THE OPENING SEQUENCE in River of Fundament, Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler’s epic 2014 video opera (recently screened, for the first time in New England, at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts), suggests that horror will be its dominant tone. A bearded man, hair matted, face marked by a yellowish rash, plunges upward from a filthy subterranean river. An emissary from a cloacal underworld, he makes his way up a set of stairs and into the bathroom of a well-appointed modern dwelling. He contemplates a turd in the toilet, then picks it up and wraps it in gold leaf. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the house, a woman sits on a bed in a dim room. She’s streaked in the same gray muck as the man, her face similarly pustuled, her hair just discernable as blond. Alarmingly, she’s using a knife to cut horizontal strips into her thighs. More alarmingly, back in the bathroom, an old man has emerged — from the mirror over the toilet? from the toilet itself? — streaked in filth and sporting a colostomy bag. He reveals his penis, which is wrapped in the same sort of gold leaf as the turd. He penetrates the first figure from behind, producing a sort of quicksilvery puddle. The puddle rolls across the floor, under doors, and into the dark room where the self-mutilating woman sits. Panning down her seated figure, the camera shows both legs amputated below the knee (in fact, she is played by Aimee Mullins, an athlete and double amputee); instead of legs are two gleaming prostheses, each ending in spikes. A discordant orchestral blast accompanies the title card: RIVER OF FUNDAMENT. It’s a thrilling sequence, but also draining; five more hours of this sort of thing is a daunting prospect.
The tone quickly modulates, though. Much of the first third takes place in Norman Mailer’s apartment, at the wake of the dead writer. Presiding is his widow, played by the composer and performer Joan La Barbara. Luminaries chatter about “Norman” — his life, his books, his brilliance. Luc Sante says, “I was working in the mailroom of The New York Review of Books.” Salman Rushdie makes an appearance and intones something about genius. This is an affectionately satirical portrayal of the aging stars in Manhattan’s cultural firmament. Not that anyone would mistake it for a Woody Allen or Whit Stillman movie. Mysterious netting hangs from the dining-room ceiling. In the kitchen, the caterers use more maggots than I assume is typical at these kinds of gatherings. The gray-streaked figures from the opening scene circulate, though no one seems phased by them. Oh, and at the head of the table sits Ptah-Nem-Hotep, the 25th-century BC pharaoh, played by Paul Giamatti.
River of Fundament is inspired by Ancient Evenings, Norman Mailer’s 1983 epic novelization of Egyptian mythology. Unlike the novel, though, the film is not set in the ancient world. Rather, Barney transposes the Egyptian religious pantheon into an American present, where, for instance, the corpse of Osiris is figured as a 1967 Chrysler Crown Imperial, which rises from the Detroit River. Barney’s approach to his source material presents a variation on Joyce’s mythic method, not unlike John Updike’s The Centaur. The film draws primarily on the story of Osiris, murdered and dismembered by his brother Set in a quarrel over Set’s wife, Nephthys, who is sister to both. Isis, Osiris’s wife and sister, revives him by reassembling his scattered limbs. They have a child, Horus, who vies with his uncle Set for command of the earth. Intersecting with this plot is a second, in which, as the film’s website puts it, Mailer “reincarnates three times in different bodies by magically entering the womb of his wife Hathfertiti.” (I would not, myself, have been able to infer exactly this plot from viewing the film.) As both a Manhattan host and Ptah-Nem-Hotep, Giamatti oversees the overlap between modernity and the world of the Egyptian gods.
Giamatti’s sense of the pharaonic draws on a preening, theatrical authority — he is part master of ceremonies, part Mussolini. He is a creature of oration and appetites. One of the film’s funniest scenes has him announcing the main course — “The piiiiiig!” — then serving himself the animal’s tongue, which, he explains to the table, is a delicacy fit only for a pharaoh. The rest of the pig goes uneaten. We are periodically reminded of its progressive decomposition in shots as formally lush and viscerally nauseating as the time-elapsed rotting animals in Peter Greenaway’s A Zed & Two Noughts, perhaps one of Barney’s sources.
