"I won't tell you to enjoy it—it's not about that," said Matthew Barney by way of introduction to his mammoth new film River of Fundament (through Feb. 16 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater). The six-hour epic has all the outward appearances of a sadistic denial of enjoyment. In the first ten minutes alone, a waste-caked Barney finds a log of human excrement in a toilet, wraps it in gold leaf and presents himself for sodomy to the toilet, which has by now transformed into the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Usermare-all this before the title screen rolls. The audience members who opted not to retake their seats after the first of two intermission likely wouldn't have been won over by the scenes that followed, including a series of ungulate disembowelings, manual genital mutilations and improbable anal sex acts.
Barney's preoccupation with bodies has changed tack since the macrocosmic abstractions of The Cremaster Cycle (1994-2002), which blew up the drama of sexual differentiation into its own hermetic universe. River of Fundament is more interested in probing the limits of what individual bodies can do, largely stripped of fairytale costumes and prostheses, which is partly why it so exhaustively catalogs the acrobatics and resiliencies of various orifices. Whereas Cremaster was fascinated by the mechanics of sexual reproduction, River takes as its starting point and central metaphor the generative potential of excrement and putrefaction. Think of the imagistic braiding of gold and shit in Luis Buñuel's Surrealist broadside L'Age D'or (1930), throw in substances like iron, sulphur, bone and salt, and you'll have some idea of the material economy of River. Its colors are generally either industrial-chemical-fluorescent or black-brown, such that the whole affair feels at once earthy and occult, sharing in the sensibilities of the extreme metal music Barney has increasingly professed a love for.
The film's plot implants Norman Mailer (played in three incarnations by his son John Buffalo Mailer, jazz percussionist Milford Gravesand Lakota tribe member and First Chief of the United Indigenous Nations Dave Beautiful Bald Eagle) into his own titanic 1983 folly Ancient Evenings, from which Barney gleans much of his imagery, pharaohs, sodomy and a sprawling river of feces which the dead must cross to find resurrection.
Two narrative threads-one featuring Mailer's wake, which takes place in an exact copy of his New York brownstone, the other featuring the odyssey of the Egyptian deity Osiris, alternatively played by Barney and a 1967 Chrysler Imperial (a stand-in for Barney in Cremaster 3, here making a reappearance), from Los Angeles to New York via Detroit-converge in the East River, where Mailer's home now floats on a barge. The cross-country journey mostly consists of footage of live performances in front of invited audiences, which Barney shot between 2008 and 2013: a roaring junkyard demolisher crushing a car, an operatic police procedural, the spectacular smelting of a spinelike djed symbol (an Egyptian pillar).
Mailer's wake is populated primarily by New York celebrities offering tepid eulogies for the benefit of a steely Joan La Barbara, who plays Mailer's widow and holds court over a stellar cast of singers. River of Fundament's music, by composer Jonathan Bepler, offers a clear, strong rhythmic thread to a film that might otherwise have turned out as shapeless as its source material. Actors' voices slip in and out of recitative lullabies and autotune compulsively, guests at the wake begin to vocalize bizarrely as the night wears on, and local singers and musicians lend a sense of place to each stop on Osiris's trip. Bepler's plinking, loomingand careering diegetic score swells into song every so often, as if to release tension from an overloaded system.
Contrary to Barney's warning, River is surprisingly inviting. Buoyed not only by its music, but by an approach to pacing and editing more readily legible as cinematic than that of Cremaster or Drawing Restraint 9 (2005), which more immediately betrayed his training as a sculptor, the new film rarely drags and is shot with much care: the slow zooms and deeply composed interiors indebt the film to Tarkovsky as much as Buñuel. Barney's claim to an artistic lineage is important to consider, given that literal fathering seems impossible in the barren world of River: Usermare reappears at the end of the film to lament that now, in place of a king, "there are only weak princes," and that "the present moment is only the excrement which the past has left behind." Barney has always played the prince, and often heaps his plate with references, resemblances and masculinist mythologies without convincingly digesting them. River of Fundament will likely remain undigested for some time, but it's a thrill watching Barney shovel shit.
River of Fundament makes its European premiere at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, in March 2014, in conjunction with "River of Fundament," an exhibition of sculpture and drawing at Munich's Haus der Kunst, curated by Okwui Enwezor. Organized by the Manchester International Festival, a two year tour in proscenium theaters at performance festivals around the world will follow the Munich premiere.