In 1999, Matthew Barney cast the writer Norman Mailer as Harry Houdini for his film Cremaster 2. After seeing it, Mailer declared Barney a ‘genius’ and, years later, asked him to consider his novel Ancient Evenings (1983) for a film adaptation. In 700 pages, the book tells of a mischievous sorcerer who attempts to manipulate the process of reincarnation in a perverse, scatologically minded Ancient Egypt. Readers and critics found it long, cumbersome, inscrutable and needlessly profane, but Mailer held the book to be his masterpiece, and Barney was its hope for a new life.
After Mailer died in 2007, Barney began to interpret the film through a series of performances: the first, Guardian of the Veil, which played at the Manchester Opera House in 2007, served as a sketch for the sprawling, eight-year project RIVER OF FUNDAMENT. The film that eventually resulted is not an adaptation of Ancient Evenings, but a collaging of the myth of Osiris, Mailer’s biography, the history of the American automobile, and fragmented perspectives on Mailer’s novel – in particular an insightful review by Harold Bloom.
Compared to Barney’s early work, river of fundament has a satisfying and manageable narrative, with a beginning, middle and palpable, metaphysical resolution. The film’s spine is a hallucinatory wake for Mailer and, for the scene, Barney fastidiously reconstructed Mailer’s three-storey Brooklyn Heights penthouse apartment and cast all sorts of cultural figures to play themselves, including Debbie Harry, Larry Holmes, Fran Lebowitz, Salman Rushdie, Luc Sante and Lawrence Weiner. The wake devolves and is periodically interrupted by episodic performances staged in Los Angeles, Detroit and New York, moving from east to west and back again, through the loci of the American automotive industry.
With two intermissions, the film is nearly six hours long, a staggering but not unprecedented length. Some predecessors include Bela Tarr’s Satantango (1994), a portrait of Hungarian village life, which is seven and half hours long; the Holocaust documentary Shoah (1985), which is nine; and Barney’s own five-film ‘Cremaster Cycle’ which, in its marathon-viewing entirety, is seven hours long. Duration is central to of all these films, and in river of fundament the audience experiences the disorienting unsteadiness of time as the story drifts from diurnal life into the riverine underworld, where characters age decades and die multiple deaths in a single evening.
Endurance has been one of Barney’s primary subjects since his earliest videos, in which he restrained himself with athletic equipment in order to produce faint, strained pencil drawings. His previous films are shorter in duration but stylized with agonizingly patient shots of inert sculpture and wordless actions by wooden characters. river of fundament, on the other hand, moves almost at the rate of a conventional narrative film. The editing is relatively propulsive; the dialogue is plentiful (if a little difficult to parse) and the presence of dramatic actors – including Ellen Burstyn, Paul Giamatti, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Elaine Stritch – gives a tumbling, emotional momentum to the characters that is almost entirely absent from the artist’s previous works.
Barney’s casting often posits explicit connections between actors and their roles, sometimes relying on non-actors, such as Richard Serra in Cremaster 3 (2002), for their bio-graphical resonance. In RIVER OF FUNDAMENT, he wisely cast John Buffalo Mailer, Norman’s spitting-image son and an actor who has also appeared in Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps (2010) to portray the first reincarnation of his father, hulking around a replica of his childhood home.
First published in Issue 163