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Wading in Matthew Barney’s River of Shit

by Jillian Steinhauer on February 14, 2014

Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, "River of Fundament: Ren" (2014), production still (photo by Chris Winget) (© Matthew Barney)

Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, “River of Fundament: Ren” (2014), production still (photo by Chris Winget) (© Matthew Barney)

In the opening of his review of Matthew Barney’s River of Fundament for GalleristNY, Michael H. Miller writes that “it feels perverse to attempt to review, or even summarize” the six-hour-long film (including two intermissions), which premiered on Wednesday night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I’m not normally prone to be suspicious of an artist’s intentions, but part of me suspects that this is what Matthew Barney wants. It may even be subconscious, but Barney’s basic idea with this new film seems to be that if you throw enough shit (pun intended) together, and stretch it out for long enough, and make it suitably incoherent, most everyone will be too overwhelmed and swayed by hovering notions of “genius” that they won’t bother to object.

In fact, if Barney had made the film shorter, or more coherent, I would feel far more forgiving. Instead, as River of Fundament dragged on and descended further into its pit of self-indulgent ooze, I found myself increasingly indignant at being made to sit through it. (Yes, I know, no one was forcing me to stay.) By the very end, when the story had finished and given way to a few minutes of gorgeous, generic shots of nature — followed by a few shots of dead nature (birds, fish), because yes, life and death are connected and it’s all such a deep revelation — I was ready to walk out. I didn’t, partly because I was with someone and partly because I figured that if I’d made it this far, I should stay until the credits rolled.

Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, "River of Fundament" (2014),  production still (photo by David Regen) (© Matthew Barney) (click to enlarge)

Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, “River of Fundament” (2014), production still (photo by David Regen) (© Matthew Barney) (click to enlarge)

Miller is correct on one count: to attempt to summarize River of Fundament would be futile; there’s somehow too much plot and no plot at the same time. The BAM program does a surprisingly excellent job, but short of quoting the whole thing, it’s useless to try and replicate that here. Here are some basics (I think): the film concerns Norman Mailer, who is dead, but whose soul has been attempting to achieve immortality by crossing the river of feces three times. A wake is being held at his apartment, filled with famous people (actual ones, like Fran Lebowitz) and also some Egyptian gods and pharaohs, who are represented in the film as people covered in shit, since they seem to inhabit and guard the river (which flows beneath Mailer’s apartment). Norman has various spiritual manifestations and helpers, including two kas; Hathfertiti, who acted as his medium during his lifetime; and three cars that become protagonists of a sort (one manages to impregnate a woman, after it’s been crashed into a river and rusted to pieces!).

This scenario — give or take the cars — is based loosely on a book by Mailer himself, the 700-page Ancient Evenings, which he worked on for more than 10 years and published in 1983. Mailer’s protagonist is actually a nobleman named Menenhetet I, but Barney chose to replace him with the author based in part on his reading of a review of Ancient Evenings in the New York Review of Books by Harold Bloom. In that piece, Bloom writes:

But I don’t intend to give an elaborate plot summary, since if you read Ancient Evenings for the story, you will hang yourself. There is a lot less story than any summary would indicate, because this is a book in which every conceivable outrage happens, and yet nothing happens, because at the end everything remains exactly the same.

That applies to River of Fundament as well. If you see it, you will see many things: a man licking a woman’s shit-smeared asshole, a woman giving birth to a bird, men fighting and tearing out each other’s eyes out and each other’s balls off, much vomiting, many penises, Barney himself (playing one of Norman’s kas) covered in shit and anally penetrated by another shit-covered man (whose penis is wrapped in gold leaf), a woman arched in a backbend peeing prodigiously on a dinner table. Barney is apparently one of the few artists left who still believes in shock value.

Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, "River of Fundament: Khu" (2014),  production still (photo by Hugo Glendinning) (© Matthew Barney)

Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, “River of Fundament: Khu” (2014), production still (photo by Hugo Glendinning) (© Matthew Barney)

All of that, mind you, is shot impeccably. The visuals are stunning. Shit has never looked so good (except for maybe in Andres Serrano’s Shit series; there’s enough shit to go around, apparently). And in a few scenes, most notably when Barney films the smelting of a car at a steel plant in Detroit (which was abandoned before he took it over), rivers of deep gold fire jumping and running into puddles and sculpted towers looming ominously in the air, you understand his talents as an artist — they are formal.

As a storyteller and writer, on the other hand, Barney comes up far, far short of his five and a half hours of screen time. The script is of mixture of his own writing and passages pulled from Walt Whitman, Ernest Hemingway, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William S. Burroughs, and Mailer (all men). Despite the strengths of those names, it never amounts to anything, with disjointed texts turned into operatic chanting at the hands of Jonathan Bepler, who composed and directed the music. The music is ever-present and actually quite terrific in places — strange instruments made of metal and played in a factory in Detroit, an atonal marching band in a parking lot in LA — but the opera decision starts off suspect and becomes comically bad. Maggie Gyllenhaal is a great actress, but nothing can save her from having to talk-sing the phrase “fuck yes!” while kneeling before her shit- and boil-covered father.

Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, "River of Fundament" (2014), production still (© Matthew Barney)

Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, “River of Fundament” (2014), production still (© Matthew Barney)

The lack of strong writing is, I think, what damns River of Fundament — and not so much the lack of plot so much as the lack of … anything. The movie becomes almost six hours of mixed-up images and references and scenes without any seeming purpose or point. The many ethnic groups that make appearances as musical accompaniment start to feel like weird tokens in a movie made by a white man about another white man: Mexican guitar players, a Ranchera singer, an R&B singer, a group of singers and drummers who all look Native American, an African-American girls’ step team?! (Also, in case you’re unfamiliar with it, Mailer’s arguably most famous essay is called “The White Negro,” which makes his second incarnation in River of Fundament as a black jazz musician both logical and particularly hard to swallow.) This kind of postmodern mishmash can work for an hour, maybe two, but not six.

Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, "River of Fundament: Ren" (2014), production still (photo by Chris Winget) (© Matthew Barney) (click to enlarge)

Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, “River of Fundament: Ren” (2014), production still (photo by Chris Winget) (© Matthew Barney) (click to enlarge)

But who are we kidding? This is Matthew Barney. He is a Male Artist. He makes Big Artwork filled with Spectacles like car crushing; in fact, Barney “conceived River of Fundament as a premise for more immediate experiments and events to be presented on stage,” Andy Battaglia writes in The Paris Review Daily, which perhaps explains its inability to come together. A macho artist obsessed with sex, shit, and violence has made a six-hour film adaptation of a macho writer’s (also really into sex and violence, shit maybe a little less) 700-page novel, and no one knows what either of them is about. Lucky us.

Matthew Barney’s River of Fundament continues at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM Harvey Theater, 30 Fulton Street, Fort Greene, Brooklyn) through February 16.

Editor’s note: We asked two writers to review Matthew Barney’s River of Fundament. The other post is here.

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