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River of Fundament


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Sometimes it takes a lot of shit to make art.

A lot of things come out of actors, and then go back in those actors, before again coming out in Matthew Barney’s River of Fundament. Often it’s not clear why they needed to go back in. There are in fact a lot of things that are unclear (although little is left to the imagination).

The movie has some extraordinary scenes; there is a beautiful piece of art in here with a lot to say. It’s just covered in shit.

Much of the publicity surrounding River of Fundament so far has focussed on faeces and anal penetration – these are some of the least shocking elements. The Adelaide Festival’s argument that Fundament is not pornographic is probably correct – one imagines many hardcore pornographic directors would be uncomfortable featuring a few of the scenes in their works.

Some stanzas are so strange they become quotable in the manner of a cult film.

So it’s a police procedural set in Detroit, right? And the detectives are investigating a murder – when they find a bag full of snakes, which causes the whole metro police force to burst into song. And then start taking each other’s pants off…

Barney uses Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings as a loose base for his musings on death and rebirth – in particular, the way the corporeal form clings desperately to its life despite the eternity of the soul it chambers. A parallel is drawn to the fetishes and ceremonies of the American motor industry, so vital in keeping alive something which should have long since died.

Mailer created several modern masterpieces, in particular non-fiction novella Armies of the Night, The Fight and The Executioner’s Song, in the process pioneering a technique that would become known as New Journalism. Ancient Evenings was the work of 11 years, and departed from his normal journalistic style to be an erotic historical fiction focussing on ancient Egypt. With such a gestation period, Mailer probably thought it his magnum opus; critics thought it a failure.

Barney’s five-hours-plus River of Fundament, filming of which began in 2007, struggles with the same problem – over-gestation. The first two hours are excellent, rich and compelling, and appear to have something to say. The next three hours are overloaded with disparate and unconnected elements, some beautiful, some difficult, some – most damningly – boring.

Where the movie concerns Mailer’s attempts at rebirth, and where it tells a tale about motor manufacturing, the woven narrative is thick enough for the watcher to grab ahold. Where Barney retells the myth of Isis and Osiris there are no such narrative grips; even the thick program with its extensive explanation of plot does not serve as a safety net. Some of the film is genuinely bewildering.

And some is genuinely beautiful. Mailer’s wake is filled with dark humour. The photography is extraordinary throughout the film and often (but not always) makes up for the on-screen tedium. Some centrepiece scenes, particularly those that echo the motor industry’s strange rituals, are shockingly amazing.

By far the best part of this film is Jonathan Bepler’s abstract and experimental score. Bepler devises and discovers all sorts of instruments and extracts melody and rhythm from them. Detroit is backed by an orchestra of car-part violins; when the cast switches to becoming the chorus, their sounds – they don’t sing often, note, but make animalistic noises with their mouths – are also incredible.

Should you see River of Fundament? Probably not. Five-plus hours of tedium is far too high a price to pay for the moments of genuine beauty that are interspersed throughout.

River of Fundament screens again today (March 3) at 5pm at the Capri Theatre.

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Click here for InDaily’s stories and reviews from the 2014 Adelaide Festival, including WOMADelaide and Adelaide Writers’ Week.


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