But Barney’s emphasis on rot and shit takes its main cue from Mailer. Here, for instance, is an early passage from Ancient Evenings describing the Duad, or River of Feces, which the dead must cross if they hope to attain a second life:
In Khert-Neter, […] there is a river of feces deep as a pit. Across it, the dead must swim. The Ka of all but the wisest, most prepared, or most courageous, will expire in that river, weeping for their mother. They have forgotten how they came out of her. Between piss and shit are we born, and in water do we die the first time, slipping off to death on the release of our waters. But the second death is in the full pits of the Duad. Do I sit before you and fart? Do you smell every odor of the constipated, the gluttonous, the sulphurous, the caustic, the fermentative, the infectious, the rotten, the corrupt, the putrescent? It is because I had to swim the river of feces, and succeeded in crossing only at a great price.
This passage is adapted for the text of one of the film’s most hilarious performances, in which a car company sales manager (Jerry Giles) pivots from what appears to be an advertising spiel into a Sprechstimme account of his journey across the river of feces. One might expect, then, that excrement will come to stand for the kinds of spiritual waste associated with modern capitalism, as in the novels of William Gaddis or Thomas Pynchon. But River of Fundament is more Romantic and altogether more earnest.
In a review of Ancient Evenings, Harold Bloom observed that Mailer’s “Egyptian obsessions are in the main tradition of American literature, carrying on from much of the imagery of the major writers of the American renaissance” — by which he means Thoreau, Emerson, Melville, Whitman. It’s a debatable point with regard to Ancient Evenings, but unarguably true of River of Fundament, for which Whitman provides much of the libretto. The film’s sponsoring philosophy, though, belongs to Thoreau. From Walden, for example, watching mud during a spring thaw:
As it flows it takes the forms of sappy leaves or vines, making heaps of pulpy sprays a foot or more in depth, and resembling, as you look down on them, the laciniated, lobed, and imbricated thalluses of some lichens; or you are reminded of coral, of leopard’s paws or birds’ feet, of brains or lungs or bowels, and excrements of all kinds. It is a truly grotesque vegetation […] What Champollion will decipher this hieroglyphic for us, that we may turn over a new leaf at last? […] True, it is somewhat excrementitious in its character, and there is no end to the heaps of liver, lights, and bowels, as if the globe were turned wrong side outward; but this suggests at least that Nature has some bowels, and there again is mother of humanity.
The “excrementitious” as metamorphic possibility: this is the obscene transcendentalism in which Barney roots his poetry. The film’s polymorphous visual rhyming — between rivers of water and rivers of shit, between urination and industrial sluiceways, between cars and coffins, phalluses and feces, gold leaf and molten steel — constitutes a kind of epic filmic allusion to Thoreau.
Its textual allusions, though, are largely to Leaves of Grass. Toward the film’s end, Hathfertiti’s most aged manifestation (Ellen Burstyn) speaks Whitman from what appears to be her deathbed: “I am not contained between my boots and my hat.” Those lines become a refrain in the libretto, as do these:
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
This insistently material transcendence is counterpoised, in River of Fundament, by a different sort of physicality: masculine combat, primarily in the extended battle between Set (alternately Eugene and Herbert Perry, twins) and his nephew Horus (Brennan Hall). The Egyptian source material, known as “The Contendings of Horus and Set,” treats the two gods’ contest for reign. It’s a kind of trickster tale. Set is duped into eating lettuce covered in Horus’s semen, an event Barney dramatizes in a combative kitchen-table duet, with Hall’s counter-tenor looping powerfully over and around Perry’s baritone. Elsewhere, their contest is staged at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where hundreds of admirers in variegated tribal costume have gathered to watch the heroes dispute. Barney gives us an epic pageant of machismo, almost but not quite cartoonish. It is, as Hilton Als described the film as a whole, “a kind of pure opera about myth and masculinity feeding on itself.”
