River of Fundament
Directed by Matthew Barney
Opens December 4 at IFC Center
Having devoted almost an entire decade of his creative life to creating a cycle of films named after a muscle in the testicles, it’s perhaps no surprise that Matthew Barney would turn from the balls to the ass in his new avant-garde epic River of Fundament—“fundament,” among other things, referring to the buttocks. And as one would expect from such a title and from his five Cremaster films, Barney sure doesn’t shy away from showing us a lot of, well, shit. In this six-hour, three-act “opera,” fecal matter shows up in lavish toilet bowls, in well-appointed underground sewers, in a diarrhetic splurge seen oozing from a woman’s anus… even in shiny gold wrapping. Dung is even made part of the film’s plot, with characters emerging from and into a River of Feces. Sometimes characters even sing about it, to composer Jonathan Bepler’s strikingly modernistic accompaniments.
Most viewers would probably laugh at this kind of thing as sophomoric arts-major provocation. Barney, however, has fashioned a deadly serious artistic vision out of his fascination with such bodily functions. Ancient mythology continues to obsess him: River of Fundament is in part a retelling of the Egyptian myth of Osiris, murdered by his brother, Set, but then reborn, thanks to the efforts of wife Isis, in order to spawn an offspring, Horus, who later challenges Set for the throne. But the ghost of Norman Mailer—who appeared as Harry Houdini in Cremaster 2—also presides over Barney’s film: Not only is it partly inspired by Mailer’s oft-trashed 1983 novel Ancient Evenings, but it turns a wake for the late author—attended by people both real (cultural luminaries like Elaine Stritch, Fran Leibowitz, and Jonas Mekas) and imagined (Paul Giamatti as Ptah-Nem-Hotep, an Egyptian pharaoh from Ancient Evenings)—into a major plot strand. Barney even gets somewhat topical, setting much of Act II’s action in Detroit, which, thanks to its recent period of bankruptcy spurred on by US auto-industry travails, has become a symbol of the decimation left in the wake of the financial crisis.
Barney, in other words, remains as vigorously confrontational as ever in his attempt to elevate humanity at its most primal to the level of high art. But there’s a difference between, say, Pier Paolo Pasolini forcing us to contemplate humanity at its raw worst in Salò and Barney prettifying ejaculations of crap and piss in River of Fundament. It’s easy to be impressed by his lofty cultural references and lack of restraint, but rarely does this cycle touch earth in a way that would make any of it mean something beyond giving us reasons to applaud Barney’s sheer audacity. This latest wannabe myth simply confirms that Barney’s grand subject—beyond the signifiers of birth, death and rebirth that often pop up in his work—remains his own masculinity. He may thrust a lot of taboo-flouting imagery at us, but in the end the thrusting itself is all that resonates.