Shit Show: Matthew Barney’s ‘River of Fundament’ Comes to Brooklyn

It feels perverse to attempt to review, or even summarize, Matthew Barney’s five-and-a-half-hour-long film River of Fundament, which will play

Matthew Barney as James Lee Byars in "River of Fundament." (Courtesy Gladstone Gallery)
Matthew Barney as James Lee Byars in “River of Fundament.”

It feels perverse to attempt to review, or even summarize, Matthew Barney’s five-and-a-half-hour-long film River of Fundament, which will play at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Feb. 12–16. Barney’s loose adaptation of Norman Mailer’s 1983 novel Ancient Evenings, a book—in very crude terms—about Menenhetet, a peasant who becomes a general in the army of Ramses II, discussing his life (he was reincarnated three times through various mystical acts that often involve coprology), is too grand, too ambitious, contains moments far too beautiful and grotesque to reckon with adequately in a few hundred or thousand words. One would almost need a book as loquacious as the 700-page Ancient Evenings to respond appropriately. Instead, I offer you, verbatim, the frequently incoherent notes I took during a sparsely attended press screening in a Midtown office building last week, with commentary.

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– “Hopefully you guys enjoy it. Hopefully you can sit through the whole thing.”[1]

– Film opens with man loading shotgun and firing it in bucolic wilderness.[2]

– Cut to Queens side of Newtown Creek. Camera goes underground. [Matthew] Barney emerges from raw sewage water like [Martin] Sheen in Apocalypse Now.[3]

– Cut back to Mailer’s old apartment. Jonas Mekas, Elaine Stritch, Fran Lebowitz, Lawrence Weiner. “That’s one of the greatest innovations of Norman Mailer, proclaiming his own brilliance.”[4]

– “I never understood how someone as angry as Norman could live across the river,” Lawrence Weiner tells Salman Rushdie.[5]

– The impossibility of adapting Ancient Evenings? The impossibility of writing it? Of reading it?[6]

– “The world wasn’t ready for a book like Ancient Evenings. We didn’t understand it then. But now we can. Now we can. Now we do.”[7]

– “In Los Angeles County, there’s an aqueduct of feces as deep as a pit. Between piss and shit are we born, and in water do we first die.”[8]

– “Despite all my wisdom, I fear I am not fit to be a pharaoh.”[9]

– Hathfertiti sings a song about Norman Mailer stabbing Adele. (“It was a party in Brooklyn, that got out of hand,” etc.)[10]

– Norman returns to the river of shit and disembowels a cow to extract its dead calf. Intermission. We are informed there will be a slight delay with lunch.[11]

– Norman climbs into the hollowed-out body of the cow he’s just disemboweled, emerges as an older man and beats the carcass of the animal like a gorilla. Hathfertitti wakes up as Maggie Gyllenhaal.[12]

– Cut to Detroit skyline. A Trans Am sits in an abandoned church. Set helps Matthew Barney, dressed as James Lee Byars, out of a gold-plated ambulance. He puts Barney into a gold straitjacket, collapses five top hats and puts them on Barney’s head (“There are five points to a man”), then locks Barney in the driver’s seat of the Trans Am and hits the car’s windshield with a staff. The car races through Detroit, a kind of graveyard of old cars, and crashes off the side of the Belle Isle Bridge and into the Detroit River.[13]

My notes cut off here. This accounts for about two hours and 15 minutes of the film. I spent the next three hours with my mouth agape in either disgust (the scene where Horus and Set fight, which is spliced with footage of a violent confrontation between two taxi garage workers, wherein one rips out the other’s eye, and the eyeless one tears off the other’s genitals) or awe (the conversion of the Imperial into molten iron is what I imagine the end of the world looks like).

But what the fuck is this shit? While I was writing this, I looked up a passage from Underworld by Don DeLillo, the only other serious American novel I could think of besides Ancient Evenings that considers the metaphysics of excrement: “Something that eludes naming is automatically relegated…to the status of shit. You can’t name it. It’s too big or evil or outside your experience.” Nothing, then. Nada. This movie frightens and pleases me in the same way that being alive frightens and pleases me—not because I don’t understand the full meaning of all of this, but because I suspect that there actually might not be any. All these references to books and mythology and what do they really tell you about anything? It’s all a river of shit. The last image of River of Fundament is of a bubble popping in Hemingway’s Idaho cabin, like the author’s own head exploding, like that of the viewer who just sat through all this. Hemingway never had much to say about shit, but he did have this to say about nothing: “It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it was all nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada they will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.”

