top of page

River of Fundament

Updated: Oct 7, 2023

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. 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.


4 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page