Dedicated to classics and hits.

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.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Bonjour Tristesse (1954) by Francoise Sagan

Author Francoise Sagan was 18 when Bonjour Tristesse was published in 1954, it was an overnight sensation.

Book Review
Bonjour Tristesse (1954)
 by Francoise Sagan

     One of the major themes of 20th century literature is the emergence of "youth culture."  That emergence is inextricably linked to the post World War II economic boom in the United States.   England and France, although they experienced a different economic reality, supplied many of the initial artists of the youth culture that began to emerge in the 1950s.  Francoise Sagan and her break-out hit Bonjour Tristesse is an early, French, female example of the pan-cultural "pop star" artist.  Bonour Tristesse is a mere slip of a tail about a young (17) woman living with her widowed father.

  The novel starts while the family (and Dad's nubile girlfriend) are on vacation, renting a villa in the south of France.  The more age appropriate Jane shows up, and complications ensue. Cecile is a pre-adult sexual creature and her machinations are those of a fully grown woman.  This character has been so embedded in popular culture, both inside and outside literature that it is impossible to imagine how novel and refreshing this book must have been in 1954, let alone in its English translation.  The explicit treatment of sexuality of ADULTS let alone children, was so remote in the 1950s that books like Ulysses were banned for essentially factual descriptions of intercourse.

 Bonjour Tristesse is a mere 120 pages soaking wet, so to speak.  Even with wide margins and smaller pages it is barely that length. There is no doubt that it makes for a good product, the kind of book that a 17 year old girl or 20 year old woman would read in 1954.   It is the literary equivalent of a pop song.

The Killer Inside Me (1952) by Jim Thompson

Casey Affleck was by all accounts terrible in the 2010 movie version of The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson.  Also, Jessica Alba was in that movie

Book Review
The Killer Inside Me (1952)
by Jim Thompson

  Black Lizard is a speciality crime imprint that was started by publisher Random House in 1990.  Although they publish contemporary authors as well, their reprints are essential for the critical reevaluation of crime fiction that elevated writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler from genre territory to canonical figures in 20th century American literature.  Jim Thompson is another writer that was swept up in the craze for crime fiction/noir in the late 80s and early 90s.  Less popular than Chandler and Hammett at the time, he had the good fortune of being singled out by the New York Times even as his books were treated as pulp fiction by their publisher.

  By the reappraisal period of the late 80s and early 90s his hyper violent books like The Killer Inside Me, about a sociopathic sheriff's deputy terrorizing a community in small town Texas, were more in tune with the zeitgeist of ultraviolence and serial killer chic.  Thompson  also used high-end literary technique in service of his violent plots- The Killer Inside Me is a riff on the classic unreliable narrator.  The Killer Inside Me is a great deal more graphic than anything else published during this period outside of Junkie by William Burroughs, which was also treated initially as pulp fiction by its publisher.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) by James Baldwin

James Baldwin

Book Review
Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953)
by James Baldwin

  James Baldwin spans the major fault lines of 20th century America.  He was a gay, black, civil-rights activist/socialist with a lot to say about the role of Christianity in the lives of Americans.   He was born and lived in New York City and left New York for France where he lived the rest of his life.  Although he has a life time of work to his credit, both fiction and non-fiction, he is best known for Go Tell It on the Mountain, a semi-autobiographical bildungsroman about the relationship between a young man grouping up in Harlem in the 1930s and his step father, a strict Pentecostal preacher who emigrated to New York City.  Other characters are his mother, Elizabeth and his step father's sister, Florence.  

  After an opening section that is more-or-less a stream of consciousness narrative by John- the narrator/author character depicting his day-to-day life.  His world is fraught with conflict and the day that is documented is John's birthday.  His mother, at least, remembers, but his older brother- ne'er do well Roy, spoils any opportunity for celebration by getting stabbed in the face, cursing out his father and then having his father beat him unmercifully.

  The second section has John and his Father, Mother and Aunt at the same church, where each has a flashback that gives insight into their back-story and current situation. The individual stories of the family members are almost unbearably sad.   Baldwin's homosexuality is not a central them of Go Tell It on the Mountain, but it is alluded to in the text.  Being gay is almost the least of John's problems, and when the story is included to embrace the experiences of his parent's generation, the overall effect is almost unbearably sad.

 If you read the first wave of classics of African American lit, written before the 1960s cultural revolution, you have a good grasp on the same problems that exist today in that community.  But Baldwin is also pointing the finger at Christianity and the role it plays in African American communities.  The character of John's step-father is shown as moving from a drinking, whoring, layabout to become a preacher over night.  He then fathers an illegitimate child with a local woman while married to another, and lets both Mother and Son die without ever acknowledging the connection.  The hypocrisy of this character isn't counter balanced by any redeeming positive traits, making him one of the major ogres of 20th century fiction.

Memoirs of Hadrian (1951) by Marguerite Yourcenar

Roman Empire under the Rule of Emperor Hadrian.

Book Review
Memoirs of Hadrian (1951)
 by Marguerite Yourcenar

  This is a historical novel written about the Roman Emperor Hadrian.  Hadrian ruled during the period after Christianity had been invented but before it was adopted by the Roman Emperor.  This period of late antiquity is both interesting and rarely a focus of Roman era histories which tend to focus on either the rise of Christianity, the fall of the Roman Empire or the period of the Republic.  Written in the form of a missive to his successor (Marcus Aurelius),  Hadrian's memoirs cover his dimly remembered childhood, his live as a soldier (general) fighting in the endless border skirmishes in Eastern Europe, his rise to power as Emperor,  his career as Emperor, also largely consisting of endless border skirmishes from Parthia to Scotland, where he built Hadrian's wall.

   I would have thought there would be more historical fiction from the Roman Empire in the 1001 Books project, but other than Ben Hur I can't think of another novel set in that time period.  Perhaps that's because so much of Roman history takes place prior to Christianity and so much of the novel relates to the literature of Christianity.   I found myself wondering how many compelling non-Christian characters even exist in the history of the novel between the 18th and 20th century.  Even as voices began to multiply in the 20th century, female voice, African American voices, Latin American voices, LGBT voices, Christianity was a central concerns for authors, both in positive and negative ways.

  As a truly non-Christian lead character, Hadrian stands almost alone and personally I found his mixture of stoicism and Roman paganism to be compelling.  I'm a sucker for stoicism, truth be told.

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