You know a movie has something going for it if it actually manages to get me to read Norman Mailer. To be fair, I only made it about 50 pages into Ancient Evenings before deciding to pause with a firm “ALRIGHT, ALREADY,” but that still ain’t nothing.
Matthew Barney’s six hour epic opera River of Fundament is a loose, predictably feces-heavy adaptation of Ancient Evenings. While I have my misgivings about Barney — some of them unfair, based on my own conflicted and oft-envious relationship with Big Art — I’m far more closed off to Mailer and his macho pomposity, literary innovations be damned. Even with that in mind, though, I couldn’t let Barney have one up on me because I didn’t understand all of his references in the film (art, and the interpretation of same, becomes a competitive sport in my hands)! Let it be a testament to River of Fundament’s quality that I was willing to invest even more than the six hours I’d already given it in the name of engaging with it even deeper.
In fact, River of Fundament does what giant, overblown art should — but rarely manages to — do, lifting a number of small questions and perceptions that one might otherwise ignore and forcing them to the forefront. Whatever understanding that one garners from pondering said questions and perceptions eventually seeps into your everyday world, you’re forever changed, yadda yadda. This doesn’t necessarily make for engaging cinema, of course, but luckily, it mostly is. Composer Jonathan Bepler does a lot of the heavy lifting in that department, his music working to make the film alternately exciting, entrancing, and uproarious (sometimes it’s hard to tell whether the humor is fully intentional, because y’know, art); it’s tense, beautiful, melodramatic, dissonant, wild stuff.
Paul Giamatti, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Ellen Burstyn are the marquee names in the cast, and they do a fine job with the operatic material, but the true master stroke here was inviting several legends of the international avant garde — Phil Minton, Milford Graves, Dr. Lonnie Smith, and even members of Detroit freakers Wolf Eyes and Druid Perfume, albeit in bit parts — to work alongside such pop-intelligentsia figures like Dick Cavett and Fran Lebowitz. It’s a remarkable collision that few others could pull off (Barney must have pulled in a decade’s worth of favors here). Joan La Barbara, experimental vocal great and a paragon of bohemian dignity, as Mailer’s widow is an especially fascinating choice, and one that lends a great deal more credibility to the film’s operatic structure. Thanks to the contributions of these talents, the scenes which take place at Mailer’s wake — in a painstaking recreation of his apartment, floating in a giant ship — are taken to new levels of artful chaos.
In each of the film’s three sections, a different actor portrays a reincarnation of Mailer haunting his wake, a move which might understandably give rise to skepticism (even among us Palindromes fans). Barney’s choices, though, are actually quite intriguing: elderly Native American actor Dave Bald Eagle, legendary jazz drummer Milford Graves, and in perhaps his biggest coup, Mailer’s real-life son John Buffalo Mailer. It’s hard to say whether the intention is to honor or parodize different facets of Mailer’s persona, but it works either way.
Also within each of these sections, there is a parallel narrative wherein Mailer is reincarnated as a different luxury/muscle car, in a different part of the American landscape (Los Angeles, Detroit, New York). Each of these scenes are actual filmic documents of live art actions, an integral part of the overall project; they’re also the most ostentatiously huge and expensive-looking, and honestly, the least cinematically engaging (not that I’m complaining… it’s nice to have space to zone out for awhile in such a long film). In talking with other people who viewed the film, it came up a lot that a more economical, conventional edit of the film would be to both Barney and the audience’s benefit. I disagreed at the time, but the more I think of it, the more I’m intrigued by the possibilities: a two hour edit, perhaps sans the automobile sections and focusing on the wake, would have made for a fine film and an easier sell, for whatever that may be worth.
That’s not the case, though, and like the book from whence it divined inspiration, River of Fundament comes together as a massive, shiny monument to human hubris, an unwieldy chunk of Big Art which will turn off populists and some high-minded types alike (the former for its lapses into abstraction, the latter for its frequent lack of subtlety and abundance of self-regard). It would be a big mistake, though, to dismiss River of Fundament out of hand. It’s way too huge to not contain something fascinating within its labyrinthine structure. That said, if you think six hours is a long time to spend focused on a movie, you’d probably do just as well to stay away: rest assured, those hours are only the beginning.