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Friday, October 09, 2015

Movie Review: River of Fundament (2015) d. Matthew Barney (@ Geffen MOCA Los Angeles)

Matthew Barney's six hour film, River of Fundament is now playing at the Geffen MOCA in Los Angeles, CA. through mid january, on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

Movie Review:
River of Fundament
(@ Geffen MOCA Los Angeles)

  It's not particularly easy to see Matthew Barney's films. For example, to see the Cremaster Cycle (over 10 hours) I had to fly to New York City during his show at the Guggenheim and sit in the basement of that museum for nearly 12 hours (breaks between films.)  The Cremaster Cycle was five films, and the Guggenheim exhibit was either essentially props from the film or works that were inspired by some aspect of the film.   The same is true for his new show at the Geffen Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and while it is totally possible to see the show without seeing the movie, it's a bit like going to see props from a film without having seen the underlying film.

  I suppose you wouldn't necessarily have to have seen the Wizard of Oz to appreciate seeing Dorothy's Red Slippers at the Smithsonian but it seems to be an unlikely scenario. The Geffen Museum of Contemporary Art is showing the film three times a week: Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.  It will take you about seven hours to watch the film, which is in three parts with a fifteen minute intermission between parts.   So if you are reading this review and toying with the idea of doing one, both or neither, I would really recommend at least PLANNING to see the movie if you are planning to see the exhibition.  If the movie totally doesn't interest you, maybe skip both the exhibition and the film.

  There are numerous correspondences between The Cremaster Cycle and River of Fundament.  Like a pop star who knows how to write a lyric with two meanings, Barney is a master of skirting the line between the meaningless and the meaningful.   When it comes to moments like the scene in River of Fundament where a pregnant African-American Muslim woman with one eye vaginally penetrates an equally pregnant white woman wearing a New York Giants hoodie with a cigar wrapped in tobacco or something to make it look exactly like a penis, the viewer can be left in the interpretive dust.
This is a still of Matthew Barney in his mason's apron in Cremaster 3.  He appears at the beginning of The River of Fundament in essentially the same outfit.

 The similarities are so numerous that you could argue that River of Fundament is a continuation of The Cremaster Cycle.  To give an example from the overture of the first section of the film, Barney appears on screen in his Mason's apron outfit that was a key portion of the Cremaster Cycle.  It literally looks like the same character.   Norman Mailer, physically present in the Cremaster Cycle, is a huge artistic influence on River of Fundament.   River of Fundament is theoretically a take on Mailer's late, poorly received opus of decadent Egyptian royalty, Ancient Nights.  This book was widely panned when it was released, a fact referenced by Elaine Strich, playing herself in the first portion of the film, in a eulogy she makes about Mailer at the wake/passage to the underworld that occupies the first two hours of the movie.
This set piece involving the remnants of a Chevy Impala and a working steel foundry is the most visually striking moment in the entire film and a kind of narrative axis.

    The Cremaster Cycle is dominated by the figure of the Chrylser Building, and Barney famously staged a demolition derby in the ornate lobby in the course of Cremaster 3.  In River of Fundament, the first portion of the film contains the ritual destruction of a 1967 Chevy Impala in the atrium of a Southern California Chrysler dealership.    Barney's focus on landscapes both natural and man made continues.  During a particularly striking scene in the second part of the film, the Egyptian God Set/Mailer dinner party  guest presides over the destruction of the Chevy Impala via melting it down in a real live foundry.  The combination of fire from the foundry and the molten metal which comes out is a kind of narrative center piece to the six hour film, and honestly left me gasping for breath in astonishment.

  Despite his ability to craft striking visual images, the lack of narrative typically drags on the actual watching of Barney's films.  Here, however the use of an actual opera format- a story, with characters talking to one another in sing-song opera speak (and also singing) means that at least the non-narrative of Cremaster Cycle has been improved upon.
The battle between Set and Osiris dominates the third part of River of Fundament

  The third portion of the film involves a power struggle between two of the Egyptian Gods/dinner party guests: Set and Osiris, both of home are battling for the throne vacated by the deceased Horus.   This leads to an elaborate battle between the two gods at what looks to be a water reclamation plant, replete with accompanying bands who appear to be dressed in Aztec/Meso American garb and playing pre-Colombian instruments.  Their feud is eventually moderated back at the Hemingway wake apartment with the help of, I shit you not, a Native American squad of drummer-singers and a chorus of Ernest Hemingway impersonators.   The third portion also includes a scene set at an auto body shop, where one of the cars from the second part of the film is dismantled.  A vicious fight between two auto body shop works occurs, mirroring the more ornate struggle between Set and Osiris.

  At the same time, the auto shop manager, played by visibly pregnant former porn star Bobbi Starr has a sexual encounter with an equally pregnant African American/Muslim woman, wearing a chador and everything, which culminates with Starr having what appears to be a piece of poop inserted into her vagina.  Um yeah.  Adriana Nicole (also a porn star) shows up in the second chapter of the film, where she has anal sex with a party guest and then excretes a mass of bilious green material from her anus.  Poop and urine are all over River of Fundament.  In fact, the title "River of Shit" would have been equally appropriate.   None of the sex scenes are particularly troubling except in terms of their visual explicitness.  It's certainly not pornography, since one would have to be a monster to be aroused by any of the sex acts, but it is very explicit.

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