A caveat: explicit descriptions below.
Ripe, quite ripe. And classy. And crassy. And assy. Matthew Barney’s River of Fundament, the six-hour smorgasbord that screened at BAM last week, seems to make plain one of humanity’s (or America's?) desires: to wrap our shit in gold. Whether this Freudian assertion is, in fact, one of our desires is debatable, but Barney shows it off. For quick review, Freud hypothesized a shit-to-money equation in “Character and Anal Eroticism,” which is spelled out wittily here in The New Republic with regards to gold buggery, the GOP and the Tea Party. Well!
A "fundament" is, first, a foundation and - Tellingly! Secondarily! - a term for anus. If you did not know this already, beware of what follows.
Tossed heartily with twisted themes and fronds of narrative, Barney’s film is a puzzling epic, though epic it is. Strung across the decline of American industry, Barney alternates giant images of rotting machinery or destroyed vehicles with many scenes of explicit sex or, at least, penetration, sometimes sexual and sometimes, oddly, non-sexual, sometimes surprisingly beautiful and other times intensely grotesque. During one scene two guests at Norman Mailer's wake (yes, wake) have anal sex on the devon. When they are done, the woman turns her ass to the camera, huge on the screen at BAM's Harvey Theater, as it drools a green cum-shit mixture for longer than you might wish it.
Condolences, my friends! For many reasons. But Barney is commemorating the dead here, with not a few visits to and from the stinking Fundament River just below Mailer’s brownstone apartment. Pew! And there are over-grand pronouncements about Pharaohs, songs about fucking, urinating back-benders, cabbage ravaging, special machines for Paul Giamatti’s poop and a dead cow that is cut open so that a version of Norman Mailer, played by Mailer’s son, can crawl inside only to be birthed as a jazz drummer, played by free jazz pioneer Milford Graves.
With a total running time longer than I usually sleep, you might think this deliberate reliance on gross and surprising sex (and other) would get boring, as though you were listening to a teenager digress about sex he has yet to have. But, actually, the film held my attention most of the time.
Characters. Some of them are people. Some are famous, and also people. But there are huge frowning towers of industry that seem like grim, pained forefathers, bleeding and on fire. (We approach a KKK allusion with the giant smelters, where the hoods are on fire, the heads burned off.) Waterless shipping locks hold the menace of the East River behind giant steel walls as a bloodied, one-eye pharaoh is honored. These characters of the industrial landscape menace us now, where once they inspired. And Barney continues his nostalgic homage to cars long past, like the ’79 Trans Am!
Barney himself plays a shit-encrusted, interloper-observer who ascends from the stinking river and, for the most part, perches silently around Norma Mailer’s pad with his stinky and also silent wife. We have a strained car salesman from L.A., a boxy fellow who gathers a crowd of high school marching bands and gangsters around a ruined and very cool Chrysler Impala in the parking lot of a Chrysler dealership. He is there to announce, in a manner similar to a TV evangelist, that he traversed a river of shit. Nay! The River of Shit! The gangsters then tow the ruined Chrysler through the parking lot by rope, as though it were a building block for a great pyramid, only to eventually destroy it in the dealership's lobby. This is political. It’s Americana.
But back to the sex in cinema. I don't think you can take Barney's juvenilia-genitalia without considering Lars von Trier's own piece of… what. Nymphomaniac. On the face of things, does Barney trump von Trier? A Related Parts comparison coming soon.