Monday, April 25, 2016

Knocked for six: My reaction to Matthew Barney's River of Fundament

Yesterday I went to the George Eastman Museum with my friend John Karyus for a screening of River of Fundament, a six-hour experimental film by conceptual artist Matthew Barney.

I knew going in that this one would be an ordeal, not least for its monstrous length (with two intermissions dividing it into three parts) and because Barney is best known to film buffs for his 5-part Cremaster cycle, which I've never seen but which is notorious for being bizarre and "challenging" to sit through.

A bit of Googling (and looking at the description in the Eastman Museum's bimonthly program guide) suggests that this is all an opera loosely adapted from the Norman Mailer novel Ancient Evenings, and that Mailer (played by various actors in caked-dirt makeup) reincarnates three times over the course of the film. But this and other nuances were unknown to me during the screening. I can only report on what I saw:

The first of River of Fundament's three sections revolves around a funeral reception for Mailer. This reception is attended by real-life celebrities such as Salman Rushdie, Fran Leibowitz, Elaine Stritch, and the spirit of Mailer himself. Paul Giamatti plays the representation of an Egyptian god named Ptah-Nem-Hotep.

The second section revolved around a car and its gold-straitjacketed occupant plummeting off a bridge and then later being recovered as two female police investigators holler strange music at the spectacle. One of the two women is an elfin character with big blue eyes, and her face - contorted with emotion and streaming with saliva as she howls at the water - is the image that stuck with me the most. This second section was my favorite, despite its use of the hated experimental-film fakeout of fading out to black and fading out the audio - creating the deception that it was over - only to fade right back up again.

I've already kind of forgotten the third part, though I believe this was also the section in which actors portrayed the mythic conflict between the Egyptian gods Set and Horus, mediated by the father-god Ra (a conflict also depicted in the underrated recent action film Gods of Egypt). I do remember that near the end Ellen Burstyn gives a deathbed speech about the cyclical nature of birth and death. For me this scene stood out in a film that was otherwise reluctant to spell out its theme or point too clearly.

River of Fundament should probably be regarded as a modern-art installation or performance, rather than a film per se. Like much controversial modern art it is scatalogical - there are plenty of shots of human orifices and the things that can pass into or out of them. Reoccurring images include a pig roast (which slowly becomes more decayed over the course of the film) and the disemboweling of a dead cow, either to remove a stillborn calf or to allow a male character (Mailer's ghost if I remember) to crawl inside it.

Most of the film is urban and industrial in its imagery - a crane spectacularly destroys a car, a fist-fight breaks out between two men in a warehouse, etc. For this reason, the nature imagery (trees, fish, etc.) that occurs late in the third section was a huge relief to me. No matter how self-consciously icky the subject matter gets, the 4K digital photography is gorgeous, the music and sound design is hypnotic, and the overall austere tone is impressive.

I've run the gamut of emotions on experimental films, from resenting them as a self-indulgent waste of the audience's time to cherishing them as a refreshing break from conformity. As Hollywood movies become slicker and more dependent on pre-sold properties, I've become more indulgent of experimental films that at least seem to come from someone's own unique view of the world. But for me, watching this was the experimental-film equivalent of reaching the proverbial end of the Internet.

My past enjoyment of experimental films has been on the grounds that they are essentially underground and personal (like poetry or punk music) and I'm mainly used to seeing older, analog entries in the genre, shown on grainy 16mm in a college classroom or hole-in-the-wall art gallery. Yet this is a massive epic featuring celebrities like Maggie Gyllenhaal, with large and complex crowd scenes (such as one involving steel workers dealing with molten metal) that I'm told were performances staged for the public while being filmed for inclusion in this piece. The film's main set seems to have been built on a floating barge, housing both the dinner party above and a flooded basement below.

My friend John loved it, was only occasionally bored by it, and saw it as proof that one can still make truly weird or shocking movies. My response was more mixed. I was bored for longer sections of it than he was, and I was less sure what value to derive from it all.

After sleeping on it, I suppose the film's most obvious message is that decay and disorder - not to mention death - are natural aspects of life that we cannot and should not ignore. Part of me finds this deep, yet another part of me questions the value of this insight. Surely there is greater survival value in postponing death, and avoiding disease and decay, rather than dwelling on them?

This might seem like a tangent, but I once read an interview with Woody Allen in which he discussed his enjoyment of old Fred Astaire musicals. He said that Ingmar Bergman (an arthouse filmmaker he admires) is grappling with weighty issues you know cannot be solved, whereas Astaire offers at least temporary satisfaction and happiness.

Similarly, there's currently a lot of nostalgia for the comedies and action films of the 1980s, even among viewers who weren't alive when they were made. I recently rewatched Back to the Future for the first time in years, and also watched Critters for the first time. Seeing these, it occurs to me that 1980s popcorn movies are about characters with achievable goals - get the girl, kill the monster, win the big race, etc. - unlike the more acclaimed films of other eras that are about a more nebulous search for identity and meaning.

The core appeal of this has become more clear to me. I still believe that conformity should be resisted, not just obeyed. And yet the older I get, and the more our existence is defined by social interconnection, the less sure I am of the value of wandering further and further away from the herd.

What good does it do to ingest (or create) a difficult work like River of Fundament, if doing so just leaves you even more removed from the masses who haven't? As the modern economy demands us to be ruthlessly practical with our scant resources, how does one justify the time or expense of making, let alone seeing, something so strange and user-unfriendly? What is the reason to be the audience for - or a maker of - experimental art?

I guess it's simply to see what will happen. To see what can be learned, or experienced. To see what the limits are, and where they are.

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