Last weekend I finally saw Matthew Barney‘s River of Fundament, the 2014 film that is the operatic result of his years-long collaboration with Jonathan Bepler to explore, as Barney has put it in interviews, “the language of opera.” I wouldn’t dare call this “an official review,” particularly since I’m still absorbing the work seven days on, but I’d like to log some thoughts. I find it’s a worthwhile endeavor for a few reasons — some selfish, others less so:
• This is my site. I’ll do what I please.
• It may help me process it for my own understanding.
• A number of the legitimate reviews in circulation, particularly the more negative ones, are flawed in at least one or two common respects. (More on that below.) I may not be The New York Times or The Guardian, but I get some traffic. In light of that, I’d like to offer my own $0.02.
Any attempt at a concise summary of the film’s plot is futile, but I’ll try anyway. (You can read or hear far better synopsis straight from the source here.)
River of Fundament is a loose interpretation of Normal Mailer’s 1983 novel Ancient Evenings, and the content is largely informed by both the book as well as critic Harold Bloom’s review in The New York Review of Books. Ancient Evenings is a graphic tale of an ancient Egyptian nobleman who, through magic, reincarnates himself several times in order to attain greater knowledge and power, ultimately failing his third rebirth. The 700-page+ novel, which Mailer considered his best, was largely panned by critics because of its intensely sexual and scatological passages and themes. Traveling from womb to the outside world, the reincarnated must traverse a river of feces, or River of Fundament. Also included are tales of Isis and Osiris, Horus and Set, the Battle of Kadesh, a peculiar accounting of embalmment, and other detailed curiosities. Content aside, it is also written in an engaging but unusual manner. It’s less like you’re being told a story and more like you’re peeking into others’ lives. As for Bloom, his criticism suggested that Ancient Evenings was symbolically autobiographical for Mailer, in that he had hoped, through his life’s work, to eventually evolve or reincarnate into one of The Great American Authors, namely Ernest Hemingway (as represented by the pharaoh, per Bloom). That, and Bloom considered the sordid descriptions of ancient Egypt to be a comment on American society.
River of Fundament’s central setting is the wake of Norman Mailer, taking place in a precise reconstruction of Mailer’s Brooklyn home (which just so happens to be floating down the East River as a funeral barge). The protagonist is the dead Mailer himself, whose various reincarnations visit his own wake, each being reborn in a river of feces that flows beneath the home. The wake is full of friends, family, and spirits. (For an extra dose of realism, the wake guests include various levels of arterati, many of which could be tied to Mailer in one way or another, such as Fran Lebowitz, Salman Rushdie, Elaine Stritch, Dick Cavett, and more. The casting of Paul Giamatti as Ptah-nem-hotep and Maggie Gyllenhaal and Ellen Burstyn both as Hathfertiti also lend “celebrity” credence.) Over the course of the evening, the living gradually exit, leaving only the spirits as the successive Normans work to ascend to greatness. Parallel to this are three separate live performances filmed in Los Angeles, Detroit, and New York, the footage for which is interspersed throughout each of the film’s three acts, respectively. These performances each center around the ritualistic destruction and rebirth of an American-made car (harkening back to Bloom’s essay), with each car acting as a simulacrum for Norman’s spirit. Also, like Ancient Evenings, the live performances tell ancient tales. In Los Angeles’s REN the car (Norman) dies its first death, only to be reborn. The Detroit performance (KHU) is a retelling of Isis and Osiris, and Brooklyn’s BA includes the fight between Horus and Set, both symbolically and physically.
Throughout the three acts, these parallel worlds eventually blend together. In Act I, the wake’s living and spirits are separated — only the Egyptian characters (Hathfertiti, Ptah-nem-hotep, Set, Nepthys, Isis) able to communicate with both — and REN is presented as a flashback to another time. In Act II, the wake’s drunkenness begins to blur the living and spiritual worlds, which are affected by KHU‘s telling of Isis and Osiris. Finally, Act III sees Mailer’s house near completely taken over by the spirit realm (save Norman’s widow) while the wake crosses paths with the seemingly contemporaneous battle between Horus and Set.
