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River of Fundament

Posted by neilmilton@live.co.uk on July 1, 2014 at 11:40 AM Comments comments (0)


I rushed away from work yesterday afternoon so that I could catch the tube into London to see Matthew Barney’s film/opera, ‘River of Fundament. Let me just say that I have never been to the ENO at the Coliseum before. I wasn’t much impressed with the foyer and men’s room compared to, say, The Barbican. (I relieved myself before the screening, having bought a programme, and stared at the cover exclaiming ‘River of Fundament’ as I sat in the stall. Indeed it was.)  The auditorium is grand. I was pleased to discover, as the assistant told me on the phone when booking, that I had a brilliant seat, offering an unobstructed view of the screen, central to the auditorium. The screen itself was enormous.


I was also relieved to find that, once the film began, the production values were the equal of any modern film and there were no dodgy computer effects. It seems that Barney’s team have perfected the art of cinematography. I entered the film with high hopes and I wasn’t disappointed, initially. The pacing is much less languid than the achingly slow Cremaster Cycle. After some preliminary shots of a river, Barney, in the role of a spirit, steps bearded from an underground river of what you would expect from the title, up a stairway with banister, into the apartment of the late Norman Mailer. In a nod to his former film cycle, he is wearing the costume of the Entered Apprentice, complete with leather apron. Chefs are preparing for Mailer’s wake. Barney enters the bathroom, finds a turd down the toilet, picks it up (to chuckles in the auditorium) and wraps it in gold leaf that is perched atop the cistern. He then places the faeces back into the bowl, pulls his trousers down and sits on the porcelain seat. Moments later he stands up to reveal a mysterious figure stood behind him. It is Usermare. Usermare undoes his trousers to reveal his penis wrapped in gold leaf. The connection is obvious; Barney has summonsed this figure from the underworld. Barney leans against the bathroom door as Usermare opens his coat to obscure him whilst he penetrates Barney.


Barney then walks into the wake where a collection of artists and New York socialites I’m unfamiliar with reminisce on the ‘great’ man. (I later espy Debbie Harry.) All is well shot and eloquently edited with lingering shots of Mailer’s voluminous book shelves, that pan across a selection of Mailer’s novels, in particular ‘Ancient Evenings’, the difficult novel upon which the three films of which Fundament is loosely based. All is well until Paul Giamatti enters the set. Meant to be some kind of aging playboy, his performance is undoubtedly meant to be parodic, but comes across as hammy and overly broad. He proceeds to have his feet massaged under the table, as he takes out his manhood, whilst Elaine Stritch is delivering a eulogy. His delivery is on a par with his travesty of a performance in David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Don Dellilo’s ‘Cosmopolis’. Amidst the guests are sat a smattering of accompanying musicians, producing the soundtrack diegetically, evoking the presence of the spirits, one presumes. A couple of the guests discuss a piece of art work on the wall made from what appears to be part of a car. One says to the other, rather tellingly, ‘It’s just a piece of art, if you don’t like it, walk away.’


This opening segment seems to be a critique of high society; one character commenting that ‘You can’t trust anyone in New York’, which elicited chuckles. It’s all conveyed very earnestly and takes itself very seriously, despite his parodic touch. It all verges on the embarrassing. The only characters that seem to have a shred of integrity are the children. He appears to be using them to comment on the action. Upstairs a group of them play on triple storey bunk beds, whilst a voluptuous au pair supervises them. They later play on toy instruments, accompanying and echoing the adult musicians downstairs. Elements of The Cremaster Cycle are interspersed throughout the scenes. Amy Mullins returns to slice her thighs with a knife in an early scene. The potato cutting shoes from Cremaster three make an appearance, and a Chrysler Imperial, from the demolition derby in that same film, with a corpse laid atop it, and draped in a Cremaster flag, is towed through the streets of LA to a carnivalesque accompaniment of drummers. This is meant to be the embodiment of the reincarnated Mailer, but also evokes a rebirth for Barney with the death of his former artwork. It made me wonder what French intellectual Roland Barthes would have made of it all. Meanwhile speakers rumble in the trunk of a golden Pontiac Firebird.


