[2014078] River of Fundament

[2014078] River of Fundament

A film by Matthew Barney and Jonathon Bepler @ Capri Theatre

5:00pm, Mon 3 Mar 2014

So – a bearded middle-aged man emerges from a river of shit and wanders through an apartment in a bizarre house to the bathroom where he plucks a turd from the toilet bowl and wraps it in gold foil and returns it to the toilet whereupon it transforms into an old man with a gold foil condom and wheezing colostomy bag that proceeds to anally fuck him with the resultant juices appearing as mercury which rolls into the next room to a girl with two prosthetic legs who then starts carving away at her stumps with a knife.

And then the title of the film appears.

I wrote the above during the first interval of River of Fundament, and I’ve read it to a number of people since; they have all nodded their heads and said “Yep. That nails it.”

Which is nice, because it’s one of my favourite bits of writing ever. It just poured out of me as an immediate response to the first third of this movie, presented by Festival Artistic Director David Sefton as a challenging durational work… in fact, he all but dared people at the Festival launch to see it. But not many seemed willing to take him up on that dare: there was maybe only around a quiet hundred or so in attendance at the Chelsea for this screening… and maybe a third of those departed during the interval prior to the second Act.

Maybe they left because of the knowledge that the movie was supposed to be five hours long (and ran about ten percent over)… or maybe they left because the first Act was fucking bonkers… but it’s only in retrospect that one can truthfully say that the first Act was the (relatively) Sane Act.

But let’s take a step back: River of Fundament is very much an art-film, written and directed (and, occasionally, performed) by Matthew Barney, with a musical score by Jonathon Bepler. The two had previously worked together, most notably on The Cremaster Cycle… whose Wikipedia entry I wish I’d read before seeing Fundament. “[S]ome consider it a major work of art, on a par with …The Waste Land, while others dismiss it as vapid, self-indulgent tedium” says the Reception section on the page, and I think the same reception could befall this work.

It’s essentially performed as an opera (reading the libretto now is both enlightening and disturbing), with significant portions of dialogue-heavy narrative, such as the wake of Norman Mailer… but even that proves to be an opportunity for the bizarre, taking place in a house on a river barge with all manner of guests from fact and fiction. Mailer is reincarnated several times over the course of the movie – evoking the overarching themes of regeneration and rebirth – and there’s repeated motifs involving cars and steel and rivers and…

Oh, and there’s a distinctly Egyptian flavour to the text, too.

But that’s about the limit of my understanding. I remember gently mocking someone who was perusing the libretto prior to the film starting, jokingly accusing them of self-spoiling; but they most certainly were on the right track: I joined the bulk of the audience who furiously studied the text in the intervals. Not that it helped: Barney’s visual presentation gives the impression that it is drenched in metaphor, but you’re not quite sure for what. It’s kind of like a dot-to-dot puzzle where you think you know what the picture is supposed to be, but the dots are numbered in such an order that all you wind up with is a big messy squiggle.

Whilst Barney certainly has an eye for colour and spectacle, his writing is the type of inspired lunacy that befits the partner of Björk. That opening sequence – a pastiche of discordant images and actions – is bookended by a similar closing sequence that went on and on and on… but it was impossible to look away. For all the impenetrable subtext behind the butchery of a golden car, or the rivulets of molten metal, or the choral battles in a dry dock, there’s no denying the visual beauty of the movie; this trailer shows about one four-hundredth of the content, and it’s gorgeous. The sound, too, was wonderful, with rich orchestrations accompanying the operatic portions and contemplative quietness when required (though things were a little murky early in the second Act).

But Oh! the memories I will treasure from River of Fundament: the non sequitur montage of someone biting into a lettuce (à la Iron Chef) made absolutely no sense at all… until the third Act, where a lettuce is used as a masturbatory aid with the resulting semen-sodden fibre eaten. And then there was the graphic – and I mean graphic – sex scenes. Despite what my friends may think, I’m no porn connoisseur, but I doubt there’s any content online that matches the graphic intensity of these scenes… because this stuff was shot well. That manic sequence featuring a frantic drum solo behind a lovingly shot rimming sequence with a naked woman bent over backwards pissing on a dinner table, cut with two men fighting and mutilating each other’s genitals… bizarre. There was a pregnant woman involved there too.

So… prior to seeing Annie Sprinkle in 1996, I couldn’t believe that an “arts” Festival could essentially advocate someone masturbating onstage, let alone label it “art”. But whilst River of Fundament has no problems whatsoever with inserting scenes of sex, violence, and depravity into the work, they’re jumbled up and mixed into the broader work. They may lack context in the piece (something which Sprinkle’s act could never be accused of), but such is the nature of the film that pretty much everything lacks context.

Is it Art? Most certainly. Is it good Art? I dunno… probably: it looks and sounds pretty, and certainly gives cause for one to reflect on that which has been presented. Would I see it again? Oh hell no.

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