[1] This was Matthew Barney’s studio assistant, who told us what we’d be watching was a rough cut, though it was nearly finished besides tweaks to the film’s coloration and the sound. He deadpanned the above. There were about 15 people in attendance, and several of them left after two hours during the first intermission, though not before eating the free food. (To be fair, a free lunch was, even after watching such a truncated portion of the film, probably well deserved.)

[2] The identity of the man is Ernest Hemingway, though his face is not revealed by the camera. The “bucolic wilderness” in question is Hemingway’s cabin outside Ketchum, Idaho, where he killed himself in 1961. Mailer once referred to Hemingway as one of the “people in America most beautiful to us,” also adding, in a bit of thinly argued pop psychology about the anguished state of a writer’s life, ”To stay alive Hemingway would have had to write a better book than War and Peace.”

[3] The underground “sewage water” is, at least as far as I can tell, Barney’s interpretation of the Duat, or the Egyptian realm of the dead, which a soul must cross over in order to achieve a life among the Gods. As Mailer’s biographer J. Michael Lennon points out in Mailer: A Double Life, in Ancient Evenings, the author emphasizes that the Duat is partly presided over by a deified dung beetle, the Khepera, which, along with Mailer’s scatological obsessions in this novel (one critic dismissed the book as “holistic poop”), makes sense of Barney’s portrayal of the land of the dead as a “River of Feces.” (“The river is a colon,” Barney recently told T: The New York Times Style Magazine. In the film, said river happens to exist beneath Mailer’s Brooklyn Heights brownstone.) Barney plays one half of Norman Mailer’s Ka, or the essence of his soul, the distinguishing element between the living and the dead. Once he emerges from the water, Barney, shit-covered and heavily bearded, enters Norman Mailer’s old apartment, a really impressive replica of the real thing, with its tree house-like planks and ladders that lead to the author’s writing desk high above it all. He walks to the bathroom, opens the lid of the toilet, and pulls a piece of human excrement out of the bowl. He wraps it in a piece of golden paper, places it back in the bowl and then removes his pants. From the toilet emerges the great pharaoh Usermare, who proceeds to sodomize Barney. (This being the first of several moments of sodomy, I suppose anal penetration is just part of the deal of living in eternal happiness among the Gods.) In the bedroom sits Mailer’s other Ka, a female spiritual double played by Aimee Mullins, who is violently slicing off her prosthetic legs. This is all disorienting and hard to watch but is cut off when the title of the film appears on the screen. In other words, all of this happens in the first 10 minutes, a teaser before the opening credits.

[4] In the film’s most uncharacteristically pleasant segment, a line of guests arrives at the Mailer apartment for the author’s wake. The guests include a number of New York celebrities playing themselves, and also Paul Giamatti as Ptah-Nem-Hotep, which I can only imagine is a stand-in for Ptah-hotep, who is considered by historians to be the first writer. The quote is from one of the guests at the wake. How could Matthew Barney make a nearly six-hour-long shit movie if Norman Mailer hadn’t existed first to compare himself unabashedly to Tolstoy, Melville and Baudelaire? The extent of Mailer’s proclamations of brilliance likely reached an apex with Ancient Evenings, which at over 700-pages is one of the stranger selections in the canon of New York Times bestsellers. (The hardcover stayed on the list for 17 weeks.) The novel was part one of a proposed trilogy that never panned out, but the first book still contains, in addition to Menenhetet’s reincarnations, a brutal first-person account of embalming, a retelling of the Osiris myth and a novel-length recreation of the Battle of Kadesh.

[5] The two are standing next to a roast suckling pig on the balcony of Mailer’s apartment during the wake, looking across the East River to Lower Manhattan. Lawrence Weiner, in a room full of literary celebrities that also includes Luc Sante and Jeffrey Eugenides—not to mention Dick Cavett, Larry Holmes and Mailer’s sturdiest collaborator, Lawrence Schiller—really steals the show here.

[6] I jotted this down after the deceased shows up at his own wake, shit-covered like his Ka. (The film’s first incarnation of Norman Mailer is rendered exquisitely by the author’s youngest son, John Buffalo Mailer.) In a sense, Barney has done as faithful an adaptation of Ancient Evenings as is possible: he recasts Menenhetet as the author. Over the course of the film, Mailer is reincarnated as three separate people. The myth of Osiris and Isis—the incestuous brother and sister who give birth to Horus, who must avenge his father after Set, God of the desert, murders him in an attempt to gain control over the kingdom of Egypt—is all told in as straightforward a manner as possible, though reset on the Detroit River (where Set kills Osiris) and in the Brooklyn Navy Yard (where Horus and Set face off). The main digression is the presence of Norman Mailer in the story. “The presence of his absence is everywhere,” as a mourner says at the wake. We return to Mailer’s apartment each time the story becomes too convoluted to handle, though the wake becomes increasingly strange, slowly merging with the Egyptian story as the film continues. Still, the apartment is a relief, a real-world symbol among very complicated myths. Barney’s inclusion of Mailer in the story is itself somewhat literal: the final volume of the trilogy, according to Mailer’s biographer, was to introduce the last reincarnation of Menenhetet, Norman Mailer, who, as the biographer writes, “would grow into the writer who would write Ancient Evenings, thus completing the circle.”

