Posts Tagged ‘gesamtkunstwerk’

Mini-review – River of Fundament – Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler at London Coliseum

June 30, 2014

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.)

Mini-review – The Perfect American – English National Opera

June 11, 2013

For me, the combination of the words “Phillip Glass” and “new opera” are pretty irresistible – which is remarkable if you consider how little I like opera. But his operas are, to me, perfect for the 21st century: very cerebral and extremely engaged with the high-culture zeitgeist. You might find this hard to believe about an opera with Walt Disney as its subject matter; but I think it’s just as applicable as it is for Einstein and Ghandi. Iconic figures with deep cultural impacts? You know that it’s true for all three of them. With Disney, you get an added layer of the image versus the reality – probably as true for Ghandi but manipulated in a more self-serving way for Walt. This production also dovetailed nicely for me with seeing Mike Daisey’s American Utopias in May; it explored the reality behind a lot of Disney mythology, as well as showing where Walt aimed higher than his successors were able to achieve. I felt convinced there was more than enough material to make an opera.

The story, though, winds up seeming a bit thin: it’s about Walt’s worries during his last few months of life. He sees himself as leaving a great legacy, as proven by his fame; but (as the opera shows) a lot of his achievements were based on editing out the past – both his crushing of the rights of his workers and his elimination of voices that spoke against his vision of what America was (nicely epitomized by the scene in which Walt lectures the animatronic Lincoln – from the Disneyland attraction – about how America was reduced as a nation if blacks are equal to whites – which it appears Walt had edited out of the speech Lincoln gave at his amusement park!). Walt cherishes the past he remembers growing up in Marceline, Missouri – but the abuse he and his brothers suffered (as revealed in the Daisey piece) is left out of the opera. Instead, we see his worried about getting his body frozen after his death, and his huge egotism … which really never falls like it would if The Perfect American had been plotted more like a Greek tragedy. Ah well.

Instead of rich story telling and immortal characters, what we get is a breadth of imagination in the presentation of this opera that I found so fully engaging it merits it the label “gesamtkunstwerk” – a full spectacle for the eye as well as being musically rich (in that Philip Glass way that I enjoy). While normally I hate animated backdrops on stage – too often they’re a choice made for cheapness, and/or they distract from what we should be focusing on, the performers – but in this show they are both incredibly appropriate and (shock!) gorgeous, in part because they are frequently shown on hanging cloth (which allows for additional dramatic manipulation of the images). There’s almost no animation related directly to the Disney ouvre, other than the melancholy three circles standing for the basic Mickey Mouse – instead, it shows the thoughts in Walt’s head or otherwise illustrates additively what is happening on stage. That said, the design isn’t overly reliant on the moving image – instead, there is also amazing use of subtle costumes (such as eyes drawn on hands that allow people to look cartoony – and blink), which allows us, the audience, to expand our imaginations and see birds, deer, squirrels, and monsters on the stage. I was entranced: everything was one hundred percent technically up to date and yet still adhered to the dictum of trusting us to make the leap rather than having everything spelled out for us.

While this show was not perfect, it was an excellent piece of theater and highly enjoyable. If you don’t like Phillip Glass, there probably won’t be enough to get you over the hump; but for me, it was as good as opera gets, and a wonderful opportunity to see a show that is really and truly fresh in a genre that is so frequently dominated by 19th century war horses illustrated with dusty realism. I’ll take Princess Mononoke versus Angry Birthday Walt any day, and so should you.

(This review is for a performance that took place on June 6th, 2013. It continues at the London Coliseum through June 28th.)