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.

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art and politics but has also been known to write at length about cats. She won the 2014 Best...

69 replies on “Wading in Matthew Barney’s River of Shit”

  1. I watched his Cremaster Cycle. It was torture to sit through at the time, it made no sense and felt completely self indulgent. But now, many years later, I have to admit that a number of the scenes have stuck with me, memorable for their beauty and sheer weirdness.

    1. I had the same experience, which makes me wonder, if he presented the works as Individually projected vignettes (one per shoot /scene), would I loath the works less or perhaps even enjoy it?

      1. I’ve been wondering about this, too—he’s clearly so good at certain things, I feel like he could just play to his strengths instead of weaving these epic, elaborate films that don’t make sense.

    2. Yes, they were beautifully shot, no question. But beyond good cinematography, what is there to the whole bloated, juvenile affair?

      1. I’m not sure Den. It’s certainly not story telling in any traditional sense and I’m ok with that. The ambiguous, dream-like nature of his work is appealing. I just wish his weirdness felt less macho/arbitrary, as in, “I’m gonna do this ’cause it’s fucking awesome dude!” and more deliberate and considered as in, “The juxtaposition of the scene where I poop teeth from my butt hole with the Chrysler Tower demolition derby is a metaphor of familial dysfunction.”

        Of course both extremes are tedious, balance is good, as is knowing when *not* to do something. Apparently ‘not doing something’ isn’t in Barney’s catalogue.

        1. Very well said. I was trying to not put too much emphasis on plot and push for traditional storytelling, because I don’t think it needs to be that way either. But I’ve been trying to figure out what that would be/look like (if it were ambiguous and dreamlike but also good).

  2. When you wrote Barney is apparently one of the few artists left who still believes in shock value… I was like yes you are so right… it’s just well I think we all feel like frankenstein… we’ve had enough shocks and want to get away from the shock machine and explore other currents… but why do you think shock value doesn’t appeal like it once did?… Am I the only one seeing a lot less artists going for shock value than ten years ago?… Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for subversive… but I don’t know… i think things are morphing… it’s just when imagery starts to get too harshly confrontational… it starts to feel hacky… I’d be so curious to hear if you think shock values stock is down and why… or if this is just my own lens…

    1. Well, I don’t think shock value=subversive. In fact, in some ways, I think they’re antithetical, because shock value is a quick burst of LOOK AT THIS CRAZY SHIT!, whereas subversive really gets under your skin and stays with you. So maybe artists aren’t going for shock value because it tends to be superficial.

      1. I love this distinction between shock value as short term and a quick burst… and subversive as more long term…. and haunting… you’re right that shock value has it’s limits for lots of reasons…. and yes, i do find it to be superficial in many cases…

  3. The overarching problem with the film (and perhaps Barney’s work in general) is that it is too schematic. Barney is like a translator who transcribes literally; he misses the nuances and levels of meaning necessary to translate fully. Everything has a meaning in his films, but those meanings do not speak. They are indicated, usually in a manner that requires independent research, but they do not function within the world of the film. I am reminded of all of the Isle of Man symbols in Cremaster 3 (if I recall correctly): the Isle’s symbol is incorporated, its geographic borders, etc. All well and good, but they do not function metaphorically. Why are these elements used, what meaning do they convey?
    He also has a terrible time with pacing and rhythm. I cannot help but think that Barney is loathe to edit. By the time River of Fundament ended, the audience (the approximately 1/3 of the audience who lasted) appeared exhausted, but glad to be released.

  4. Very near to all the seemingly incoherent/incomprehensible imagery comes straight from Mailer’s book ‘Ancient Evenings’, which is mentioned repeatedly during the wake sequence early in the movie.

    Mailer was, in fact, very obsessed with scatological matters in that book. He wrote pages-long accounts of messy sodomy and very highly detailed descriptions of the Pharoah’s bowel movements; plus lots of other stuff, too.

      1. Harold Bloom’s review of the book is probably the smartest, most succinct thing you’ll find about it. I love AE, but would only recommend it to a very small percentage of readers.

        1. In Barney’s interview with Charlie Rose he indicated that RoF is as much influenced by that review as it is by the text itself. Hit the nail on the head there.

          1. and Jillian…. “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?!”

            Did you really have to go there? You killed some of your credibility with that……

            “a group of singers and drummers who all look Native American”??? A little research like reading the BAM press release would’ve cleared that up for you.

            I respect your opinion….however this film seemed to leave you in a mess….which I’m sure it was intended to do. MB 1- JS 0

          2. Actually you missed the point entirely.

            To me, the review basically reads like someone who didn’t want to go sit through a 6 hour film, spent their time reflecting on the shocking stuff…but seemed to miss the rest of the movie.

            But, onto my point….What do Native American drummers and singers “look” like??

            See what I mean…that’s lazy. It’s just left up to the mind of the readers….what about them “looked” Native American or didn’t “look” Native American. A quick check of that press release (and it is short) would’ve confirmed that the singers in that scene are, in fact, Native American….