I’ve been wanting to see this for over 18 months. Thankfully, the Cleveland Institute of Art‘s Cinematheque, in conjunction with the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland offered two screenings over the weekend and I was able to attend. Frustratingly, I missed the Detroit screenings in June 2014 because I didn’t even know about the work until I saw the beautiful, jaw-dropping exhibition at Munich’s Haus der Kunst the following month. (I touched upon the work in this earlier post.) It was a happy accident that I saw the Munich show — the first major one for the sculptures and film in tandem — as I simply visited the museum on my day off. Though, within about twenty minutes, I was admiring the Boat of Ra with equal parts wonder and awe. Many of the sculptures were products of or featured in the live performances (e.g., the destroyed cars), but the exhibit also featured pieces related to the wake setting as well as production stills and other small works. I spent at least a couple hours in the exhibit, devouring the program and gallery’s every description and evaluating every crevice. I hadn’t before heard of Ancient Evenings, but I got the gist, and I was fascinated by the juxtaposition of Egyptian mythology and the American auto industry (and, particularly living so close, Detroit). Once through the exhibit, I decided that I had to see the corresponding film. How or when were an absolute mystery, as it had already left Munich and was on its way to Australia.
So, after over a year-and-a-half of waiting, occasionally binge-reading what info I could find (including reviews), and often pondering about what the work would actually be like, I was delighted to have a regional screening and my calendar align. Once it looked as if the weather would be clear for the 3.5-hr.+ commute each way, I even started reading Ancient Evenings just to at least get a point of reference. (I also read Bloom’s criticism, of course.) By this point, though, I was shouldering a burdensome dichotomy: my own ponderous — idealized? — notions about what River would be, and the often mixed-to-negative reviews by those who seem to know Barney’s work well. (After all, it’s hard for me to get out of the house for fun these days between work and a baby at home, and I was committing significant mileage and hours to see it. What if it turned out to be a bust?) At the close of Act III, one of my initial thoughts after getting my wits about myself was: Did I see the same film as some of those critics?.
I was moved.
And I wasn’t just moved in a materialistic “I finally got to see it” sort of way, but rather genuinely so. It caught me off guard, as I knew so little about the actual content going in — or, rather, how it would be realized. Yeah, I read about it for many months, had already made my way through a good chunk of Ancient Evenings, and had seen the gallery exhibition, but the music and most of the images and action were a mystery to me. (Very much unlike, for example, my seeing my first Ring Cycle or Einstein on the Beach — I was well studied going in and went for the live experience.) Running just shy of six hours (not counting the two intermissions), River is relentless throughout save the brief, pastoral prelude and postlude. And, yes, as is made clear in every review (and I can attest), the work is graphic in nearly every way, occasionally bordering on the perverse. Much has been made of the scatological and sexual themes and depictions. Fair enough. However, in all honesty, I didn’t feel that the explicit moments overshadowed the rest of the work. (For example, the sexual occurrences are devoid of titillation.) While there’s at least a running thread of vulgarity throughout, it’s worth noting that more can be said of Ancient Evenings, the work upon which River is at least loosely based. Action aside, the film is beautifully and impeccably shot. The set pieces, makeup, color palettes, and camera work really synthesize into visual enchantment.
To say that River is rife with symbolism is to say that I breathe oxygen. Plenty is there for the uninitiated. However, the deeper one digs into both the film and its myriad sources, the more rewarding of an experience it is. For example, take KHU, Act II’s live performance from Detroit. If one knows the story of Isis and Osiris, particularly as told by Mailer, then you realize just how ingenious Barney’s interpretation is. Here, the resurrected Trans Am acts both as Norman’s spirit but also as Osiris, who is ultimately deceived and murdered by Set. Once his body has been found and retrieved from the river by FBI Agents Isis and Nepthys, Set (a detective, now portrayed as a double by both Eugene and Herbert Perry) commands that the body (car/spirit) now be dismembered and cut into fourteen pieces, all of which are then incinerated and poured into molten molds, creating some of the more impressive exhibit sculptures. At the end of the act, Isis then gives birth to Horus, who will attempt to avenge his father (Osiris) in Act III. If that weren’t enough, at the beginning of KHU, Barney (representing Osiris) is dressed as James Lee Byars in The Death of James Lee Byars, and placed inside a goldleaf-lined ambulance near his golden Trans Am. While this may seem like a non-sequitur at first, it’s worth noting that Byars was born in Detroit but died in Cairo, Egypt, and his Death was one of his most known pieces. It’s all there: Detroit, Egypt, art, gold (an idée fixe throughout River), and death.