And what of the music scored by long time partner Jonathan Bepler? As you would expect for such an affair, the score is avant garde; comprised of drones and saxophone squeals, vocal warm ups and other discordant sounds. As before in The Cremaster Cycle, the music is a post-modern melange of styles, of both high and low culture; R&B singers discordantly accompany opera singers and electronic glitches mix with belching and farting sounds. For much of the latter half of this segment my mind wandered. If I am to understand the convoluted synopsis Norman Mailer is attempting to be resurrected by passing through several bodies. The first third ends with Mailer, played by his youngest son, slicing the abdomen of a dead cow open and removing a dead calf from its womb, midst the aforementioned river that Barney emerged from. He proceeds to climb into the cavity and thrusts his hand through the cow’s anus from within. Clearly this is the first rebirth.


I left the auditorium during the intermission somewhat bemused. Besides I was desperate to urinate. Returning to the theatre, having purchased a Panini from a coffee shop a few doors along, the ushers seemed to give me a disapproving look, or was I just projecting. They seemed to be saying ‘what did you come back for?’ I sat down for the second segment prepared to give it another chance. The wake descends into the beginnings of debauchery. The opulent feast of a roasted pig has now begun to rot, the maggots that the chefs laced the salad with in the first half have hatched into flies. A black man anally penetrates one of the white female guests who then prolapses across the floor. This is accompanied by guests making strange guttural sounds. These scenes are intercut by those of ‘Detective Mullins’ as she investigates a corpse that is raised from the river; the carcass of the vehicle towed from the streets, that of Norman Mailer. Mullins proceeds to vomit at the sight; a strange transposition given the unflinching grotesquery of the bovine scene. As a vegan, it only served to anger me. She then lowers her trousers and sits on the engine block. She appears to be a necrophile copulating with the deceased Mailer. I suppose there is something of Ballard here.


Gold continues throughout this segment as the Pontiac speeds through the streets with a crowbar thrust through the window screen; Barney sat in the passenger seat blindfolded with five flattened top hats atop his head. Gold reappears inside of an ambulance, which lines the interior, as Barney lay supine on a slab. He reappears atop a metal foundry in a gold straightjacket. The motif is woven throughout and connects the symbols, no doubt. It makes more sense in retrospect and would serve more as fuel for intellectual discussion than actual ‘entertainment’. Maggie Gyllenhall makes an appearance, as the now older Hathfertit of the first segment, and squeezes milk from her breast (she has a scar running the length of her abdomen, perhaps connected to the cow of the previous segment. I presume that she has given birth to Mailer II.) I took the guests advice; I decided not to endure the third segment, as my derriere was numb and, to be honest, I had more important things to do.


The final third promised further scenes of debauchery as Mailer is unable to resurrect a third time. I missed out on references to Bataille, as an eyeball is inserted into an anus, not that I’m a fan of his work anyway, and I read, a man being masturbated with a lettuce. In summation the words ‘Epic Fail’ spring to mind; something that seems to characterise our age. I’m not sure it’s a film that you are meant to ‘like’. It’s certainly a different experience. If you ever wanted to see a guy masturbate beneath sheets whilst beatboxing, or like your opera singers to swear and perhaps want to see one take bites out of a lettuce, and prefer the cast to speak gibberish over intelligible dialogue, then maybe this is the experience for you. Personally I thought what a waste of money it was. Previously Cremaster was the most expensive art work of all time. When there is so much poverty in the world, to see such extravagance is insulting. The money could be much better spent, unless Barney is a secret philanthropist. Neither do I agree with his profane vision that lies beneath the veil of civilised society; I have more faith in people. Maybe the director redeems himself (the synopsis says that it ends on salmon swimming up a river), I’ll never know.

 

Matthew Barney Weekend

Posted by neilmilton@live.co.uk on June 29, 2014 at 2:50 PM Comments comments (0)


Yesterday I visited the Whitechapel gallery for a day-long special sequential screening, in its entirety, of Matthew Barney's, crushingly tedious, according to the San Fransisco Chronicle, 'The Cremaster Cycle', to coincide with the UK premiere of his opera hybrid art film, 'River of Fundament'.  After a long queue that blocked the station entrance and before the films even began, the director of the gallery, Iwona Blazwick, congratulated us on our courage and dedication.  This was going to be a long day.  I'd been waiting even longer for this opportunity.  I just missed out on seeing a screening of the five part sequence at the Barbican several years ago.  I since obtained a pirate copy of Cremaster one and two from an online auction site, experienced them, and returned to the artist.  I'd watched three and four on my smartphone.  So I entered this only having not seen part five and knowing what to expect.


