River of Fun­da­ment

RIVER OF FUN­DA­MENT, drama, not rated, Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Arts,

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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

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