Indeed, it’s not hard to see Barney’s whole endeavor as a self-conscious enactment of masculinized dramas of aesthetic influence and resistance. Following Harold Bloom’s predictably Bloomian assessment of Ancient Evenings as Mailer’s own agon with literary greatness, Okwui Ewenzor finds in River of Fundament “a direct response to [Barney’s] anxiety of influence exerted by Hemingway, Mailer, and [Richard] Serra.” As I see it, the drama is of even broader scope: Barney’s problem, worked out with reference to Whitman and Thoreau, is the problem of how, in the 21st century, an artist might negotiate the imperatives of American Romanticism without falling into pompous absurdity.
One strategy for containing the bathos of transcendentalism is to channel it into a popular genre form. Cleverly, River of Fundament plays the scattering and retrieval of the limbs of Osiris as a noirish police procedural, with Isis (Aimee Mullins again) as a detective leading an all-female force on a journey up the Detroit River. Osiris’s dismemberment into 14 parts, presented here as the destruction by industrial machinery of a Chrysler, might be taken to represent the bad transcendence always shadowing the Whitmanian fantasy of subjective dispersal. Osiris, too, is no longer contained between his hat and his boot-soles. Mysterious parts surface in bags full of white snakes. Barges drift mournfully downriver. Isis vomits, from distress or disgust, in between segments of her aria. It’s hard to tell whether they’re making progress on the case, but the whole episode, powered by Barney’s eye for the lost look of machinery, is haunting. One can only fantasize about a Barney-directed season of True Detective.
Placing Isis front and center mitigates the Bloomian machismo that Ewenzor sees propelling Barney’s vision. Isis’s conception of Horus with the corpse of Osiris is here imagined as the erotic, though hardly joyous, communing between human and machine: Isis lowers herself onto an engine block on a gray barge, amid a choral threnody. This is a different model of creative purpose than the macho contests of Horus and Set. It is Hathfertiti, though, the wife-mother of Mailer’s various incarnations, who most fully anchors the transcendentalist impulse in female experience. She appears in three versions — as a young girl (Madyn Coakley, thoughtful beyond her years); a woman in her 30s (Maggie Gyllenhaal); and an elderly woman on her deathbed (Ellen Burstyn). Gyllenhaal’s and Burstyn’s Hathfertitis both recite lines of Whitman, but it is in Gyllenhaal’s magnificent performance that Whitmanian affirmation and abjection are most compellingly fused. When, toward the beginning of the third installment, the gray-streaked, shit-caked figure of Usermare (he of the colostomy bag from the opening sequence) presides over a prostrate Gyllenhaal, we anticipate violence. Instead, Hathfertiti’s biggest number (sung breathily but not untunefully) wields Whitman in defiance of Usermare: “Nature doesn’t care about royalty, Father. I swear I think there is nothing except immortality.” Several other male and female figures, nude, streaked with gray, are distributed around the kitchen in poses of erotic submission. A woman on all fours prostrates herself before Usermare; behind her, a man tongues her anus. A contortionist arches backward on the kitchen table, then pisses all over it. “The exquisite scheme is for it,” Hathfertiti sings, “and the nebulous float is for it.”
Gyllenhaal, here, is the aching pulse at the center of a cluster of statues come to life. Barney stages his rituals with sculptural intensity; the work is at its most moving when at its most frieze-like. Diedrich Diederichsen puts it nicely when he writes of Barney’s art that “what stands at the end of the process of transfiguration is not pure ether and abstraction but rather new density, concreteness, the fertility of putrefaction.” Amid the excremental bodies, obscene yet somehow insubstantial, oneiric, amid the close-ups of sphincters contracting, the foul flap of Usermare’s colostomy bag, the moans of the woman on the floor, Gyllenhaal reaches the song’s conclusion: “Fuck yeah / I’m for it.”
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly referred to Usermare as Menenhetet.