Fundament is occasionally attenuated and overwrought, a scatological Tower of Babel. While some may find humor in its many movements, as in the thin case of a masturbating beat-boxer, they’re too few and far between. River of Fundament seemingly never breaks its stern pace to offer a wink or any sort of break. As talented as they may be, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Ellen Burstyn are just not able to lift the duller, stiffer parts of the film. It doesn’t need to be funny—but neither does it need to be quite so inflexibly sedate.
Matthew Barney’s River of Fundament will screen at BAM through February 16. More info here.