Monday, November 3, 2014


Norman Mailer, cars, shit (like…actual fecal matter) and sexual taboos (specifically anal sex) are the four common themes in Matthew Barney’s latest 6 hour cinematic opera River Fundament - a film that could have easily been renamed “River Of Shit” as it not only deals with actual shit, but is also a huge messy turd of a movie. These days I usually don’t take the time out to dedicate an entire review towards a movie I dislike, but I actually take (...took?) Matthew Barney serious as a filmmaker when so many others don't (to most people he’s an experimental artist/sculptor). I’ve enjoyed all his previous films (especially Drawing Restraint 9) but River Of Fundament just didn’t cut it. As I sat in the BAM harvey theater watching this, I was reminded of the first (and only) time that I saw Crispin Glover’s equally messy/shitty What Is It (a film with talking snails and questionably exploited lead actors who all had downsyndrome). Forget the work of Terrence Malick. Stuff like River Of Fundament and What Is It? are the kinds of pretentious films that come off like “art house” parodies (side note - I actually liked Crispin Glover's follow up movie It's Fine, Everything Is Fine).

Listen, I appreciate abstract art. I don’t want some snooty MOMA member to come across this review and think I don’t know what I’m talking about. As someone who studied architecture (and works in that field today), I’m able to understand & appreciate the models & experimentation in Matthew Barney's work as I also had to do an extensive amount of abstract model making in my architectural studies). River Of Fundament continues his experimentation with the same shapes & models from his pervious films...
The Cremaster Cycle
Drawing Restraint 9

In River Of Fundament Barney took his signature oval design and drastically altered it this time around...

Barney's artwork from River Of Fundament

But at the end of the day I’d much rather see the images & sculptures from RoF in an art installation rather than in the form of a 6+ hour movie that started to drag 30-45 minutes out the gate...

River Of Fundament is essentially an abstract love letter/dedication to the life & work of author Norman Mailer (a friend of Barney’s who appeared in one of his earlier films). The movie is made up of a mixture of random operatic vignettes that focus on the aforementioned themes (Mailer’s writings, cars, shit & anal sex) combined with scenes of a fictional party/get-together made up of Norman Mailer’s close personal friends (Elaine Stritch), random celebrities (Paul Giamatti, Maggie Gyllenhall, James Toback, Larry Holmes) and various admirers. 
Stritch, Toback, Holmes & Gyllenhall all play realistic versions of themselves while Paul Giamatti plays an incredibly off-the wall version of himself. Matthew Barney has never worked with any known/recognizable people in his 17 years of filmmaking (with the exception of Bjork & Mailer) so I was surprised at all the recognizable faces in River Of Findament. Perhaps this will be his break out film and he’ll appeal to a slightly wider audience I thought. I was genuinely shocked at all the folks who showed up to the sold out screening I attended. But those thoughts of Barney "crossing over" soon went out the window the more this movie went on. “Highlights” from River Of Fundament include; a human-like shit monster that rises out of a toilet (reminiscent of that scene in Kevin Smith’s Dogma, except I think Barney expected his audience to take his shit monster scene seriously); a quick scene where Paul Giamatti’s (prosthetic) penis suddenly grows about four feet long (seriously); a profanity-laced opera score and multiple up-close scenes of unsimualted anal sex (in one of the scenes one of the “receivers” proceeds to shit herself, for real, following the intercourse). See what I mean? Doesn't that all sound like someone poking fun at experimental/art house cinema?

All the imagery is quite unique...

but after about an hour that wears off and it doesn’t make up for the remaining 5 hours. 

River Of Fundament actually made me question if I even like Matthew Barney’s older films. I mean, on the surface they all look very similar so if I dislike one why would I like his others, right?
After a few days of some serious soul searching (bad or not, RoF does stay with you long after it's over) I’ve come to the conclusion that I do genuinely like his older stuff, but the fact that this movie was so problematic that it made me question his entire body of work really says something.

The hype surrounding RoF proved my theory on Kanye West being aware of and “heavily influenced” by Matthew Barney as I spotted West at the screening I attended (read my very old, equally irritated review of West’s Runaway which brings his influences in to question). 
A lot of my detractors tried to argue with me that Kanye West probably has no idea who Matthew Barney is...

My screening of River Of Fundament had two intermissions and I swear to god after the first break almost half the audience didn’t come back. I hadn’t seen an audience clear out that quick since Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers played at the 2009 NYFF. 
I have a few personal movie-watching accomplishments that I’m proud of like; sitting through Soderbergh’s 4-1/2 hour Che twice in one week, watching Inland Empire 10 times in the theater, recently making it all the way through Andrei Rublev without a bathroom break, etc. Sitting through River Of Fundament from start to finish is up there no matter how bad I thought it was. I paid $30 for my ticket. I wanted my money's worth.

It almost feels pointless to write about this given almost none of you will ever see RoF outside of some random Moma screening that may or may not even happen (Barney doesn’t release his films in theatures for mass consumption). I’m also going to go ahead and assume most of you reading this could care less about his films all together and would have no desire to see River Of Fundament even if the opportunity presented itself.

On some level, this off-the wall cinematic tribute makes sense for a guy like Norman Mailer. Why make some generic documentary about his life? At least Matthew Barney tried to do something different. As a filmmaker himself, Norman Mailer was almost like the Matthew Barney of his time in the world of cinema - an artist known mostly for one thing (in Mailer’s case it was writing) that also worked in film from time to time making experimental/non-conventional movies for a small underground following. No matter how much I personally disliked River Of Fundament, I feel like Norman Mailer would have appreciated this which is what matters the most at the end of the day I guess.


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