I first heard of Matthew Barney not long after I moved to New York - - he was the talk of the town in the spring of 2003, because his *Cremaster* films were being shown at the Guggenheim. The cremaster is the muscle that pulls up the testicles, and controls their initial descent in baby boys. Barney made five films inspired by this clever little muscle. I described the series as an abstract mythology of the testicles. Not for everyone, but I loved them, especially the first one, which features two dirigibles hovering over a football field, where chorus girls are dancing around, Busby Berkley-style, to soupy orchestral music. As an added bonus, the Guggenheim displayed some key visual elements from the films, including a replica of the bar in the Cloud Club in the Chrysler Building, made entirely out of petroleum jelly. I saw all five movies in one day, on my birthday - - my first birthday in New York and my first day off at my job. It seemed like the ultimate New York activity.
My next visit to Barneyville was *Drawing Restraint 9*, a film he made with his partner Björk. I saw it with Karen and Jere and Dale at the IFC Center down in the Village. The movie takes place on a whaling ship. Barney and Björk are getting married, most of the film shows the rituals leading up to the marriage. I don’t remember seeing an actual ceremony, but clearly remember the start of their honeymoon: they went into a small room on the ship and started kissing. The room slowly filled up with liquid petroleum jelly. An underwater camera showed that they each wielded a large whaling knife, which they used to hack away at the body of the other person. Karen turned to me and said, “Finally, a realistic depiction of marriage.”
Barney’s latest film, *River of Fundament*, played at BAM this past weekend, and my friend Mike Miller came in from West Reading, PA to see it with me. He and Dale and I met up Saturday afternoon and went to a few art galleries in Chelsea, our primary destination being a show by Mike’s friend Pamela Shields, who does nude self-portraits in charcoal. I took a women’s health course in college, and these drawings were more in depth than anything I’d seen in my class. It turned out to be a fitting warm-up for *River of Fundament*.
You could either think of it as three films, or a film in three parts. The whole thing was over six hours long, including two intermissions. It was sold out, those Brooklyn hipsters can’t get enough of this kind of thing. Barney was inspired by Norman Mailer’s *Ancient Evenings*, his novel about ancient Egypt. He made a meticulous reconstruction of Mailer’s Brooklyn Heights apartment and staged a wake for Mailer, which was attended by a handful of famous people (more about them later) and by a few characters from *Ancient Evenings*.
The tone was set in the first five minutes of the movie. Matthew Barney rose up out of a frothy, fetid swamp, climbed up a white wooden staircase (such as one finds in a swamp), which led him to Mailer’s apartment. He walked past the caterers and went into the bathroom. I was hoping he’d take a shower, because he was caked with some unpleasant matter. He lifted the lid on the toilet and there was a turd. Rather large, dark brown, firm. There was a basket with potpourri and various woodsy things on the tank of the toilet. He pulled out a piece of gold foil, took the turd out of the toilet, and wrapped it in the gold foil. The Gilded Turd. I asked Mike, “Do you think that was supposed to be a metaphor for the art world? Or the cinema?” Mike said, “Or the Detroit auto industry? Or the world at large?” Whatever it was supposed to represent, The Gilded Turd is the best band name of 2014.
Strangely enough, *River of Fundament* made me think of the first *Charlie’s Angels* movie. Some reviewer called it a “checklist movie” - - he thought the director (McG) had a checklist of things he wanted to see in a movie, and he put them all in that movie: the Angels throwing suds at each other in a car wash, Drew Barrymore playing a wrestler in glam rock makeup, Lucy Liu as an Olympic gymnast, Cameron Diaz riding a mechanical yak.
*River of Fundament* is another checklist movie, but Matthew Barney has a very different kind of checklist:
A gilded ambulance
Elaine Stritch giving a eulogy for Norman Mailer
Live crickets sautéed in olive oil with minced garlic, served in squash blossoms with fresh bell pepper
A pregnant woman plucking out her eyeball and placing it in an unexpected place in another pregnant woman
An opera singer furiously eating a head of iceberg lettuce (another head of lettuce was used for something else later on)
A male dwarf with a gilded weenie being held aloft by a woman
A woman doing a backbend on a dining table, staying in that position for fifteen minutes or so, then (still in that position) peeing on a flower arrangement
A woman doing a backbend in an underwater Chrysler, giving birth to a phoenix
A woman taking a poop on a rolled-up Oriental rug
A woman having a huge (12’ by 12’) trash bag pulled out of her butt (I thought of Michael Kors on Project Runway: “She’s pooping fabric!”)
A rumpus room where ten or twelve small children maniacally play small instruments
A flamenco singer dancing on a box, releasing cockroaches
Fun for the whole family, no?
There were many famous people attending the wake, playing themselves: Elaine Stritch (who, as I mentioned, gave a eulogy, a reading from *Ancient Evenings*, (with harp and string quartet and chirping singers), Fran Lebowitz (who seemed a little wary of the whole thing), Jeffrey Eugenides, Salman Rushdie, Debbie Harry (who sang something on the patio), and Dick Cavett, who got the one laugh of the whole evening. A woman at the wake asked him about the feud between Mailer and Gore Vidal. She asked if they ever saw each other and Cavett said Vidal told him, “We run into each other now and then, and we’re like two old whores. One of us says, ‘Are you still at it?’, and the other says, ‘Yeah. Are you still at it?’ ‘Yeah.’ “
Joan La Barbara, a pioneer in extended vocal techniques, played Mailer’s widow. She looked gorgeous, had a stunning coiffure, and I was surprised that she didn’t sing at all. But then in the third film she went out on the patio (the apartment was now on a barge, going down the East River) and started clucking and clicking. I shrug.
The Egyptian characters were played by mixture of famous, semi-famous, and not at all famous performers. Identical twin opera singers Herbert and Eugene Perry played Set, who had a sort of rumble at the Brooklyn Navy Yard with Horus, played by Brennan Hall, a counter tenor. Paul Giamatti played Ptah-Nem-Hotep, he had just the right regal tone. Hathfertiti was played by a different woman in the three films: a 13-year old girl named Madyn Coakley in the first film, Maggie Gyllenhaal in the second, and Ellen Burstyn in the third. Burstyn was the best thing in the movie, had maybe the most beautiful deathbed scene in movie history.
One of the things I didn’t like about the movie was the music. Jonathan Bepler wrote the score, and much of it was beautiful, but there was just too much of it and not enough variety. Lots of skittish strings and caterwauling singers, and a little of that goes a long way. I craved five continuous minutes of quiet.
A few more high points, all of which were in the third film: a group of Native American singers sang something, it was stunning. A step team of nine girls did a thrilling number, stomping on the floor, clapping their hands, and chanting. The audience applauded when they finished. And the very end of the film showed salmon swimming upstream, laying their eggs, spraying their seed, and dying. This was beautifully filmed, like much of the movie it was ravishingly beautiful to look at.
Summing up, hm. On the plus side, it was definitely worth seeing, and I’m sure I’ll see his next work. What he does is so different from anything else, and he does it with such conviction. I thought of a quote by Mary Ellen Moylan, in a documentary about George Balanchine. She was asked about the meaning of Balanchine’s abstract ballets, and she said, “It isn’t explained, it is revealed.”
On the minus side, I get that he loves to juxtapose beautiful things with disgusting things, but he could be a little sparing in his use of human fluids. I think he used all of them, with the exception of snot.