Brooks hosts rare screening of notorious art film ‘River of Fundament’
Travelers come to Memphis to listen to music, eat barbecue and visit historic locations.
Luke Thompson is coming to watch a movie.
He is driving to Memphis from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to catch the 11:15 a.m. Saturday screening of “River of Fundament,” a seven-act, 350-minute movie by San Franciscoborn conceptual art star and provocateur Matthew Barney. The screening takes place at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art
Inspired by Norman Mailer’s novel “Ancient Evenings” and conceived as an opera, the film involves Egyptian gods, reinca rnation, Maggie Gyllenhaal, the dismemberment and melting of a 1967 Chrysler Imperial, and material that a Brooks news release warns “may be too graphic for some viewers,” due to its “explicit” depiction of “sex, violence and bodily functions.”
“River of Fundament” repeats at 11:15 a.m. Sunday. For now, these two Memphis bookings represent the end of the movie’s “worldwide” tour.
“Barney’s films are notoriously hard to see, and I had nearly given up hope of another North American screening,” said Thompson, 21, who works in a bank. “I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw Memphis on the list.”
He said coming to Memphis is not a hardship, even for just a day. “My wife and I are big fans of Memphis in general. Memphis is a very culture-centric town, and the fact that they’re showing a six-hour experimental art film is testament to that.”
Serious Memphis cinephiles may remember that Barney’s previous motionpicture experiment, “The Cremaster Cycle,” a surreal five-film event that featured such wonders as a double-amputee model outfitted with cheetah legs, played at the old Muvico Peabody Place 22 for a week in 2003, courtesy of Indie Memphis.
In that film, Mailer had a small role as Harry Houdini. The author died in 2007, and a reported highlight of “River of Fundament” is a re-imagining of Mailer’s wake, ending with the undead Mailer emerging from a river of feces.
“The imagery of ‘River of Fundament’ grows ever more aggressive, until a third act that’s almost an assault,” wrote reviewer Glenn Kenny in The New York Times. “Suffice it to say that it makes ‘Pink Flamingos’ look like ‘The Sound of Music,’ and if that sounds hard to believe, don’t say I didn’t warn you. That said, it’s clear that Mr. Barney’s purpose is entirely serious ... and the web of allusions and cultural associations Mr. Barney weaves is, on a certain level, staggering, and sometimes moving.”
“It’s a unique spectacle,” said Andria Lisle, associate curator of film and public engagement at the Brooks. “It’s a very rare opportunity for us to bring this level of art in the Egyptian funeral rites and Detroit muscle cars meet in “River of Fundament,” a 350-minute movie (with two intermissions) inspired by a Norman Mailer novel, “Ancient Evenings.”
medium of film to Memphis. “Barney himself acknowledges that the film is something of an ordeal, but it’s always surprising. It should be like going on a journey that affects you physically.”
Lisle said several outof-towners in addition to Thompson have bought tickets to the movie. One such person is Stacey Rathert, 28, adjunct professor in art at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Rathert’s eagerness has a personal element: She worked on the movie. Even so, “I never thought in a million years I’d be able to see it.”
In 2010, when Rathert was a student at Fort s State University in Hays,
Kansas, she and some other Kansas metal artists traveled to Detroit in answer to Barney’s call for skilled participants on a huge set inside a former auto industry steel foundry. “I was on a scaffolding above a huge furnace, tossing in tons of cast iron in packets that would melt and come out as this very beautiful molten orange flowing liquid. It looked like lava.”
She said she was one of about 50 metal workers in the scene, throwing iron into the furnaces for close to 13 hours. “It was insane. We obviously had a very specific job to do so we had to pay attention, but our ‘acting’ direction was to act as if we were at a funeral, very somber and sad.”
Thompson said the impact of the “Cremaster” films explains why he considers “River of Fundament” a must-see.
“It was shocking to me, just the fact that it was such an ambitious undertaking,” he said of “Cremaster.”
“It’s like (Barney) creates literally his own world, and his own rules that the people in that world play by.”
He said he’s aware he may not enjoy “River of Fundament.” “I wouldn’t be interested in it if I knew I was going to love it,” he said. “The risk that I might hate it is part of the fun.”
Not everyone is willing to take that risk. “My wife’s coming with me to Memphis,” he said, “but she’s not going to watch the film.”
Tickets to “River of Fundament” are scaled to match the movie’s epic length: Admission is $22, or $15 for museum members and students. Each screening will contain two intermissions. For more information, visit brooksmuseum.org. .
Staggering imagery on a colossal scale is a signature of Matthew Barney’s epic art film “River of Fundament,” which screens Saturday and Sunday at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.