America. Salmon. The Automobile Industry. Ernest Hemingway. Detroit. Pontiac Trans Am. Rimming. Shit.
These are just some of the keywords for Matthew Barney's five-hour-long epic movie, River of Fundament. Keywords make sense for the project, which was written and directed by Barney with music by Jonathan Bepler, because of the work's fixation on symbols. Everything happens in uppercase here.
It's big and bold stuff, inspired by the life of American macho man and writer Norman Mailer, and his novel Ancient Evenings. The novel deals with Egyptian mythology and reincarnation, themes and ideas that inform Barney's film. Which basically goes like: Norman Mailer has died, and so there's a big wake at this Brooklyn brownstone, complete with all manner of fascination people, like Fran Lebowitz, Jonas Menkas, Jeffrey Eugenides, Larry Holmes, and more.
Meanwhile, Norman Mailer's spirit is being reincarnated as a few people and a few American muscle cars via a process that requires his spirit to cross a river of feces. This reincarnation process catches the attention of the Egyptian gods, and so they show up to cause trouble. There's lots of singing, some anal sex, really wet rimming, more defecation than you're probably prepared for, and stunningly beautiful and moving images of/about America.
This isn't Barney's first epic art rodeo, of course. The biggest name in contemporary American avant garde movie-making, Barney is best known for The CREMASTER Cycle, five films about masculinity, competition, athleticism, and the muscle that raises and lowers the testes. A new work from the artist is the kind of event Kanye West shows up for. Which he did.
River of Fundament had its world premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music over this long holiday weekend. Barney's been working on the project for years; it incorporates footage of performances Barney staged in Los Angeles, Detroit, and New York. Each screening was broken up by two intermissions.
What follows is a conversation between Complex deputy editor Ross Scarano and Gothamist contributing writer Marc Yearsley about River of Fundament.
Ross: When did you go? Which showtime?
Marc: I went to the Thursday night showing at 7 p.m., the day after it premiered, which was also the day after that big snowstorm.
Ross: What was the crowd like? Was it packed?
Marc: It was packed at the doors. There were a lot of people standing in line and I heard many questions about extra ticket availability, so it seemed like people were without tickets and trying to buy them there. But once inside the theater, it was pretty packed; I was at the orchestra level and could only see about 15-20 empty seats.
Ross: I had a similar experience. I went Sunday night at 7 p.m., the last screening. It was slammed at the entrance; I heard people asking about tickets, too. The crowd was pretty young (late 20s, early 30s; many bearded men and fashion-forward women), especially compared to lots of less-than-mainstream weird theater things I go to. I was at orchestra level and saw some empty seats, but no big expanses of empty. How would you describe the crowd at yours?
Marc: Very similar crowd, except that the age skewed older. Like, late 30s is being generous—I'm talking 40s and 50s and 60s. There were still a lot of younger, more run-of-the-mill art students and interested persons, but I was mostly surrounded by older people who stuck it out.
Ross: Was this your first time seeing Matthew Barney's work?
Marc: Yeah. I went with my brother who leading up to the show had been working his way through the CREMASTER series, but my only encounter with Barney was his work in last spring's 1991 exhibition at the New Museum, which had some illustrations, some Drawing Restraint stuff, and one of the CREMASTER films, I think.
Ross: My first encounter, too. I read about the CREMASTER Cycle in film classes as an undergrad, have seen stills, but this was my first viewing experience of a Barney movie. So, what'd you think of it?
Marc: Great question, Ross. Thanks for asking. But seriously. I thought it was pretty fantastic. The space this film (and his work overall, it seems) occupies is easily derided. It's nothing but big-A Art, which opens it up to a lot of pretty basic criticism. I was surprised how coherent the narrative was and how watchable it was; I was taken aback at how earnest it could be at times; and I was most basically just impressed. It's totally insane and massive and awesome, and extremely rewarding to think about all the decisions that he made along the way. You?
Ross: I really enjoyed myself. You're right about it being big-A Art. It's like a massive modernist novel, stuffed to bursting with symbolism and nested with allusions to this text or that artist or this American-made automobile. But what floored me was how beautiful so much of it is. (Also very ugly, but in beautiful ways.) And I agree about coherence and watchability. I was pretty much there the entire time, which is a remarkable feat for something this long. It's easy to poke at, because of how, to use your word, earnestly it wants to be about AMERICA. But it kinda made me love America more, tbh.
