Thing Number 1: River of Fundament is a film.
You experience it by sitting in a theatre and watching a recorded piece of cinema. As Matthew Barney explained at the start of Sunday’s British premiere, the auditorium has to be dressed according to composer Jonathan Bepler specifications for the soundscape to function as intended.
So while the experience has been intricately crafted for the spectator, it is not a live experience in the sense that the performers are not live. Like all cinema, it is a shared experience but one that is shared by the spectators in the absence of those we are watching and hearing.
However, several sections are actually footage of very largescale live events that Barney created over a five year period: REN (Los Angeles, 2008), KHU (Detroit, 2010) and BA (New York City, 2013). These were participatory events so some of the “performers” are also an audience but a more active one because they are being let inside the ritual. The experience of watching each of these rituals, which is what they are, on film allows for space to reflect on the experience of being inside and outside a ritual experience. I couldn’t help but feel envious of them though. I will never get a chance to be part of that but it’s conceivable that they will get to see this film. I certainly hope they do.
Thing Number 2: River of Fundament is inspired by Ancient Evenings by Norman Mailer.
The project was originally called Ancient Evenings and it uses several sections of Mailer’s novel, which imagines the several deaths and reincarnations of an ancient Egyptian nobleman called Menenhetet I as he searches for immortality. Here though, the Menenhetet figure is Mailer himself and the main action of the piece occurs at Mailer’s Brooklyn Heights apartment during a wake for his own death. There are three different versions of Mailer who we meet at different stages in the piece, the first of whom is played by Mailer’s own son, John Buffalo Mailer. There are also three versions of Hathfertiti (the second played by Maggie Gyllenhall), the granddaughter (and also mother) of the nobleman in Ancient Evenings and here a guide to Mailer’s travels to and from the world of the dead.
Thing Number 3: Cars are really important.
This was one aspect I found difficult to get to grips with because I have no knowledge of or interest in cars. In the ritual sections, described in the programme as flashbacks but that seems to contradict the piece’s whole relationship with time, feature three different cars as symbolic of particular Egyptian deities and these are dragged through the streets, venerated, drowned, destroyed and reincarnated. They are useful symbols in that they can be broken down and used for parts much more easy than the delicate flesh of a human being and this renders them more Godlike than us, in the sense of Egyptian mythology at least. The barrier that I found was in not knowing the cultural significance of one car compared to another. Knowing the cities in which the rituals took place and the bodies of water that flow through them may have also been useful in making the reference Barney might hope for us to make. I recognised New York and guessed that the second city was Detroit but I’ve never been to Los Angeles, so perhaps I lost something in not being able to make these connections. The second ritual was extremely visceral, full of fire, lava and the clanging of metal. I wondered whether it might be some kind of eulogy to the city of Detroit, to the US car industry, to both. I wasn’t sure though.
Thing Number 4: There is music.
We don’t see all the music being created in the film itself but a great deal of appears to be “found” in some sense or another. The ritualistic elements aren’t restrained to the filmed live events. Though Mailer’s wake starts as a relatively sedate affair, it soon follows the lines of Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel in becoming a place of ritual, song and fucking. Naturalistic polite conversations give way to bombastic oratory which will then start to segue into bursts of song.
We’re not talking about musical theatre though. A certain word of syllable will be sung at the end of a sentence or characters will simply make improvised sounds with their mouths. Jonathan Bepler, the composer who has collaborated with Barney for the last twenty years comes from a great tradition of improvised music and his one time teacher, the legendary percussionist Milford Graves also features in River of Fundament. Graves gets the opportunity to play a dead cow and a car, which are in themselves good enough reasons to watch the piece.
Thing Number 5: If you watch it for the plot, you’ll hang yourself
This is a paraphrased quote from Harold Bloom’s review of Ancient Evenings. While playing so fast and loose with the “narrative” of Mailer’s novel, it’s surprising how respectful and true he remains to the feeling and intentions of it. It feels like River of Fundament’s gesture is Mailer’s own but taken up form in Barney with the skills and frames of reference that only Barney could possibly have. Though Bloom was an admirer of the book, even comparing it favourably to Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, it’s fair to say it’s not Mailer’s best known work. There’s even a speech during the wake in which a character declares that the world was not ready for Ancient Evenings. Here it is again though, reincarnated. The same but different. Unrecognisable but familiar.
I interpret Bloom’s comment as meaning, if you try to understand or rationalise this work, you’ll drive yourself mad. This is exactly how I feel about River of Fundament. I can find out about the various fascinating characters who appear in the cast, how it was made, the mythology it draws on. It’s not that this isn’t useful or interesting or enlightening. Far from it. It’s just that ultimately, it won’t help me to do what I am able to do anyway when confronted with a piece of culture, which is to feel my way through it, to let it wrap itself around me and to let it haunt my conscious and unconscious minds. There are very few artists alive today who can do this like Matthew Barney can.