[7] This is Broadway legend Elaine Stritch, who gives Mailer’s eulogy. As she speaks, Ptah-Nem-Hotep, civilization’s first writer, in case you’ve forgotten, played by Giamatti, is being massaged all over his body by servants. He becomes increasingly euphoric and erect, especially when Stritch quotes Ancient Evenings: “Many lights appeared above my head and they were like a ladder of lights with many rungs.” While I appreciate Stritch’s sentiment, and I think Mailer is the finest American novelist of the second half of the twentieth century, I still find Ancient Evenings to be unreadable. But it is better suited to Barney’s style than most works of literature: its moments of beauty are all the more heightened by how ugly a book it is.

[8] This is, of all people, a Chrysler dealer in Los Angeles, speaking to a crowd gathered in his lot for what I can only describe as the ritual execution of a 1967 Chrysler Imperial. The counternarrative of the film comprises three flashbacks featuring the Imperial through various stages of its own reincarnations: after this speech, which really has nothing to do with anything besides characterizing the film’s interpretation of Mailer’s excretory mantra, the car is destroyed by an enormous crane with a horrible saw attached to it. Later, the crumpled remains of the car will be transformed into molten iron at an old glue factory in downtown Detroit in front of about 200 art-world luminaries. (I suggest you read Mark Binelli’s wonderful account of this in his book Detroit City Is the Place to Be.) After that, the charred bones of the Imperial watch over the fight between Horus and Set.

[9] We cut back to Mailer’s apartment after the flashback in L.A. Paul Giamatti-as-Ptah-Nem-Hotep is talking to Mailer and explaining all the things he does with excrement to gain more power. (He eats it, for one thing.) I take his character as a means of connecting Mailer with a tradition of writing since the earliest documentation of the act, a tradition Hemingway is brought into as well, and which, on some level, all three writers have failed at. Ptah-Nem-Hotep couldn’t use his craft for any significant political power, as he claims here. Hemingway eventually put his mouth around a shotgun. Mailer couldn’t finish his trilogy, the “big novel” he always promised in interviews.

[10] In Ancient Evenings Hathfertiti is Menenhetet’s granddaughter. Though her relation to Norman here is never explicitly stated, she acts as a kind of host to Norman through his transformations. Adele is Mailer’s second wife, whom he stabbed in the chest with a pen knife in the early hours of Nov. 20, 1960.

[11] Lunch consisted of roast beef sandwiches, if you can believe that unfortunate coincidence, and a pleasant salad, which I consumed dutifully, but with full awareness—for the first time, really—of the work my digestive system was doing. For a few days after seeing River of Fundament, going to the bathroom felt excessively meaningful.

[12] At this point, you just sort of have to accept that this is what happened, but this is Norman’s first reincarnation, into the older Norman II. Note, however, that if there were some kind of special award for restraint, it should go to Maggie Gyllenhaal, who will later deliver a straight-faced and understated speech about her relationship with Norman to the pharaoh Usermare (who is revealed to be her father) while a man and a woman engage in very sloppy and graphic anilingus.

[13] This is a recreation of The Death of James Lee Byars, a 1994 performance by the artist James Lee Byars, who was born in Detroit and died in Cairo in 1997. In the piece, Byars, dressed in gold lamé, sat in a golden memorial chamber, “practicing death.” The Trans Am’s jump off the Belle Isle Bridge is a nod to both Harry Houdini’s most controversial escape act, in which he bound himself inside a wooden coffin and was lowered into a hole in the frozen Detroit River, and also the legend of Set’s murder of Osiris, which involved Set imprisoning Osiris in a coffin and dumping him into the Nile. Mailer played Harry Houdini in part two of Barney’s last major film effort, The Cremaster Cycle. Cremaster 2 is based in part on The Executioner’s Song, Mailer’s 1979 novel about the killer Gary Gilmore. The Gilmore Family legend was that their patriarch was the illegitimate son of Houdini, making Gary Gilmore the escape artist’s grandson. In Cremaster 2, Mailer has one of the few bits of dialogue: “I can assure you that each time I allow myself to escape from a locked trunk, a real transformation does take place.” All of this is so perfectly cyclical it makes my head hurt.

Shit Show: Matthew Barney’s ‘River of Fundament’ Comes to Brooklyn