Marc: Right—you just can't avoid that at all, from the obvious automobile industry stuff to the really wacky police procedural in the middle.
Ross: Also, the cast is so diverse, which really helped me embrace it as an American object.
Marc: Especially for the uninitiated, the first act is so cinematically legible that your lifeline into this maybe dense or unfamiliar world is really smooth—whether it's Paul Giamatti or just all of the straightforward dialogue. And in all it's Symbolism and Signs, there is, in a way, no miscommunication at all, because everything is considered and loaded with symbolic meaning. Like, you don't have to look hard for something that might not be there because it's all so literal.
Ross: True. That's an important point, how literal it could be. And man, it is very literal. Like, so much talk of shit and then images of literal shit. I wasn't really ready for how scatological it is. It never totally repulsed me, though; I never wanted to look away. But still.
Marc: Totally. And there's levels to that shit too! I knew about the river of fundament below the Mailer house, but wasn't anticipating, say, actual defecation.
Ross: Right. I'm thinking specifically of the aftermath after the one R&B-soundtracked sex scene at the wake. (That song fucking slapped, btw.)
Marc: Goddamn, what a fine fine fine moment.
Ross: I loved a lot of the music, in fact. Which was great, since the thing is packed with music and sound. It's been described as an opera, which makes sense in terms of the excess, but opera doesn't really convey how much of the music is, say, the sound of someone gurgling champagne, or like half-sung dialogue from Maggie Gyllenhaal. But the song that the little girl, the youngest incarnation of Hathfertiti, sings at the wake is a real standout.
Marc: The music was incredible. That first moment of vulnerable earnest I felt was in the first act, where young Hathfertiti sang the folksy "Ballad of the Bull-Fighter," which was really beautiful. And the R&B song was literally insane and made my head explode for its awesome-ness. We are on the same page, as usual.
I feel like this movie's fixation on butts fits in very nicely with rap's recent booty-eating trend. - Ross Scarano
Ross: I would, no joke, play that R&B song at a party. The way the sounds of the kids' toys from the bedroom worked against and with the beat reminded me of CocoRosie. And more about the movie's use of R&B—there were so many moments where the film incorporated elements from cultures that, when typically done by Hollywood or whoever, could fall flat. For instance, moments of original rapping or, say, stepping in movies usually suck. But this project found great and amazing ways to incorporate things from Black culture and Latino culture and make them feel earned and good.
Marc: It's crazy effortless layering, yeah. Delicate stuff that makes me side with Barney and Bepler—they may be artists but they live in our world, too, and fully get it.
Ross: Exactly. Like, I don't really remember having a moment where I though, "Oh, these are some academic-minded white guys who don't know what they're filming/talking about/indulging in."
Marc: Yeah, never. In some respects it just feels like a long, weird movie, which is also, in some respects, what it actually is. But it never felt like they were being alienating or obtuse on purpose or accidentally.
Ross: The one thing I bumped up against though was the film's fixation on Great White Male Authors via the characters of Hemingway and Mailer. Like I said, I want to treat the film like the kind of rhapsodic and rainbow-colored celebration of America I felt it to be. But there's a tension between that desire and the film propping up Mailer and Hemingway, these very tough, very stereotypically straight dude-bro authors. I'm not entirely sure how to reconcile those things. Maybe they can't be reconciled, or maybe the tension is the point.
Marc: Yeah, all the macho-boxing talk is uninteresting to me. I wonder if he resolves some of that, though, at the beginning and the end—the silliness that was the masculine compensatory competition between these guys—with the salmon scene and the illusions to Hemingway's suicide. All the shit and dick talk seems like a pissing contest, where the one of the real struggles is over the inability to control Hathfertiti.
Ross: Right. Paul Giamatti's ridiculous performance/character seems like one of the film's stronger arguments against the "cult of the great man," too.
Marc: Yeah. Even Barney's character is bound to his female counterpart. But I totally agree that tension is still there, and the sexual/gender politics both of the contemporary and the mythological are super complicated.
Ross: True. What are some of the scenes that really made an impression on you?
Marc: The massive car sacrificial/funerary set piece (that he performed in 2008, I think) with the blast furnaces was fucking impressive. I also really enjoyed the film-length deterioration of the wake inside Mailer's apartment.