Firstly, the seating was all on the one level, so the lower half of the large screen was obscured by heads (I had the misfortune to be sat behind a blonde haired guy, with a bowl cut hairstyle cut above his ears, for the first two films).  Secondly, was the picture quality.  I had assumed that the bad quality of my DVD version was a product of it being a pirate and not the actual film itself.  I was disappointed to discover this was not the case.  Throughout the entire sequence the screen glitched in the upper half of the image.  The rest was down to poor production values.  There was one aerial shot in Cremaster 1 of a football stadium, which was almost indiscernable.  That's the biggest thing I noticed having endured the whole opus; the unevenness of it all.  The sequence was made over ten years and it really shows.  Cremaster 4 was made twenty years ago, and it seems really studenty.


Ms Blazwick in her introduction expressed that she had obtained special permission to show the sequence in 'order' from the artist himself.  I wondered why this would be the case.  I remember Cremaster 4 being the weaker of the four I'd seen, but was hoping that part five would make up for it.  Unfortunately, it didn't.  Having sat through what some might call 'the ordeal', I can see why these films aren't usually shown this way.  After the uneven start of one, the magnificence of 2 and the drawn out and at times farcical 3 (there were several moments when viewers laughed when I don't think the artist intended them to), parts 4 and 5 come as somewhat of an anti-climax.  A person behind me was asked to review the sequence honestly out of ten.  They gave it a 6.5.  I chuckled in recognition, for I wouldn't have given it any more myself.  Of them all 2 and 3 are the most succesful, as was confirmed by other viewers.  The first had moments of sensuality, but was marred by bad picture quality and poor digital effects.  The second is sublime.  The Order, released on DVD to the general public, is the highlight of the third.  Maybe it's because I'm getting older, but it's not wearing so well.  Maybe I just didn't notice how silly the audience looked skanking to the bands.  Some of the visual effects in the opening segment were laughable, namely the giant walking out of the water, as was the later prolapse scene.  I have no idea what the sprite in a baby suit was all about.  Four was as terrible as I remembered it and a lot camper, in the true definition.  Five was almost unwatchable, by which point I'd pretty much had enough.  I only endured for the promise of a rare live conversation with the artist.


It was almost surreal seeing the 'living legend' in the flesh.  He has that same star aura as Jared Leto up close.  He arrived shaven headed and looking tired.  The seats were arranged on a low platform and many of us were concerned that we would not be able to see him.  It turned out that I had a good view.  Proceedings started slowly with Barney being compared to great American artists such as Rothko and Pollock, to which he seemed uncomfortable.  The artist tried his best to answer the interviewer's questions in a very round about way, leaving the audience hanging as he struggled to give his thoughts shape.  Often his answers were short and bordering on the evasive, particularly when it came to the autobiographical content of the films.  He seemed most comfortable taking about the upcoming 'River of Fundament'.  One audience member was surprised to discover that the artist had not even heard of a text referrenced to throughout his large format compendium book to accompany the sequence.  He seemed more amused than anything.  In response to a questin about the claustraphobic tunnel scenes in Cremaster 4, he replied 'I like tight tunnels', which unintentionally elicited laughter.  If anything, the interview helped the audience to understand the unevenness a little better.  To put it bluntly, Barney and his team didn't know what they were doing when they set out to make the films and had to learn a lot of their filmmaking craft as they went along.  They originally intended 1 and 4 to be shown on TV and shot and lit the films accordingly.  They had to learn a more cinematic language when making part 5, due to the scale of the location and, I would say, perfected it by part 2.  Part 3 three could have benefitted from a good visual effects team.  Even after reading the accompanying booklet, I'm not sure what it is all about.  The notes helped a little, but not much more than that.  I'm not sure how much I care to explore further.


Some of the visuals from Cremaster 2 have endured in my mind since I last saw it several years ago.  This film is truly wonderful and I'm sure was the high standard that Matthew envisioned for the entire sequence.  This alone is no mean feat.  Some of the costumes and sculptures created for the films are excellent and Barney must be commened for his originality of vision.  One of the audience members questioned him whether he would make the leap into mainstream cinema.  He explained that he would lose his autonomy, as Hollywood films are created by committee.  Maybe he would benefit from some of their discipline.  As he says himself, he would be considered spoilt by those standards and, at times, it is overindulgent.  Despite being somewhat disappointed I am not going to give up on the artist and still have high expectatons for the screening of his new piece on Monday.  If Cremaster 2 is anything to go by, there is potential for it to be marvellous.  But before that I have the documentary of his 'Drawing Restraint' project to watch.  At least now I can say I survived it.