If anything negatively affected me, it was the utter bleakness at the end of Act II and the first part of Act III. The wake’s drunken, origiastic peak in Act II and the pharaoh Usermare’s desacratory holding court at the beginning of Act III was rather discomforting. However, I assume that was Barney’s intended effect. Consequently, I came away disturbed more by Usermare’s character than with anything he (or his court) specifically did. I was affected but in no way offended.
I mentioned a number of reviews having shared flaws. Many of them (over-)emphasize the (legitimately) graphic elements. It’d be easy to assume, based on reading most reviews, that River is six hours of continuous, purposefully alienating revulsion. Not so. (It’d be like saying Strauss’s Salome is only noteworthy for brief nudity and a touch of necrophilia, saying nothing of the revolutionary musical score.) Who knows; perhaps it helps that I’m not easily disgusted. At any rate, I went in with an open and, admittedly, willing mind. On this point I’ll note that Barney has stated that he himself was uncomfortable with Mailer’s explicit nature in Ancient Evenings, implying that he wouldn’t let his own taste impede Mailer’s to a certain degree.
The most glaring failure of most of the reviews, however, relates to the music. River of Fundament is almost always reviewed strictly through the prism of visual art or as an art film (emphasized by the exhibitions and limited screenings, respectively), both of which it certainly is *in part*. However, this is truly a collaborative piece by Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler. That Bepler’s masterfully eclectic score is often treated like any old soundtrack is beyond egregious. Going back to the beginning, Barney and Bepler wanted to tackle “the language of opera.” And, donning my professor hat for a moment, “opera” connotes (mostly) continuous music. (Technically, River could be a singspiel, etc. because of the dialogue, but that’s why Barney often avoids labeling it as opera outright.) Bepler’s largely through-composed score takes up much of the film — I’d guess at least 4.75 hours of it. And it’s not just a sound bed, but wholly integral to the dramatic experience. Text is sung throughout — with both traditional and extended techniques — via aria, recitative, and sprechstimme, complete with solos, ensembles, and choruses. The libretto comes from excerpts of Ancient Evenings, Hemingway, Whitman, Emerson, Yeats, and others.
Also noteworthy is that most of the music is diegetic in some form or another. For example, when the music starts to emanate during Norman’s eulogy (about 20+ minutes into the film), it quietly emerges from the musicians attending the wake, almost as if they’re warming up during the reading. (The eulogy, read by Broadway legend Elaine Stritch, is an excerpt of Ancient Evenings.) Gradually, Stritch (and others) begin to incorporate elements of sprechstimme and recitative, taking the “live” performers and sound and making them extra-diegetic, more for the audience than the subjects. The music generally becomes more dissonant and “ancient” as the film progresses, with string instruments made from sheet metal in Act II’s KHU, and Act III’s BA featuring brass horns made from car parts, and Native American Indian music in Act III’s latter wake scenes. Bepler handles these transitions — both small and large — masterfully throughout.
The stylistic diversity is truly staggering, and, to my ears, is (almost) all very effective. (I was a little jarred by the R&B section near the end of Act II’s wake, possibly because it was juxtaposed with one of the more nihilistic scenes.) The score includes elements of classical, (free) jazz, folk, mariachi, soul, R&B, traditional Native American Indian, Partch-ian systems of both construction and micro-tonality, drum and bugle corps, and more. At first glance, that may seem ineffectually broad. However, when you consider some of the performers, it’s a veritable Who’s Who of each style, two of which perform main characters: modern voice pioneer Joan La Barbara (as Norman’s widow), and free jazz percussion pioneer Milford Graves (as Norman II; also notable is that he’s Jonathan Bepler’s former teacher). Other musicians include Dr. Lonnie Smith, Lila Downs, Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond), James Carter (in a brief, unexpected appearance that made my jaw hit the floor), Eugene and Herbert Perry, Belita Woods, and many more. Though, Barney wasn’t going for names alone — the three live performances which are spliced into each act feature local talent as well. I can personally attest to this, as a friend of mine, Dr. James Fusik, performed as part of Detroit’s KHU, as well as a number of other familiar faces of colleagues and former classmates. Also, I’d be remiss to not give special mention to Detroit-based vocalist Jennie Knaggs, who deftly performs a variety of styles throughout (both during the wake and in KHU).