            If you’re gonna include racial commentary and tokenism as part of an argument against the music of the film….you gotta at least look like you know what you’re talking about. That line was a clear punt. Something missed in the review is that Native Americans appear throughout the film….the protagonist reincarnates in his final form as a Lakota WWII veteran (and incidentally….the actor portraying Norman III, David Beautiful Bald Eagle, is in fact a Lakota WWII veteran). Norman Mailer loved to immerse himself in all cultures as a way of rebellion (he always saw himself as somewhat of an outsider). Something also missed….Norman Mailer was a huge jazz fan, which makes the jazz percussionist who plays Norman II not the stretch the review paints it to be.

            As I said…I respect the author’s opinion…this film is clearly not for everyone so she can write it off as much as she wants. I have absolutely no problem with that. I just saw some clear laziness in the writing, which killed the gravitas of the opinion….in my opinion. 😉

          3. See what a little research can do for you? 😉

            I’m not gonna hide that I’m a Barney fan or that I’m a fan of this film…it should be self-evident. My experience with them was nothing but positive.

            And, yes….I am passionate about representations of Native Americans by non-Native media. That line stuck out to me like a sore thumb…in fact, I found it bothersome. However, this is an attempt to communicate that. You may see my opinion as overinflated, but I think I got my point across.

          4. I really appreciate your comment, I really do, but it seems like a small point in a larger discussion, that’s why I used “inflated.”

            I understand your sensitivity, but I think the reviewer’s perception is valid and she did not state it as fact but highlighted that it was a perception in the midst of a six-hour marathon. I think that perception is also an important historical document, when people look back it will be interesting to see how a viewer perceived one aspect. My issue with the press release comment was that too much art relies on an artist’s statement of what something is rather than what it is to the audience. That was my sensitivity.

            I wish all commenters were as thorough and intelligent as you, even if I don’t agree with them.

          5. “but I think the reviewers perception is valid and she did not state it as fact but highlighted that it was a perception in the midst of a six-hour marathon.”

            That was another of my points….the review comes off to me as someone who was doing something against their will and then writing about it. I’m not sure what the racial commentary/tokenism argument against the music adds to the review…especially if she was unsure about what she was writing about.

            Why it was not evident to the writer that the singers are Native American is a valid point to discuss…and I won’t hash it out any longer after this post, but consider this. What would lead her to the conclusion that we might not have been Native American?

            I wish you could put yourself in my shoes. On a daily basis I’m subjected to portrayals of Natives by non-Native media, much of which includes the same uncertainty or lack of knowledge displayed in the review. I hope to be one of the voices to change that and I’m hoping that as one of the people contributing to these portrayals…’ll listen.

          6. I’m sorry that’s what you heard in the article, but she was illegitimately excited to see the film and experience the whole thing. I spoke to her before and after, and I didn’t even ask her to review it (btw, we have another review by someone else running this week). In terms of what lead her to believe that is a really good question that I hope she addresses.

          7. I was very excited to see this film. I think that actually contributed to my extreme disappointment much more than not wanting to see it would have.

          8. Also, by the way, to draw this out: the tokenism matters because it increases my perception/takeaway that the film was self-indulgent and lacking purpose/direction. It was yet another series of choices that Barney made that he failed to articulate clearly.

          9. Ah yes, and honestly, I thought the drummers were Native American and simply doubted myself and felt nervous about getting it wrong. And, as I said above, looked for confirmation and didn’t find it. But thank you for calling attention to this as something I need to be more aware of and careful about.

          10. Thx for the reply. I hope you’ll excuse my snarkyness in my other posts. It’s not my natural state of being and I’m not very good at it, so, in all honesty….I apologize and thanks for listening. 🙂

          11. I did actually look up the drummers, in the program. I combed through it and couldn’t find the confirmation, so I hedged the line because I didn’t want to be wrong. I thought I did my due diligence, but you’re right that I was rushing and didn’t do enough. I will definitely keep that in mind for the future.

            I do, however, stand by the rest of that line. I know Mailer was a huge jazz fan, and I know that a Lakota chief played Norman III. But to me, they didn’t add up. I think it comes back to purpose–what started out as seeming somewhat logical or thoughtful, after 6 hours, turned into a jumbled mess. By the time we got to the step team, the various groups and appearances felt like a postmodern diversity parade rather than thoughtful choices. (It’s possible I didn’t article this well enough in the review.) And this is on Barney–to make the meanings of his choices, their connections to Mailer clearer.

  5. Jillian, your tweets had me thinking I was in for a rough time! I saw it last night I actually liked it. Seemed well within his body of work (love it or hate it). I went to see the Cremaster Cycle at ICF a few years ago, where they split the movies up into slightly shorter blocks, and this experience reminded me a lot of that, only condensed into a single evening of pain instead of three different days. He actually reused imagery from Cremaster for River a bit too much for my liking. Also think he could have split River into a few different films. My two big complaints: I hated the seating at BAM, and that thing your teachers tell you in art school ad infinitum, turns out it applies to Matthew Barney as well: edit, edit, edit.

