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Sex, Poop & Norman Mailer: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Paul Giamatti & Others Degrade Themselves For Matthew Barney’s Art

Sex, Poop & Norman Mailer: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Paul Giamatti & Others Degrade Themselves For Matthew Barney's Art

Before anything: brass tacks. Matthew Barney‘s new film “River of Fundament” features a number of taboo-breaking, provocative scenes. They are unsimulated and shot in close-up, rubbing your face in their shock value. I could give you a list of 25 such moments, but we’ll stick with three.

1. A full-figured woman receives fricative analingus from a man covered in feces as a ballerina dances with a dwarf, a naked contortionist sprays urine all over a set dinner table and Maggie Gyllenhaal sings “Fuck Yeah!” in an atonal, operatic voice.

2. A third-trimester pregnant North African woman pops out her glass eye and inserts it into the anus of a similarly pregnant Brooklyn chick wearing a NY Giants sweatshirt in a garage, before penetrating her vaginally with a dildo molded from the hardened feces of a bearded mechanic.

3. Elaine Stritch and Fran Lebowitz make droll small talk about how “none of us know anything.”

Now that I have your attention . . .

River of Fundament” runs for five hours and fifty minutes with two planned intermissions, plays at the Brooklyn Academy of Music from February 12th through the 16th, then heads to Munich and Adelaide and will no doubt pop up at arts centers wishing to push the envelope for years to come. Whether it will play in rep houses like Film Forum (like Barney’s “Cremaster 3”) or IFC Center (like “Drawing Restraint 9”) remains to be seen. Its inclusion of some boldfaced names and actual scenes of dialogue (Paul Giamatti is in it, as a Pharaoh, and he’s fantastic) would make it seem like this could be Barney’s break out of the gallery/museum scene. But its prohibitive length and intense disgustingness (so much unsimulated defecating) make it impossible to recommend to typical moviegoers except as a dare.

Matthew Barney is an artist first and a filmmaker second. I don’t mean this as any kind of insight into his aesthetics, I mean this in terms of practicality. He creates (and sells) giant, weird sculptures made from industrial materials. As a wise businessman, he bakes in a complex mythology to these pieces by making them part of inscrutable (and hard to find) films, lending them the perceived importance of a larger, well-thought out system. It’s a little bit hogwash, but it’s definitely different, and over the years the films have become more and more daring and innovative. “Cremaster 3” is straight-up beautiful. Put bluntly, there’s no one else doing what Barney is doing, at least not on this scale, and that is quite literally full of shit, is strangely watchable.

The film begins at a recreation of Norman Mailer’s wake. Wait, that’s not true. There’s a pre-title sequence where a log of Norman Mailer’s turd transforms into his spirit and his flaccid penis wrapped in gold becomes tumescent in real time, butt-fucks the “observer” character (Barney himself), and the resultant spilled semen (represented by mercury) drips down the center of frame as dissonant strings grow louder.

Okay, so THEN to the party—and everyone is there. Dick Cavett shows up! Liz Smith! Salman Rushdie! Jeffrey Eugenides! Heavyweight champ Larry Holmes! Jonas Mekas! Dr. Lonnie Smith jams on the keyboards. It’s all very droll, runs like a play. Elaine Stritch stands to discuss Mailer’s book “Ancient Evenings,” a maligned work, and reads a passage about Egyptian burial rituals. Soon the film begins a stream-of-consciousness blending Egyptology along with the Tom Wolfe-esque party scenes.

That consciousness stream is a river of excrement—one that (apparently) Egyptians had to cross to reincarnate. There’s deuce all over the screen—at one point erupting from the anus of a woman on the receiving end of buggery. (And all over a nice couch, too.) But we leave Mailer’s widow’s home (and its walls of books, photos and knick-knacks) for the heart of Barney’s “piece”—three site-specific “happenings” shot in Los Angeles, Detroit and New York.

In L.A., a Chrysler Imperial (meant to represent Mailer’s spirit) is transformed into a Pontiac Trans Am as a car dealership is destroyed. A marching band plays and a woman has a tarp pulled out from one of her private orifices. (I’d have to see the movie again to determine which one.) In Detroit, an enormous smelting plant turns into a humongous quasi-“Stomp” exercise. Also, a double-amputee police detective shits on a boat. In New York, twin brothers (representing Osiris and Set) duke it out on the Gowanus Canal as hipsters look on. Men urinate, a guy gets his testicle torn off, there are dudes in Caribbean headdresses.

This is all set to an original modern opera by Jonathan Bepler, some of which is really fantastic. It varies between upbeat and percussive and ethereal and strange. Echoing the sequence in “Cremaster 3” where the whooshing of air through elevator shafts is used as an instrument, pressure through a pipe organ in an abandoned Detroit church mixes with a gasps of a radiator. The lyrics are poetic and profane. “Osiris, you came inside me!” is a phrase that’s sung a few times. As a fan of Frank Zappa, hearing complex melodies with unexpected F-bombs reminded me a bit of Thing-Fish.

Between these set-pieces we cut back to the party, which gets more and more depraved. The roasted pig turns to mold and the sex acts get weirder (a cabbage, eh?) and the monologuing rages on. “My stool! My stool!” Giamatti erupts at one point, to elucidate his greatness. I can’t believe it isn’t meant to be funny, even if Ancient Egyptians really did hold that their solid waste contained the essence of their majesty. (The film’s title, by the way, is a pun. Fundament doesn’t just mean foundation — it means rear end.)

So… all of this is amusing and shocking, but is it any good? Well, strangely, a lot of it is. The juxtaposition of Egyptian myth with modern iconography is surprisingly effective. I mean, why not rip a hood ornament off of a car and hold it aloft like a talisman?

The movie certainly is effective at getting you “in a zone.” I’d recommend chopping off the entire last forty-five minutes (it takes an awful long time for Norman to “cross over”) but this is, fundamentally, an opera. There are arias that need to be sung. I’ve never read “Ancient Evenings,” but after poking around I see that Mailer’s intentions weren’t just to write historical fiction but to immerse the reader in the depravity and mysticism of the time.

I don’t think Barney has done that, but by the sheer maximalism and strangeness of this project he definitely pulled a number on me. In addition to the shocking scenes of sex and defecation I found myself reflecting on the way “River of Fundament” would slide from a typical “scene” into abstract musicality. It’s a neat trick, one repeated frequently and, quite frankly, one worth further examination. That is, if you can make it across the disgusting river to get there. [B]

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