Furthermore, it’s not just a matter of Bepler juxtaposing varying styles, but rather his ability to so fluently filter them through his own voice and to serve the story. For example, Act I’s REN features a drum & bugle corps as well as a mariachi band with vocalist. Similar to the early wake music, the ensembles mostly begin stylistically traditionally, but eventually the brass are playing dense harmonic clusters and Lila Downs’s beautiful contralto sings atop dissonant bursts from the mariachi violins. The two ensembles are initially separated spatially and musically, the camera and audio going back and forth. Ultimately, in the culmination of REN (and Act I), they find themselves performing together in the same space while Khepera, in a ceremoniously profane fashion (isn’t it all?), prepares the automotive spirit of Norman for death/rebirth.
Of course, the score isn’t just a collection of similarly “Bepler-ed” styles. The composer also demonstrates his ability to tackle various musics head-on. For example, in the wake’s latter half of Act I, the young Hathfertiti sings a truly charming and catchy folk-pop ballad for Norman I (to the guests who can’t see Norman I, and to Norman I himself). It’s a fully realized song amidst the overall work, abruptly cut off at the end by a melismatic outburst from an angered Set. The same can be said for the more straightforward classical writing for Set’s passages, particularly in Act II’s KHU. Heard out of context, one may assume that it’s just another excerpt of contemporary American opera.
The voice as an instrument and atmospheric sound device is really highlighted, particularly in the wake scenes and in KHU, much more so than I had anticipated. It was a pleasant surprise. The aforementioned La Barbara and Knaggs as well as powerhouses Phil Minton and Sidsel Endresen really shine in this regard, as well as the wake’s chorus of Kjersti Kveli, Gelsey Bell, and Megan Schubert. A number of the sounds border on inhuman, particularly from Minton, but their conviction, virtuosity, and gravitas belie any absurdity.
Related to the music, one rather common criticism overall (not just music) is that the film engages in tokenism throughout, such as with the use of the mariachi band or with Act III’s African-American step dance team. I didn’t really get that impression; nothing stood out as such to me. Frankly, those making such broad (and lazy) accusations need to dig deeper into the material. This is yet another common shortcoming. (*)
Take the step dance team as an example, as that’s one that is occasionally highlighted as tokenism. The ensemble appears as part of Norman II’s ascension ceremony (en route to rebirth as Norman III) in Act III. Norman II is portrayed by Milford Graves, whose every scene from rebirth to death fittingly incorporates rhythm in one way or another (sometimes free, other times not). In a final celebration of rhythm, is a step dance team not out of the realm of aesthetic possibility? Until this point, Graves had been playing rhythms and music mostly himself (with found objects, his body and voice, and drums alike), so how is this group not appropriate for joining him in a rhythmic/percussive chorus? Similar criticisms have been levied against the Native American Indian chorus that appears in Act III (and musically opens the film’s trailer). However, it’s worth noting that Norman III is played by the 95-year-old Chief Dave Beautiful Bald Eagle. So wouldn’t that be appropriate also?
Taken together, the exhibition, the film, and its sources are a staggering gesamtkunstwerk. Each may be appreciated differently and separately, of course, and it’s certainly a calorie-burner that, arguably, requires some studying. But if you’re willing to put forth the time and the effort, the payoff makes it more than worthwhile. Personally, I imagine there’ll be more for me to stew over once I finish Ancient Evenings and contemplate the film even more. In fact, having sat and digested it for a while, I’d like a second viewing and listening just to help make more sense of the visual minutiae and to hear Bepler’s amazing score another time. River of Fundament, much like its namesake, is something you enter at your own risk, but you may come out the other side better for it.
*I initially did have a question about Horus and Set’s respective pre-fight entourages in Act III. Many thanks to Chris Newell, who performed with Mystic River in River, for clarifying. He pointed out that those characters are Mardi Gras Indians, whose “composite ethnicity” is a nice analogue for the metals and characters. After that, nothing stood out to me as racial, ethnic, or gender tokenism. I’m grateful for the clarification — both to set the record straight and also to allay my sole potential concern with the work.