    1. YES, the man needs to learn edit. But I’m glad you liked it! I don’t want everyone to be as angry about it as me.

      1. Edited by Katharine McQuerrey according to the credits…..seems this bone needs to be picked somewhere else…. 😉

  6. This is a very weak review, seemingly based on aggravation and frustration rather than a considered response to what is a challenging work. Yes, the film is too long, and (for me at least) it fluctuated wildly from being interminably boring to something approaching transcendent, but who ever said it had to be coherent and make any sort of sense?

    1. I saw/felt no moments of transcendence. And if you work on a movie for years, then yes, when you unveil it in its final, 6-hr form, sorry, but it needs to be coherent (and I don’t necessarily mean in terms of plot).

  7. really useful review — grateful you sat through it to make your report. Telling are the hall- monitor comments of Superman2010 (sic) — n.b. we all know what Native Americans look like, at least when they’re wearing that identity, and nobody should have any problems with mentioning it, unless you’re playing some kind of PC “gotcha” game, which we should be beyond in this forum, honestly — which suggest that esthetic appreciation of works like this turn on being an insider who knows all the details. Not much to hoist you art-expert flag on, it seems to me. That Mailer loved jazz or was into American Indian culture does not a compelling artwork make, however. Better are the questions of just what’s going on here — why these two straight guys are so obsessed with buggery, why these two grown men are so consumed by feces. My old pal Donald Kuspit has written several times on shit and its discontents; here’s one example:

    PS, my pal Linda Yablonsky saw much of the actual production, and she kept saying how incredible the whole thing was, which would be I guess a measure of sublimity — the artist making something that no sensible person would ever make. That certainly is a motor for avant-gardism, cf Wade Guyton making a 44-foot-long painting of basically blank black or white canvas (with undistinguished and barely distinguishable details that people love to cream over).

    1. Can’t wait to read about the triumph of shit! Thank you for sharing.

      I can see how the actual making of certain scenes in this film, particularly those three staged events/spectacles around which it’s built, would be pretty incredible (far more, IMO, than Guyton). It’s a shame that those potentially sublimities get lost in the larger swampy mess of the final product.

      1. The shaman thing is interesting, I suppose — Beuys played it as a pointedly political role. But Barney? Mailer, Detroit, ancient Egypt … Is this the myth of the spectacle? Of Capital converted to pure myth? We can ask some questions … does it reveal the real conditions of ordinary life, or does it disguise them? Does it offer hope? Is it madness, and if so, are we running an asylum?

        1. I like the idea of the myth of spectacle, but if anything, I think Barney’s selling it. I also like the idea of capital converted to myth, but a lot of the good car stuff in the film gets lost in all the convoluted mythology. In other words, there are strands that could have been pulled out, ideas that might have become something, but they end up not going anywhere. I think that’s part of the reason I was so disappointed.

    2. Quasi…my point was to educate. The line was a clear punt…Jillian has admitted that. She did attempt diligence in her work, but she missed the mark. I was hoping to inform rather than complain (hence my apology to her for the tone of some of my remarks).

      I still stand by my original thought….the racial commentary/tokenism argument she presented loses its punch because basically she elucidates her argument with a lack of information (i.e. “a set of singers and drummers that look Native American”). I know she sees it differently and that’s perfectly ok with me, but this was not the pc police coming down on her by any means. She doesn’t articulate her point very well….that’s what I was getting at.

      1. My feeling is that playing “gotcha” is juvenile … To add to the conversation you only need to say “by the way they are Native American” … this approach is blog ideology … everyone has something to say … plus you could also go deeper … It’s Barney who’s playing the Indian card … why? … how PC is this? … see the Native American casting in “House of Cards”? … they are free agents themselves, political players not pawns … they don’t really need our protection .. . it denies them they’re own agency … where’s Barney in this? Somewhere other than Central Casting? ….

        1. I’m not sure if you’ve followed the entire conversation. I’ll admit my tone was inappropriate for a useful conversation. That’s why I apologized and thanked her for listening. So if you wanna prosecute me for it…I’ll save you the time. I’m guilty.

          Im not sure what the second half of your comment has to do with anything….it’s a little all over the place…

  8. First thing I will follow the example of Superman2010 and I will also excuse myself for my bad words against Jillian in some tweets after I read her article. Maybe I was as angry as you after watching the film, but sorry. I don’t think I used the proper way to express my discord, so I hope you’ll accept my apologies.

    Secondly I will say that I enjoyed reading the entire comments so much. It made me think of what Jonathan Bepler explained in an interview with Barney ( about dissonance. This whole debate seems to me something similar to what dissonance music is to Bepler.

    I haven’t seen the film yet and who knows when I’ll have the chance to. I read some reviews and to me it seems a very achieved work. I specially enjoy the idea of having different disciplines coworking together creating something like an opera, and maybe is true that this

    Gesamtkunstwerk is too pretentious, but I see it in a different way: maybe this long and complex creations avoid the fast and easy consumerism of art. I don’t mean art is just for a few “entendu” but is true that he doesn’t make it easy and that helps on making the brain work. I don’t think there’s a lack of cohision in the work (and again, I don’t know cause I haven’t seen it yet) but I repeat again (because I think it is really important) that the piece works as the music does, with this dissonance which obviously doesn’t make it clear or easy.

    I’m not sure if I made myself clear, it is difficult to think that in my language and even more in english.

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