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Up Matthew Barney's River of Fundament Without a Paddle

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Production still from Matthew Barney’s .Photo: David Regen. © Matthew Barney.

Matthew Barney needs an editor. This will hardly come as a surprise to devotees of his hours-long moving-image works like the Cremaster Cycle and Drawing Restraint series, art films with celebrity casts, blockbuster budgets and production values to match, set in distant locales and surreal, stylized alternate Americas steeped in seemingly ancient, stitched-together mythologies, which are celebrated in spectacular and inscrutable rituals that incorporate macho icons of US culture, from muscle cars, guns, football, and skyscrapers to Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer. But for first-timers such as myself, this is a lesson learned the hard way during Barney’s latest, River of Fundament (2008–2014), which flows for a glacial five hours and 52 minutes, and from whose sewage-filled waters at least three excellent shorter films could be pulled. But I’m putting the carriage before the horse—or the smashed vintage Chrysler before the troupe of rope-tugging strongmen, to use the terminology of one of Fundament ’s most mesmerizing sequences; first things first.

River of Fundament is a composite of five major plot strands and set pieces that flow into and across one another atop a flotsam of half-explored symbol systems, literary quotations, art historical allusions, pop culture borrowings, and formal motifs. The core sequence spliced throughout the film is a feast and wake in honor of Mailer held at his Brooklyn Heights home, where New York cultural figures from Lawrence Weiner and Elaine Stritch to Jonas Mekas, Salman Rushdie, and Fran Leibovitz come to pay their respects. If that sounds straightforward enough, consider this: The elegant and curio-filled Mailer lair is actually a replica of the original set atop a barge and floating down the toxic creek that runs between Brooklyn and Queens. Still following? There’s more: The house’s sewage-flooded basement serves as a portal for ancient Egyptian pharaohs and various reincarnations of Mailer himself, whose quest to become immortal provides the film’s overarching narrative. In a trio of elaborate set pieces based on performances Barney staged at a Los Angeles Chrysler dealership, an abandoned Detroit steel plant, and the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 2008, 2010, and 2013, respectively, Mailer’s spirit is successively reincarnated as a 1967 Chrysler, a 1979 Pontiac, and finally a 2001 Ford. This grafting of Egyptian death myths onto the contemporary American landscape—cultural, geographic, and psychic—is not as completely arbitrary as it sounds, and it’s the bizarre prism through which viewers are left to make some kind of sense of Fundament .

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