English National Opera billed River of Fundament as the closing “new work” of its 2014 series, which I think set certain expectations: we were going to see an opera, a sung story, only since Matthew Barney was running the show, we were going to be getting our big music with some utterly wild visuals. Picture me getting all woo about some gesamtkunstwerk about to happen: really, it was crazy to think I would do this when I won’t actually go for the Ring Cycle because I don’t want to sit for that long (and don’t like Wagner). But I like film and I like experimental music and I am all about freaky art and this was an event, and event I tell you, even if I had some niggling fears that I had actually just popped $25 in the art wank piggie bank of doom; in essence, funding Matthew Barney’s fine production of style over substance in the grand tradition of Warhol and Hirst, proving that fame is the actual highest commodity of the art world, because it’s what you need to make your art make you money.
It is, certainly, what you need to get other famous people to work with you (perhaps people who think what you do is “interesting” and maybe want to be more involved with “art” to make themselves feel more like “artists”); or, perhaps, Matthew Barney does just get to rub elbows with the elite of the New York scene, like Elaine Stritch, Salman Rushdie, Maggie Gyllenhal, Fran Lebowitz, et cetera. But their presence or absence is unimportant other than in trying to decide just how, exactly, to see this opus. I believe that with the kind of background I have I ought to be able to enjoy/digest/get meaning out of a thing like this without the medium of artist’s notes; and I think we are given a big clue on how to see this at the very beginning, when a man reaches into a toilet, pulls out what looks to be a piece of poop, and wraps it in gold leaf. Now, you can choose to see this as the gilding of Osiris’ disembodied penis, or you can see it as I did: as a billboard from Matthew Barney to the intelligent viewer saying I AM ABOUT TO SERVE UP A BUNCH OF SHIT BUT I MADE IT LOOK ALL PRETTY because that is what you learn to do when you study art at Yale.
And, well, what follows is lots and lots and lots of poo; rivers of poo, and some real rivers, in both LA and Detroit and New York; appearances by Barney’s fetishistic art materials, such as sulfur, salt, and mercury (no Vaseline this time); implied (and real) human fluids both reproductive, purely sexual, nutritive, and simply expelled (I just get the feeling Barney gets a giggle out of trying to be gross, and I refuse to play along; John Waters beat him to the punch three decades ago); really badly acted scenes that attempted to be mythological (but were utterly destroyed by even a chapter of American Gods); tumescing penii and leaking anii; and a huge variety of music that made me feel homesick for the leviathan that is the American music scene. We had an all-female mariachi band; a bit of flamenco; some marching bands; experimental music ensembles (doing laughs and screams and going “Boop Bip”); freestyle jazz … it was all over the place.
And then there was the car obsession. I stand by what I said earlier, that this entire thing is an homage to the death of the American industrial machine (not to Mailer), as epitomized by the muscle car and embodied by the hood decor of the Trans Am (so as to fit into the whole Egyptian journey of the dead hoo hah) – a subject which I do actually consider well worth exploring as art – but I also stand by my assertion that this lushly filmed and richly visualized movie is, in essence, a giant piece of art wank. The individual performances this movie documents might have been interesting to watch as they happened (although I doubt it as the participants looked bored), but I feel like Barney just got really excited about smashing cars and running a giant metal melting apparatus and making a pristine Trans Am be driven off of a bridge into a river (tragedy, I tell you, way more than that of the pregnant Holstein in act one). The point does not need six hours to be made.
The link/poorly executed parallels to a wanky indulgent failure of writing by a great (and importantly FAMOUS) American writer is another symptom of the whole “golden turd” syndrome of “River of Fundament:” it’s a movie that wants to ennoble itself. And here’s the kicker: IT’S A BAD OPERA. But that is too kind, because it’s not an opera, it is an art film. There is an atmospheric soundtrack, done in the style of modern opera, but it’s just background music. Making a movie is what this was about. Barney has put making a spectacle first and, well, shat on the opera. I think he just wanted to say “River of Fundament” is an opera so he could show his movie in really, really cool places: as if being in a place where art is created would confer on him the status he wants this movie so badly to have. He needs us to gild his poo. And, if we agree to this, he will, as in the movie, shove it in without the benefit of lube.
Ah well, it was only 25 quid, it was entertaining to see ENO jammed full of hipsters of all ages, and it was a rainy June Sunday so I didn’t miss much else. And it wasn’t like I didn’t know what was coming. Anyone for a roast pork sandwich?
(This review is for the screening of “River of Fundament” that took place on Sunday, June 29th, 2014.)