Ross: The boat full of police officers, all women, bursting into song as the boat moved down a river in Detroit. The ambulance-hearse in the Detroit church, the inside of the vehicle covered in gold. (There was also a shot from inside one of the cars, with that crowbar through the windshield, that really blew me away.)
Marc: Oh yeah. The second act was totally different, almost stand-alone, but really strong all the way through. I think all those were in the second part.
Ross: Yeah, I really liked a lot of the second act's visuals. It was the fastest-seeming part, by far. I also loved the shot of the bag of live crickets in the dark fridge at Mailer's apartment. That was in the first part.
It's a five-hour movie, what are you expecting? Pretentious is almost totally meaningless as a critique for something like this. - Marc Yearsley
Marc: Yeah, the food prep in the first part was very fun.
Ross: I loved the marching band slowly moving to the car dealership in L.A. The blasts from those horns as they converged on the dealership. And the men stripping the silver logos from the car and holding them up in the sunlight. Also, that trash bag they pull from that woman's butt.
Ross: I feel like this movie's fixation on butts and assholes fits in very nicely with rap's recent booty-eating trend. I saw a tweet from Lil B the other day about eating butt. I would love to hear what he'd have to say about River of Fundament.
Marc: s/o Kool A.D. and Big Baby Ghandi, early proponents. Oh man, and Kanye was at the premiere last Wednesday, too. Are you a Tim and Eric fan?
Ross: I love Tim and Eric.
Marc: The lingering question for me by the end was like, where is the intersection of River of Fundament and Tim and Eric? The atonal, screeching score, the incomprehensible screams and abrupt and jarring noise-work from the characters, the heavy, heavy scat work—this is literally some of the same stuff T&E do, and do it well. I don't know what the relationship is or even what kind of question to ask about it, but I'd like to hear your thoughts...
Ross: Oh, man. Yeah. And the opera-singing older black twins. Those two would be right at home in a T&E skit. Lemme get at this obliquely. I remember having a conversation with a college professor at Pitt—won't name names, cause I'm not sure he'd appreciate that—but he basically dismissed Barney and the Cremaster Cycle as just being big-A Art versions of what David Cronenberg had done via his body horror movies in the '70s/'80s. Point being, guys like Barney all have influences that aren't the ones they name-check in their art, and they have influences from places like horror movies and, probably, weird Adult Swim shows. Matthew Barney seems like a cool dude. I bet he's seen T&E.
Marc: No doubt.
Ross: And I would put money on Tim and Eric being familiar with Barney's work.
Marc: For sure. And I bet he finds the same humor in it that they do, and vice versa. I could only see Tim (more than Eric) maybe disregarding Barney as too Art, too pretentious, or something, but that isn't entirely fair.
Ross: Yeah, I didn't find it to be pretentious. Maybe some of the shots of nature, but maybe that's because I think nature is a little pretentious.
Marc: It's just kind of cool to see almost the exact same scenes with two fundamentally different vibes, and then wonder where those vibes come from...like, is Barney trolling us a little bit? But also—it's a five-hour movie, what are you expecting? Pretentious is almost totally meaningless as a critique for something like this.
Ross: Exactly. And as far as Barney trolling, though, I never felt like I was being trolled. Like I had been duped into this experience. I wanted something big and crazy and that's what I got. It was, in fact, crazier and bigger than I expected. It was pretty, weird, moving, funny, and I can't wait until I can put it on my "best movies of 2014" list and get called a prick.
Marc: Fuck it, let it ride. That's what even the idea promised—something insane—and that's what we got. And it was special and fun. It's meant to be seen in one sitting in a big theatre, too, so having that opportunity was a huge treat.
Ross: But I think a lot of people could legitimately find entry points and things to love about River of Fundament. Thank you BAM for letting us watch this thing on a big screen, all at once, and with incredibly crisp sound. Because even more than a big screen, this movie demands quality sound.
Marc: Without a doubt. It's a damn fine movie with such crisp production design and quality, and is extremely welcoming. You definitely need to see it in a place where you find yourself covering your ears sometimes. I loved that—really challenging, freaked me out. Whether you like his work or not, this film is way bigger than Barney, and I'd challenge people who hate him to see it.
Marc: It's almost negligibly Matthew Barney. You definitely need his name to get something like this made, and his vision and appetite don't hurt.
Ross: I'm very happy this exists, that he go the funding to make this.
Marc: I couldn't agree more with that, and my brother said the same thing. I am happy this exists and that it was able to be made.