River of Fundament
RIVER OF FUNDAMENT, drama, not rated, Center for Contemporary Arts,
Matthew Barney’s interest in bodily functions is a hallmark of his films. Take, for instance, The Cremaster Cycle (1994-2002), which is named for a muscle located in the scrotum whose function is to raise and lower the testes. The title of his latest assault on the senses might hold several meanings within the context of the film, but the most obvious is the river of feces that runs beneath novelist Norman Mailer’s apartment in Brooklyn Heights. Mailer, who died in 2007, was a friend of Barney’s, and
River of Fundament, at 350 minutes, is a beyond-epic-length homage to the author. It is also an adaptation of Mailer’s problematic work Ancient
Evenings, a lap-breaking tome that reviewer Benjamin DeMott described as “a disaster” in his review for The New York Times in 1983. River of
Fundament seems destined — nay, determined — to follow in Ancient Evenings’ footsteps by emulating its excesses. Opera is perhaps the best term to describe what this nearly six-hour kaleidoscope of imagery aspires to be. It comes with operatically staged musical numbers and a complex, standout score by Jonathan Bepler. With an ambitious scope, the film leads us down two primary threads, each loaded with symbolism: the playing out of ancient Egyptian myths on the streets of major American cities, and a memorial for Mailer, who emerges from the river of filth reincarnated and attends his own service. This happens not once but thrice; it’s a long movie.
Mailer is played by three different actors, including John Buffalo Mailer, his real-life son. Barney introduces metaphysical states experienced by Mailer’s soul in the afterlife, as described in The Egyptian Book of
the Dead. Once raised, Mailer engages in orgiastic sex acts with a man attached to a colonoscopy bag; we also witness a dead calf that has been ripped from its mother’s womb. We see Mailer existing in the form of an automobile that dies and is resurrected in the form of yet another car (this also happens three times). We see Maggie Gyllenhaal milking her breast, as well as images of sphincters and analingus; Ellen Burstyn as an Egyptian named Hathfertiti who acts as a sort of guide to Mailer; the ghosts of Ernest Hemingway and Walt Whitman; an eyeball plucked from a pregnant woman’s eye socket and shoved where the sun doesn’t shine; and — do we really need six hours of this?
Brilliant visuals, Bepler’s stunning score, and some fine acting from a cast that includes Debbie Harry, Paul Giamatti, Dick Cavett, and Fran Lebowitz can’t save this testament to inscrutability from so much selfindulgence. The odd thing is, considering the book on which it is based,
River of Fundament seems deliberately designed to mimic Ancient Evenings’ failures, and there is something audacious about that, even admirable. But despite its (sometimes) refreshingly subversive imagery, there comes a point when enough is enough. The film is divided into three parts that screen individually — at least you can take it in doses.
— Michael Abatemarco
Bedside manner: Ellen Burstyn